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Death And Property Values, Or How To Sell A House Where Someone Died

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The so-called Los Feliz "Murder House." (Photo by Michael Locke via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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A person dies and the event fades into history. The body is buried and later decomposes to bones. The memory of it (even if it's as shocking as a homicide) gets diluted as it passes through time.

What remains, then, is the setting. There are the walls that bore witness to the morbid happening, the bedroom in which the body lay. Likewise, homes and buildings have become stand-ins for some of L.A.'s most notorious homicides. There's the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, which served as the stage to a classic potboiler involving money, murder, and a soured friendship. And we would be remiss to overlook the Los Feliz "Murder House"; even a half-century later, the site remains a tourist attraction for those seeking to bask in the home's blood-soaked past.

Certainly, the vast majority of deaths aren't quite as lurid. But natural or not, a death may bear some weight on a home, and it may lead potential homebuyers to ponder the one question that's sitting in the back of everyone's minds: did someone die here?

If you're looking to buy, and you get the heebie jeebies at the thought of a cadaver, know that you won't be walking into a purchase blindly. In California, a real estate agent legally has to inform you if a death has occurred on a property, with some caveats.

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California law says that a seller (and the agent) must disclose a death if it happened within three years of the offer made on the home. In the Golden State, a recent death may be regarded as a "material fact," or something that said buyer would want to know in regards to the value of the home. Unsteady foundation? Leaky roof? These may be material facts. So may, say, a mass homicide perpetrated by a chain-saw wielding maniac.

After three years, the seller/agent is no longer on the hook to disclose a death. Though it should be noted that it's illegal for an agent to willfully lie to you. So if an agent is aware that a death had occurred on the property at some point, but tells you otherwise when you ask, you may have a case on your hands. And what if an agent just clamped up and said nothing? "That can become awkward, and it can be taken as an answer in itself," June Barlow, senior vice president and general counsel with the California Association of Realtors, told LAist.

One more asterisk of note: a death caused by HIV/AIDS does not have to be disclosed, even if it happened within the three-year time frame.

Interestingly, California is only one in a small handful of states to have such formalized and far-reaching guidelines on the matter. Alaska and South Dakota have similar laws, but disclosure is required only in the event of a suicide or homicide, and it's no longer mandated after one year has passed (this is compared to the three years set by California). In Florida, a death is considered to be immaterial entirely, and doesn't have to be disclosed at any time of the transaction.

Ostensibly, the law in California is shaped around financial concerns. This is in large part detailed in the 1983 case of Reed v. King, in which a California homebuyer had found out from neighbors (after the papers were signed) that the purchased home was site to a grisly slaying that, ten years prior, had taken the lives of a woman and her four children. While a lower court initially dismissed the case, an appellate court would later overturn the dismissal, saying that the deaths could have an appreciable affect on the market value of the property.

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At the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. (Photo by Michael Locke via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
So, essentially, California regards the matter as one pertaining to business. But here we come to the question of why a death would have bearing on property value. And why it's Californians, apparently, who are so hung up on the matter.

Perhaps it has some relation to how, in lore, our state has always been romanticized as a bulwark against decay. The climate and even the geology—touted as having some sort of mystical restorative power—has engendered a whole health-centric industry. It brought quacks like Curtis Howe Springer, who founded the "town" of Zzyzx as a health spa. It has also lured tuberculosis sufferers to the sanitariums nestled in quaint neighborhoods like Pasadena and Crescenta Valley. And, beyond the weather and geology, death is flouted in our commerce as well. L.A.'s notoriety is built, after all, on an industry that preserves memories on celluloid. And our real estate seems to be in a perpetual mode of remaking itself, as if to skirt the idea of time passing; homes get flipped, "McMansions" sprout up overnight, and strip malls get reassembled like building blocks.

All this falls on top of the broader aversion to death. According to Rongdao Lai, an assistant professor of religion at USC, industrialized societies have grown estranged from the idea of death happening within the sanctity of a household. "I think, as a result of modernization and urbanization, there is this disconnect with all these different stages that we go through in our life. Death used to be a communal thing—a person dies at home. A person had an illness, and you have the extended family and even the community going through this process together. It's a very intimate experience," said Lai. "Up until maybe a hundred years ago, people would wash and dress the body of the departed. We used to be very involved in that process. And I think there was something so therapeutic in that. I think the reason why death is so haunting to us now is because we don't have to face it so directly anymore. A person is supposed to die at a hospital now. The thought of someone dying in the house now is particularly terrifying to us."

This terror is palpable, apparently. So much so that it's enough to jump start a business venture such as DiedInHouse.com, a website that allows its users to search up a history of deaths at a given household. Roy Condrey, who founded the business, said that he's fielded about 70,000 requests since the website went up three years ago. As to why people are so curious, he says that the reasons vary. "There are certainly people who believe in ghosts. You can laugh at them or whatever, but it's just a fact," said Condrey. "There's also people who don't believe in the paranormal, but just don't want to live in a house with a dark history." He added that privacy is also another concern, especially in the event of a well-publicized murder. Condrey mentions the Arizona residence in which Jodi Arias had slain her ex-boyfriend in 2008. The home was sold before the trial had hit the news; once the case went public, a constant wave of looky loos arrived at the residence's doorstep. "There was a lady who drove up from Casa Grande and said she wanted to talk to me so she could get 'closure,'" one of the homeowners told USA Today. This invasion of privacy is likely why Nicole Brown's former condo (the one at which she and Ron Goldman were murdered in 1994) went through a change of address.

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Condrey says that any one of these reasons, or a mix of them, can impact the market value of what he refers to as a "stigmatized home." Citing experts, he said that a death in a home (especially an unnatural and violent one) can impact a property's value by 25%. Arias' home was sold for about $44,000 less than what Arias had paid for—a markdown of about 18%. Brown's condo was sold two years after the murder with a 16% markdown.

As with any discussion on real estate, we round back to the fact that the market in L.A. is in a squeeze. The vacancy rate among rentals has dipped below the 3% mark (compared to the national rate of 7%). And estimates say that L.A. will need to build about 35,000 units more a year to lift itself out of the housing crisis, according to the L.A. Times. With such limited options, are people more amenable to living in a stigmatized home, especially when it comes with a bargain price tag?

That may be the case. We know that Americans are buying up homes at the fastest rate in 10 years. And if we are more open to overlook a death, nothing would be more symbolic of the trend than the recent sale of the aforementioned "Murder House" in Los Feliz. The home, the site of a ghastly murder-suicide in the 1950s, had stood vacant and decrepit for decades. The home was finally purchased in 2016 by Lisa Bloom (attorney, TV personality, and daughter of Gloria Allred) and her husband Braden Pollock. When asked if the place gave him the creeps, Pollock told Realtor.com that the price tag outweighed the negatives. “It doesn’t affect me. It was a great opportunity to get a rare property like this at a good price," said Pollock.

Furthermore, the current housing climate may compel buyers to re-contextualize these bargain properties as fixer-upper projects, where a past death is akin to old wall-paper—nothing a little handiwork can't expunge. Roger Perry, broker associate with Rodeo Realty, told LAist that a client will often move in with intentions of doing renovations. "In a lot of homes where someone has died, the person was elderly, and a lot of the decor hadn't been updated for a long time," said Perry. "So the person moving in may give the home a facelift. There might be new flooring, new paint, a new feel. Or sometimes they'll gut it and do something entirely new." In other words, the new homeowners may take a literal approach to extricating a home from its past.

"I would represent a house where someone had died," Perry added. "I have no problem dealing with it. Any good agent can get past that."