real estate

Homebuyer worries about on-site graves

Steve McLindenQuestionDear Real Estate Adviser,
I'm a homebuyer pondering the purchase of an 8-acre property with a beautiful view. However, an old family cemetery with a very obtrusive 6-foot-tall rock wall sits at the very front of the land I would be buying. By the way, the cemetery only contains six graves. Could I remove this wall and replace it with a fence and trees to improve curb appeal? Does a cemetery affect a home's marketability?
-- K.

AnswerDear K.,
Most states have laws that protect the rights of family members to visit, repair, beautify and protect such private family plots, plus gain access to them from the nearest public roadway at will. So, unless that plot constitutes an abandoned gravesite -- which is doubtful, since that protective wall indicates some recent family involvement -- you're probably not free to redo the cemetery grounds as you please, nor can you interfere with reasonable visits to the site.

But in most cases, it is not unreasonable, nor illegal, to make changes or improvements to the immediate area outside such a private cemetery. That's assuming, of course, that the massive rock wall is not a mausoleum or some sort of inscribed family memorial that, at least arguably, needs to remain. In that case, your rights to remove it are probably limited. Further, even if that obtrusive wall is not a part of the family plot, the family could argue that it is protecting the gravesites.

In any case, it would best to get this issue out in the open with the family. You don't say if the current owner knows any of the family members or has contact information for them. Most modern plots -- at least those created after World War II -- had to be registered in cities and counties by law, so there should be some such information on record, though it may no longer be up-to-date.

If at all possible, it would behoove you to contact the family and discuss your sentiments -- and theirs. Tell them of your plans to landscape the area, plant trees and construct a tasteful new fence, plus reassure them they can access the cemetery at any time.

If you discover the cemetery is indeed abandoned, which again seems unlikely, you may have the right to re-inter the occupants at a different site, following placement of a public notice. By the way, anything you do in any of these various regards would come at your own expense.

As for home resale potential, it's a fact that some potential homebuyers are "creeped out" by (or at least superstitious about) an on-site graveyard. That might limit your universe of potential buyers. On the other hand, some buyers might feel the small cemetery actually adds to the historical context of the land -- but perhaps minus that wall. Because the graveyard is such a small part of a large tract and will draw few visitors, it might be a little easier resell than you fear.

But I'm sorry to tell you that technically, an on-premises cemetery is considered to be a property "defect." However, if you are buying at a price that will compensate for this defect and you love everything else about the property, it might be a great deal and will likely be considered by a future buyer.

So no, I can't say "tear down that wall." But I will ask you to look at the good side: at least you'll have quiet neighbors!

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