By Brendon DeSimone, special to Yahoo! Homes via Zillow
Has anyone died in this house? When a buyer is interested in a home, this “out of left field” question is occasionally asked of real estate agents. Some people and cultures have strong superstitions and won’t go near a house for sale if it’s suspected that someone died there -- even if it was from natural causes.
Many agents are obligated to answer truthfully, if they haven’t already disclosed that information.
One would assume that a death in the home would be an immediate disclosure, just as important as work done without a permit, a leaky roof, or the neighbor who is about to build a mega mansion that could affect your light. But that’s not always the case.
There is currently a case in Pennsylvania that may make it all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, if the unsuspecting buyer gets her way. In this case, the out-of-town buyer purchased and moved into a home in Thornton, Pa., where soon after, a neighbor revealed that a murder-suicide had occurred years before. A Pennsylvania judge and a state appeals court have found that “state law does not require agents to disclose such events.” Now the case is being appealed to the Supreme Court.
So how do you find out if someone died in your home, or the one you’re considering buying?
Seller disclosure laws vary by state
In California, Civil Code Section 1710.2 basically states that no one can sue successfully for failure to disclose a death on the property more than three years before an offer to buy or rent.
But this disclosure law can vary from state-to-state. My advice: If you’re the seller, the best practice is to disclose any known deaths that occurred on the property. If you’re the buyer, ask questions and do research.
What about the agent’s responsibility?
Though it may not be the law in Pennsylvania, there is nothing stopping the real estate agent, brokerage or the local board of Realtors from making this disclosure available to potential buyers up front. Many real estate firms have additional seller disclosures that cater to local law or have come up as a result of real estate practice. Having this additional disclosure will go a long way with consumers.
A good agent will disclose, via their individual disclosure statement, any knowledge of a past death, even if it was many years ago. Though they may receive pushback from their sellers because it will negatively affect the property’s marketing, it is simply good practice. If the seller wishes not to disclose it, the agent could reconsider taking the listing.
What can a buyer do if they suspect a death?
Found your dream home but you have suspicions that there could have been a recent death? There are a few things that the buyer can do to get to the bottom of it.
Get it in writing: There is no reason why a buyer can’t add language to the contract confirming that there hasn’t been a death. If the seller won’t sign it, there’s your answer. Also, ask the listing agent to put that same language in their own disclosure statement. That means the agent (and their brokerage firm) is on the hook for failure to disclose.
Talk to the neighbors: If you are a serious buyer and you have any suspicions about this issue, there is nothing stopping you from talking to the neighbors. Walking around the neighborhood after the open house or making a special trip there off-hours is standard practice. Take it a step further. If you see a neighbor outside, ask away.
You can easily weave the question into a broader conversation about your interest in the property. In this case, clearly the neighbors knew. A quick walk around would have led her to the information.
Google the address: This should be standard practice for any serious buyer. In addition to running the address through the building department records, the police blotter and the local planning or zoning commission, a smart buyer should simply Google the address. Something like a murder-suicide in the recent past would definitely have come up in a Google search.
Look at the big picture: How concerned should you be if you discover that someone died in the home you want to buy? It’s a personal question. It depends on your religious beliefs and superstitions as well as the circumstances surrounding the death.
Let’s face it: The older the home is, the more likely it is someone may have died there. In fact, in Victorian times it was common for births and deaths to occur at home. So if you’re shopping for an older home and you have a fear of death in the home, you might want to buy something newer.
But let’s look at the big picture. Sad to say, death is a part of life. So are marriages, children growing up, family reunions at Thanksgiving, and all the other happy events that occur in homes every day.
Brendon DeSimone is a Realtor licensed in both California and New York. He has collaborated on multiple real estate books, and his real estate expertise is regularly sought out by print, online and television media outlets like FOX News, CNBC and Forbes. An avid investor, Brendon owns real estate around the U.S. and abroad. You can find Brendon online or follow him on Twitter and Google+.
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