21 Aug 2014
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Sur-Real Estate Law 101

When things go bump in the night – what does that mean from a real estate perspective?

Sur-Real Estate Law 101

No matter what other differences or similarities they may share, one thing that many Boston-area towns have in common is a large number of old homes that boast long and interesting family stories. In other words – lots of places that offer the perfect recipe for a good haunted house. Don’t worry however – a hint or two of ectoplasm is no guarantee that your equity will suffer.

This week, Patch checked in with some local real estate professionals to ask how the admittedly dicey topic of allegedly haunted houses is handled in their industry – and whether any of them have ever had such a listing come up during their own careers.

Janice Pierce of Century 21 Commonwealth in Wakefield said that the closest she has come to a house with any kind of supernatural vibe was one that had a small family cemetery plot out in the back yard. In that case, she reported that she got information from the historic society that she could share with potential buyers about those who were buried there.  “It went over well and the house sold rather quickly,” recalled Pierce.

Another local real estate professional, Roberta Nelson of Lynnfield, told Patch that she did once sell a home where a suicide had occurred – and that she was upfront about it with the potential buyers and did not see any decline in the sale price because of it.

“If someone is worried about ghosts or death in a house and is nervous about it, they will not buy it at all. And if they are not worried, then it does not matter,” said Nelson.

For her part, Karen Colby of Colby Properties in Lynnfield reports that one time she sold a property in another town to a woman who called her back and said it was haunted – complete with weird noises and a broom that moved on its own across the kitchen. “I held my breath waiting for her to say she was unhappy with the purchase, but to the contrary, she felt it was an amiable presence and rather enjoyed it,” recalled Colby in an email to Patch.

Marjorie Youngren of ReMax Heritage in Lynnfield noted that homes that have been the scene of murders or suicides are known as “stigmatized properties” and that the one time she handled a home where a suicide occurred, the buyers appreciated the information and did not let it affect their purchase. “Other buyers may have chosen not to,” remarked Youngren.

Amie Geary, a Lynnfield resident whose Burlington-based practice includes real estate and business law, told Patch that in Massachusetts, a seller or broker does not have to disclose claims of ghosts or paranormal activity to a prospective buyer, nor are they required to report that a murder or suicide ever took place in a home. However, the law also states that if a buyer specifically asks about such details, the seller or broker must respond truthfully, or at least to the best extent of their knowledge.

“Given the Massachusetts law on the sale of haunted houses, buyers would be well-served to take a few minutes to Google their new home in an effort to uncover any rumors of paranormal activity.  Otherwise, they’ll be left to call the Ghostbusters!” joked Geary, a Lynnfield resident and 2000 LHS graduate.

This information is also consistent with that in a legal column sent along by Nelson written by Stephen Ryan, general counsel of the Mass. Association of Realtors. In his Legal Hotline column for state real estate professionals, Ryan notes that the Massachusetts law in question was passed in 1998 and was intended to protect the privacy of suicide and violent crime victims.

Elsewhere, the law may or may not be less on the side of the poltergeists. As noted in this Huffington Post article back in April, a couple in New Jersey took their landlord to court claiming he rented them an apartment where their sheets would be torn off at night and where scary voices and apparitions would occur. A month later, another website reported that a court ruled in favor of the landlord.

Geary cited a New York case from the 1990s where a buyer was allowed to rescind a contract of sale for a house that was reputedly haunted – although that case also had a fairly unique set of circumstances around it:

“The important factor driving the court’s decision was that the seller had showcased the house as haunted to the entire community, as well as in national publications, thus imposing a duty on the seller to disclose that same fact to the buyer,” she explained in an email.

And overall, just because a house is old and has seen a death or two during its history, that doesn’t mean it’s haunted. After all, some may remember this article from June when a group of paranormal researchers drove up from Rhode Island to spend a night at the Old Meeting House in Lynnfield.  Along with being one of the most historic and oldest structures in that town, the Old Meeting House even had a minister die in his pulpit there back in the 1700s. However, a follow-up check with the researchers found nothing out of the ordinary was detected that night.

So there you have it. If you ever find yourself in a situation that resembles the end of the first "Poltergeist" movie, under Massachusetts law you won't have much recourse - unless of course you thought to ask in advance if they knew anything about forgotten burial grounds and inter-dimensional activity.

With that in mind, be sure to just try to ask the obvious questions if that sort of thing is likely to concern you as a homeowner. And in case anything goes wrong, just brush up on your Latin and always try to run to the light.

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