real estate

Avoid these chilling homebuying surprises

scared women in front of closet door
Highlights
  • Most states require disclosure about a property's condition or home's history, spooky or not.
  • 'Haunted' houses often sell at a discount, but they're seldom a steal.
  • Some builders really do erect houses on American Indian burial grounds.

Homebuyer, beware the skeletons in the closet.

The house you're eyeing might hide some spooky secrets -- perhaps a murder that happened upstairs, a body buried in the backyard or even a ghost in the basement. You might or might not find out about these through disclosures during the purchasing process. But you don't have to be caught off guard by these nasty homebuying surprises.

According to the National Association of Realtors, 47 states and Washington, D.C., have laws requiring sellers or listing agents to disclose or answer questions about a property's condition or home's history, which could include death, violence or mysterious things that go bump in the night.

The laws vary in stringency in each state, but many Realtors believe it's just good business to be upfront.

"I don't want anybody to find out something negative about a house that I sold whether I knew it or not, because it's going to hurt my reputation," says Diane Saatchi, associate broker and senior vice president at Saunders & Associates in Bridgehampton, N.Y. "And more important than that, it would make the buyer uncomfortable."

Got a creepy feeling about a house you just can't shake? The first step is to check your state and local government's laws on what must be disclosed to you as the buyer. Ask Realtors to explain the laws. Then conduct your own investigation using Google and the city's newspaper archive at the library, Saatchi says.

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Also, many police reports are public record, so search the address of the house to see whether it's listed as a crime scene. Then knock on doors.

"Here's your best source of information for any buyer: the neighbors," says Joan Cota, broker and owner of RE/MAX Professionals in Sioux Falls, S.D. Sometimes you must take what they say lightly, she says, but neighbors may tell you what you need to know.

Haunted or coincidence?

And sometimes, the ghouls will alert you.

Bob Davis, a Realtor in Brandon, Fla., says he bought a mobile home and lot as investment property about 10 years ago. Last year, he got a call from the tenant, who identified herself as a medium who can communicate with the deceased. She said she kept hearing sounds, voices and screaming. She asked whether someone had been killed on the site.

"I told her that, as a matter of fact, somebody had been killed there," Davis says. "But it was in another mobile home that was on the same lot, and I had since changed it out. It was very odd. It makes you wonder."

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