Murder, suicide homes can be a tough sell

Monday , September 28, 2015 - 6:30 AM4 comments

Like countless other home buyers, Steve Davies found what he thought was the perfect place: A great price on a fixer-upper in a nice neighborhood within the idyllic little Box Elder County town of Willard.

There was just one problem. The home was, as some real estate agents might refer to it, a “property with a past.”

On June 27, 2013, one of the previous occupants, 26-year-old Eric Lankford, was killed in a fire at the house he shared with his older brother, then-28-year-old Jeremy Lankford. Although some of the circumstances of the suspicious fire raised eyebrows at the time — for example, police had been called to the home of the intoxicated, quarreling brothers just two hours before the fatal 3 a.m. fire broke out — investigators found no evidence to indicate it was a wrongful death, and no charges were filed.

Still, Davies wondered if purchasing the house might not be buying trouble.

“I want to make sure he won’t come back and burn me down,” the Ogden man said at one point during the purchasing process.

Welcome to the small-but-potentially-significant world of “stigmatized properties.” Murder houses. Suicide houses. And, of course, murder-suicide houses. Put simply: Dwellings where bad things happened to good — and yes, sometimes bad — people.

Utah law refers to such properties as “stigmatized,” defined as “the site or suspected site of a homicide, other felony, or suicide.”

Scott Lalli, president of the Northern Wasatch Association of Realtors in South Ogden, said Utah law requires a seller to disclose “material facts” about a property to a buyer. Material facts are things that are typically asked in a property disclosure form, and include issues like electrical problems, a leaky roof, or something else that, if known, might have caused the buyer to rethink the purchase — or at the very least, the purchase price.

However, state law does not require sellers to disclose stigmatized property information to the buyer.

“Material fact is something that physically affects the property,” Lalli said. “That’s why stigmatized property is an area that is hard to define. It’s not something physical.”

However, Ryan Kirkham, president of the Utah Association of Realtors and a principal broker with Kirkham Real Estate in Salt Lake City, pointed out that stigmatized property information must be provided if requested.

“As a seller, I don’t have to volunteer the information that a murder or suicide took place in a home,” Kirkham said. “But I do need to tell you if you ask. There’s never a time when a buyer asks a question of a seller and the seller is able to lie about it. Never.”

Kirkham said over-disclosure about things like the history of a home is always better than under-disclosure.

“Whenever buyers come back at sellers later, it’s never good,” Kirkham said.

Some might scoff at the thought that a house could have a dark past hanging over it, or even be haunted, but Lalli said most people are at least partial believers.

“In reality, when people find out about stigmatized properties, it matters,” he said.

An oft-quoted study of stigmatized homes in Ohio found that such homes were on the market 45 percent longer than comparable properties, and that they sold for 3 percent less. Bob Hill, a broker/owner with Golden Spike Realty in Sunset, estimated an even darker outlook.

“I’d say you get 10 percent less for a stigmatized property,” he said. “And, it takes double the time to sell versus other properties.”

Kirkham said that, unlike buying almost any other big-ticket item, buying a house is a personal, emotional experience for most.

“Buying a car is not an emotional experience for me. I buy what does the job for the least amount of money,” Kirkham said. “But a house is totally different. It’s a very emotional experience. It’s a touchy-feely thing for most people.”

Yes, buyers usually consider things like value and price in a home, according to Kirkham. But the deciding factor almost always comes down to emotion.

“Most times with a buyer, they eventually say, ‘We’ve been looking and looking and looking, and this home just feels right.’ ” he said. “Feeling is important in a home.”

As such, if a potential buyer knows some horrible crime was committed in their dream house, it can affect the way they feel about the space.

Real estate agents say, fortunately, they don’t deal with stigmatized properties very often.

“Out of my office, with 66 real estate agents that I manage, we see maybe one a year,” Hill said. “And we haven’t had one yet this year.”

Homes where someone committed a suicide — particularly a high-profile case — can be a tough sell, according to Hill.

“We’ve seen homes in an area that were the site of a suicide, and literally the only way to sell it is to bulldoze it and build a new house on the site,” he said.

But that’s the extreme, and most times, stigmatized properties are eventually snatched up.

“It takes a little longer, but it’s real estate,” Hill said. “At a certain price, everything makes for a deal.”

There are two other categories of stigmatized properties, according to Utah law. One is the home of someone infected, or suspected of being infected, with HIV or “any other infectious disease that the Utah Department of Health determines cannot be transferred by occupancy of a dwelling place.” The other is a property that had been contaminated with a drug such as meth, but that has since been declared clean by the local health department. The latter is a growing problem in Utah, Realtors said.

• RELATED: New tactics in Ogden to deal with meth houses

Kirkham said, as time passes, the stigma over many properties fades. Homeowners move in and out, neighbors move in and out. Within a decade, the odds of anyone remembering what happened in a particular home are fairly remote, he said.

“When you think about it, with a lot of homes there’s a high likelihood something occurred there at some point in their history — death, murder, suicide, meth use,” Kirkham said. “If a list of stigmatized properties were kept, to find a house that wasn’t on that list would be harder and harder.”

As for Davies, he decided to go forward with the purchase of his stigmatized property in Willard, and he’s in the process of buying the home through a short sale. Davies intends to live there, but the plan is to tear the existing house down to the foundation and put up a new one. Not that he worries about such things, but he knows it matters to others who might visit his home.

Indeed, recently Davies was inspecting the house with two other men, and he said these men were clearly uncomfortable being in the basement of a house with a history.

“With all the stigma of people dying in places, the pressure’s turned up around other people,” he said. “That’s one reason I’m tearing it down and starting over.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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