Giving up the “ghosts” on stigmatized properties.
ILLUSTRATION BY JASON RAISH
Charming Dutch Colonial features poltergeists, black slime, buzzing flies, strange voices, and shadows. Excellent schools. A must-see!
George and Kathy Lutz scored a bargain deal on their Amityville, Long Island, house, merely a year after the previous resident murdered his family. Terrorized by spooky voices and visions (and tired of wiping slime), the Lutzes soon were phoning the movers (and later, agents for the now-famous book and movie based on their experiences).
In real-estate parlance, residences with skeletons in their walk-in closets are called “stigmatized properties,” a term used for any site on which a homicide, suicide, or other horrid event occurred. A “murder house” can give buyers pause, no matter how gracious the Tudor or how tony the block. Under a 1995 amendment to New York State’s Real Property Law, owners and their agents do not have to volunteer information or details concerning a homicide, suicide, or felony that took place on the property. But while the law may technically allow the past to stay buried, many argue that ethics and business sense should compel a seller or broker to disclose any eerie event—to avert a buyer’s distress or mistrust from coming back to haunt him or her.
“Stigmatized properties do suffer, as fewer buyers are willing to purchase them,” says Miriam Bernstein, associate broker with RE/MAX Prime Properties in Scarsdale, who admits to mixed feelings over the state’s ruling. “I’d prefer to disclose all upfront, but I defer to my seller’s wishes, as the law states no obligation to disclose. I’d prefer that every buyer be fully informed.”
Nicholas Wolff, owner of Century 21 Wolff in White Plains, has sold stigmatized properties—and even lived in one. On the dicey issue of disclosure, he takes a preemptive approach. “My recommendation to my agents is, if you suspect the details will eventually come out, it’s better to let buyers know upfront—and make little of it—than to have them find out later and call you, upset that they weren’t told,” he says. Wolff recalled the first time he brought his wife, Aileen, to view an English Tudor on Gedney Circle in White Plains; as soon as she crossed the threshold she declared it her “dream house,” her husband says. Then, however, Wolff says he announced: “Someone was murdered here.”
“I stopped dead in my tracks and said, ‘I want to leave,’” Aileen recalls. But she quickly reconsidered. “I asked if it was it a random murder by someone who came off the street, or a family thing.” When her husband affirmed it was a domestic dispute, Aileen wanted to know: “Which room?” The murder took place in the kitchen (as in many such cases—perhaps due to its supply of sharp utensils).
When she learned more about the details later, the story took a bittersweet twist: Aileen had known the murdered man. She babysat for his children at a different house, when he had a different wife. “He used to drive me home,” she says. She remembered him as a decent man—not an evil spirit who’d stalk the Wolffs from beyond the grave. “I never felt bad vibes there,” she says. “We never had a sleepless night.” The first time Aileen found herself sitting in the kitchen alone at night, she says, “I didn’t feel nervous. Then I wondered: Should I feel nervous?” She never did. The couple refrained from telling their children, 10 and 13, about the property’s past. But within two days of moving, says Nicholas, the neighbors’ kids taunted them for living in a “murder house.”
“Our kids cried, ‘How could you bring us here?’” Aileen recalls. Fortunately, her memories of the “nice man” reassured them. Yet, while renovating her kitchen, workers pulling up the linoleum were startled to find blood streaking the plywood—four years after the murder. (Eventually the family moved, seeking a larger yard.)
In nearby Nyack, a so-called haunted home spawned the 1990 “Ghost Busters” case, in which Jeffrey Stambovsky placed a $32,500 deposit on his new mansion, then learned of its reputed trio of poltergeists. An appeals court ordered his money returned, on the grounds that the house’s reputation as “haunted” had diminished its value.
Condos, too, can harbor stigmatized units. Stephen Stepanchev, a 93-year-old retired professor, moved from Queens to Hastings-on-Hudson in 2003. His apartment boasted river views, hardwood floors—and a kitchen with a de facto butcher block. In 1998, a relapsed schizophrenic stabbed his fiancée over the stove. “The space had light, air, and great karma,” says Stepanchev’s niece, Danielle Goodman, who arranged the move. Stepanchev, the first poet laureate of Queens, strolled through Hastings one day and wrote a poem called “Nothing Ever Happens Here,” savoring the calm after his years in rough-and-tumble Flushing. Learning of the murder from a neighbor prompted a few hasty revisions and a title change: “It Happened Here.”
With the incident still fresh in people’s minds, and in the media, complex manager John Piccone was candid but cursory with the first renters who came to inquire about the condo in 1998. “I said: ‘This is what happened—what do you want to do?’” Instead of raising the rent, he says, “I made sure it was a very good deal. They loved it, moved in two months later, had a baby, and breathed new life into the apartment. It was a nice ending to a sad situation. For every bad story, there are five-hundred good ones here.”
As incidents recede into the past and local memory fades, the pall over a “haunted home” often dissipates. But how can sellers exorcise a lingering crime-scene stigma for good?
“Disclose, disclose, disclose,” says Randall Bell, a real-estate economist, who advised on Nicole Brown’s and JonBenet Ramsey’s families’ compounds (both scenes of tabloid murders). “My advice is to hang on to the property, keep it in use,” Bell told Fox News. “You don’t want these properties to go vacant because it tends to amplify the problems and curiosity and negative stigmas.”
Experts advise buyers to demand an explanation for inexplicably low price tags and even do some digging of their own—if not in the backyard, then at least on the Internet.
The accessibility of information online has outstripped the 1995 amendment’s emphasis on discretion, according to Bernstein. Googling “43 Brendon Hill Road”—the Yonkers home of a pediatrician murdered there in 2007—summons a link to the Yonkers Tribune article instantly. In this day and age, it’s much harder to take secrets to the grave.
Freelancer Melissa F. Pheterson lives in a New Haven, Connecticut, apartment building that’s the former home of Southern New England Telephone.