Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hallowe'en Countdown 6: Haunted Real Estate

The entrance to Joan Rivers' Upper East Side haunted condo. Image Source: Examiner.

Skeptical evaluation of the paranormal may come from the odd angle of professionals who are obliged to contend with rumours of the paranormal in the course of their jobs. Consider real estate agents and landlords or landladies. If the law obliged them to disclose hauntings on a property to buyers or renters, it might be tantamount to legal recognition of the supernatural.  But the law doesn't quite do that. Even if real estate agencies required their agents, as part of their code of conduct, to acknowledge paranormal reports from previous occupants, that would constitute recognition of ghosts within a professional context.

But dealing with allegedly haunted properties is one of the hazards of the profession.  So what happens legally or professionally when a seller, estate agent, or landlord has an allegedly haunted property on their hands?  For a long time, the simple legal rule of thumb was simply caveat emptor - let the buyer beware.

What if the previous occupant openly acknowledges ghostly activity?  My post on celebrity hauntings includes a link to a television interview with Joan Rivers, who discussed the haunting of her New York apartment by a deceased relative of J. P. Morgan.  Rivers tried to sell the apartment in 2009-2010 for $25 million (see reports here, here, here, here and the gallery of photos of the penthouse here). It looks like it is now no longer available. In this case, the law acknowledges the impact of public rumours of the paranormal upon the integrity of the real estate deal and upon the value of the property.  This is an example of what is legally and professionally called 'stigmatized property.'

The Examiner observes that there is legal precedent in the USA for a buyer to rescind a purchase of property if the previous owner publicly claimed the property is/was haunted:
Rivers new penthouse apartment was once the ballroom of a large mansion, and she put ‘all of her energy' into renovations. One weekend, when the workmen were gone, she dropped by to check on the progress. It was a very hot night, but the apartment was freezing cold despite the absence of any air-conditioning. Her dog, a ‘little yorkie', refused to enter the penthouse. She complained to the doorman, who said, ‘Oh, I guess Mrs. Spencer is back.'

Mrs. Spencer, Rivers learned, was allegedly a niece of J.P. Morgan and once occupied the entire building as her private residence. After her passing, her spirit reportedly returned and ‘did things' to residents, such as tear the heads off of every cherub in a neighbor's chandelier. Rivers was unnerved but went ahead with the renovations, which continued into the winter months.Her discomfort in the apartment intensified. It was freezing even when she blasted the heat, and her dog continued to be skittish in the old ballroom. The workmen ‘didn't want to be there either'.

On the advice of the 'NYU Parapsychology Department', Rivers enlisted the help of a voodoo priestess who began communicating with Mrs. Spencer. The preistess related that the former owner still considered herself the ‘grand dame' of the building and was furious that current residents were defiling her home. After an exhaustive exorcism of the apartment which involved ‘chanting…and drumming', Rivers went door to door with the priestess offering to cleanse the neighbors' apartments. ‘Not one neighbor refused.' Rivers said. ‘Everybody had a story.'

Rivers claimed that Mrs. Spencer continues to visit her ‘just about every night' and that she now feels comforted and protected by the spirit's presence. ‘We're friends,' said Rivers. ‘It's nice to know I have Mrs. Spencer to say good evening to every night.'

But it looks like Rivers now wants out of her apartment, and that Mrs. Spencer may have new roommates to contend with. According to an article in the NY Times, an apartment Rivers bought ‘about 20 years ago' with a ‘double-height ballroom' was listed for sale over the summer for an astounding twenty-five million dollars. No mention of Mrs. Spencer in the article. This Vanity Fair interview appears to confirm that Rivers still occupied the apartment in August.

With twenty-five million dollars possibly on the line, is Rivers required to inform prospective buyers about Mrs. Spencer? A Corcoran real estate broker (who didn't want his name used) confirmed that brokers are obligated to reveal if there was a death on the property if a buyer happens to ask, but that there wasn't a law requiring brokers to disclose reports of paranormal activity.

Rivers should be advised of the landmark case Stambovsky v. Ackley in which Helen Ackley and members of her family reported to several newspapers between 1977 and 1989 that their house was infested with ghosts. In 1990, when Ackley put her house on the market, neither she nor her realtor told the buyer, Jeffrey Stambovsky, about the haunting before he signed a sales contract. When Stambovsky learned about the reported poltergeist activity, he filed an action requesting nullification of the contract of sale. The New York Supreme Court ruled (on appeal) in a majority opinion that the Ackleys' public and persistent claims that their house was haunted were sufficient grounds for the buyer, who was not aware of the alleged haunting, to legally rescind the sales contract.
Local real estate sales guidelines vary, but some maintain that the seller of a haunted property is obliged to disclose that detail if that's their opinion.  So owners of haunted houses are sort of damned if they do and damned if they don't.  They have a duty to mention the problem - this came up when the US government when it put a haunted lighthouse up for sale.  You can also see a sellers' statement regarding a haunted Yorkshire house in an issue of Country Life, here. But if the seller has publicly mentioned it prior to sale, yet the buyer is unaware of those public claims, and the buyer can prove that the haunting has been subsequently fraudulently concealed during the sale, the buyer can potentially rescind the purchase agreement in court.  In addition, although Stambovsky v. Ackley is commonly cited as an acknowledgement of the power of haunted rumours associated with a property, it is still considered outside the realm of the law to determine whether or not those paranormal rumours are true.  Under the precedent set by that court case, a "realtor [i]s under no duty to disclose the haunting to potential buyers."

In the Amityville Horror, the whole story hinged on the detail that several murders had happened in the house.  The real estate agent disclosed the fact, but the Lutzes bought 112 Ocean Avenue anyway. It is true that murders took place on the Amityville property; but the Lutz haunting is now reputed to be a hoax.  However, the oldest of the Lutz children, Daniel, is now coming forward in a documentary, due out in 2012, in which he asserts that the Amityville experiences were true.  But he also comments on the global publicity about the case and what it was like to grow up in the midst of that maelstrom created by an alleged paranormal event, Hollywood publicity, and a skeptical backlash.

My Amityville Horror - Official Teaser (HD) from Eric Walter on Vimeo.

Realtor omissions lie behind the ghost narratives in The Changeling (1980) and Poltergeist (1982). The Changeling, incidentally, was based on a real case, in which a public park in Denver, Colorado was built on a desecrated graveyard, from which the bodies were removed. The writer who wrote the story on which the movie was based briefly occupied a house (1739 East 13th Avenue), reputedly horrifically haunted, on the border of that park.

Haunting is one thing; but proven actual events, especially crimes like murder, which take place on a property are another matter. The law sets up levels of stigma on a spectrum:
  • Public stigma : when the stigma is known to a wide selection of the population and any reasonable person can be expected to know of it. Examples include the Amityville Horror house and the home of the Menendez brothers. Public stigma must always be disclosed, in almost all American and European jurisdictions.
  • Criminal stigma: the property was used in the ongoing commission of a crime. For example, a house is stigmatized if it has been used as a chop shop, drug den or brothel. In the case of drug dens, some drug addicts may inadvertently come to the address expecting to purchase illegal drugs. Most jurisdictions require full disclosure of this sort of element.
  • Murder/suicide stigma: Most jurisdictions require realtors to reveal if murder or suicide occurred in the house.
  • Debt stigma: Debt collectors not aware that a debtor has moved out of a particular residence may continue their pursuit at the same location, resulting in harassment to innocent subsequent occupiers. This is particularly pronounced if the collection agency uses aggressive tactics.
  • Phenomena stigma: Many (but not all) jurisdictions require disclosure if a house is renowned for "haunting", ghost sightings, etc. This is in a separate category from public stigma where the knowledge of "haunting" is restricted to a local market.
  • Minimal stigma is known to, or taken seriously by, only a small select group, and such a stigma is unlikely to affect the ability to sell the property; in such a case, realtors may decide to disclose this information in a case-by-case basis
There are examples of realtors or sellers battling in the courts when they have not disclosed murders on a property, see here (in Australia) and here (in Canada, where the provinces differ; for example, in Quebec, realtors and sellers have to disclose a significant property stigma; in Ontario, realtors should disclose, but might not, and private sellers don't have to).  Disclosure of stigma is up for a certain amount of interpretation.

Sometimes, investigations are involved, as with the case of Street Real 5, Bélmez de la Moraleda, Jaén, Spain, where the so-called Bélmez Faces appeared in the cement in basement.  This is considered one of the most famous paranormal cases of the 20th century. After skeptics decided the faces could have been faked, a trench was finally dug in the basement, and revealed that the house was built over a 13th century graveyard.

On the other hand, sometimes homes with sordid pasts or acknowleged ghosts really are offered as 'great bargains' - haunted houses come cheap! - see here and here - the house where Jeffrey Dahmer lived and committed his first murder went for a song in Summit County, Ohio.

In the USA, different states have different laws.  A realtor in Massachusetts posts the following advisory, which basically states that the realtor doesn't have to say anything unless the potential buyer specifically asks about crimes or stigmas associated with the property: "A common question among REALTORS® is what to disclose when it comes to tragic events such as suicides or homicides which may have occurred at a particular listing. A section of Chapter 93A, known as the stigmatized property law, provides the answer to these types of questions: absent specific inquiry about the incident by the prospective purchaser, there is no duty for the broker to either investigate or affirmatively disclose murders, suicides, allegations of ghosts or other potential stigmas. If a consumer does ask, however, the broker or salesperson must answer the question regarding the stigma honestly and to the best of their knowledge."

And in some places, there is a time limit (sometimes as short as three years) on how long ago the crime took place which affects the rules of disclosure. If you are looking for a house, and want to avoid buying one where murder, haunting or another frightening event took place, you may have to hit the local archives before you sign on the dotted line.  Also, note that insurance companies do not under their regulations include the concept of stigmatized property.  There are tips here on how to do some detective work yourself. Let the buyer beware.

And if you do end up buying a haunted house, can't get out of the contract, and don't know what to do?  Who you gonna call?  The ghost-busters, of course.  Some psychics offer 'remote healing' for properties, to remove any bad karma, stigma or residual evil juju, as with a cursed property. For example, David Franklin Farkas is a "professional house healer and ghost rescuer." His comments on stigmatized properties are here.  He describes his services below.

Video Source: Youtube.

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