Murder House Ethics and the Validity of Feelings

We last visited the issue of the ethical selling of murder houses in February, when  the Jon Benet Ramsey house went on sale. I opined that even though Colorado doesn’t have a legal requirement that a seller must reveal the history of the house as long as it has no structural implications, there is an ethical obligation to let prospective buyers know about house-related events that might cause them to reconsider their decision to buy it:

“The truth is still this: there is something about the $2,300,000 house that makes it undesirable to a lot of prospects, and that means that even if the law doesn’t require the seller to tell interested house-hunters the story of the little dead girl in the basement, fairness and the Golden Rule do.”

The debate over this issue was unexpectedly intense. Ethics Alarms’ resident rational humanist “tgt” objected strenuously, writing,

“I don’t see how you can avoid the slippery slope question. Your basis is 50% of the population having a desire. Is that the cutoff? I think over 50% of people would prefer to live in a house where there hasn’t been child abuse. Go back a few years, and I bet a significant portion of the population would prefer to live in a house that had never had black occupants. Back in today’s world, more than 50% of the population doesn’t want to live in a haunted house. If a previous tenant thought the house was haunted, does the complete nonexistence of ghosts make not mentioning this a material representation? If an event is uncommon, does a realtor need to take a poll before deciding what is material and what isn’t?”

Karl Penny, however, bolstered my position:

“…the question is, does the realtor have an ethical obligation to fully reveal the history of this house. Well, the funny thing about behaving ethically is, it often requires us to act in ways that are not in our own immediate best interest… this may give a potential buyer a leverage point to negotiate a lower price for the house, to the detriment of the realtor, who could end up taking a lower commission as a result. No surprise, then, that the realtor would love to find a reason not to opt for full disclosure. But, if that realtor successfully conceals the house’s history from an actual buyer, one who would not have bought had they known otherwise? The realtor had a simple, human duty to disclose, even if it cost him money (and, yes, even if it cost me money, were I the realtor)….Jack’s right: this is Golden Rule time. If I am willing to treat with someone else in a way that I would not want anyone to treat with me, is that logically consistent (much less ethically consistent)? And would any of us want to live in the resulting society should everyone behave in that fashion?”

Now another house with a Hitchcock-worthy past is on the market: 9337 Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring, Maryland, a state that also doesn’t require its realtors to disclose when a house has been the scene of a murder…or, in this case, three murders in the last decade.

Brian Betts, its last owner, reportedly tried desperately to get out of his buyer’s contract after  he discovered the property had been the scene of a double homicide.  Erika Smith, nine, was pistol-whipped and shot in the back at point-blank range by Anthony Kelly, who had broken into the home’s kitchen on August 6, 2002 while in the midst of a murder and rape spree that now has him serving consecutive life sentences. Erika’s father, an accountant, ran to  his little girl’s aid, and Kelly shot him too,  at least six times.

Betts was horrified when he learned of the story, and when he couldn’t have the sale rescinded, heasked two ministers to bless the house. It didn’t work: Betts was shot to death in his bedroom in April of last year by a man he met on a gay chatline.

Tgt’s rationalist argument would make no allowances for one murder, and presumably none for three, five or twenty. Slippery slopes slip in more than one direction. Are supporters of a seller’s decision to withhold the fact that a house was the scene of one murder  prepared to say the same when there have not only been three, but when one of them was the previous owner?

To do so, I think, tests the limits of rationalism when the Golden Rule is involved. Feelings are often not rational, but emotion deserves respect too.

On Memorial Day, I will go to Arlington National Cemetary to see my father’s headstone, now freshly engraved with the name of my mother, who was buried with my dad last month. The experience will sadden me—but why, really? There’s nothing to be upset about. It’s not like I don’t know my parents are dead, and there is nothing rationally upsetting about a small white stone with my father’s name on the front and my mother’s name on the back. All the graves will have American flags on them because the day celebrates the casualties of its wars, and I will be moved by that, too. Ridiculous! They are just little colored pieces of cloth; they don’t mean that anything is happening that  should cause me to feel sad, or proud, or reflective.

I own a wonderful photograph of my mother’s family when she was about fourteen years old, and it is one of my most cherished possessions. It is a sepia-toned portrait that shows my remarkable grandmother, Sophia Coulouris…small, sturdy, serious, with a look of determination on her face that defines the woman who came to America as a teenager at the turn of the century and worked to bring her entire extended family over from Greece. There is my grandfather, in formal dress, holding my infant uncle Charlie; Grandfather worked as a cook to raise eight children during the Great Depression. And there are all the beautiful Coulouris girls—Anna, Beatrice, Edith, and my mother—along with John, the oldest son, my beloved uncle whose sudden death of a stroke at 47 was one of the great tragedies of my childhood. Everyone in the photograph is dead now, and I knew and loved them all. If someone were to steal that framed photograph from me, I would be crushed—but why? How silly and irrational. It is just a picture, worth maybe twenty bucks for the frame. The picture isn’t the people themselves. It isn’t as if I won’t have the same memories. What’s the big deal?

Yet as we all know, and most of us acknowledge, feelings matter; rational or not, they matter a great deal. All through life, we encounter many people who ridicule or scoff at our feelings, because they lack the experience, or the belief system, or the experience to understand or respect the sources of our emotions.

“So your dog died. It’s a dog!!! What are you so upset for? Buy a new one.” 

“You’re depressed because the Red Sox lost that playoff against the Yankees? That was four days ago, and it’s a game!!! What’s the matter with you? Who the hell is Bucky Dent?”

“You’re mourning Princess Diana? Are you kidding? You didn’t know her, she was British, she never worked a day in her life, and if she had seen you on the street, she would have treated you like a fire hydrant! Why should you care about her?”

An owner who is selling the property at 9337 Columbia Boulevard knows, with near certainty, that whoever buys that house will be unsettled by the knowledge that it has seen three murders. Not because the buyers will  think that the house is cursed, or that it is like the house in “The Grudge,” haunted by angry spirits, but because a home is a place where we all want to feel safe, happy and secure, and three people who once lived in that house were anything but. The knowledge that the house is a repeat murder site will make most people feel uncomfortable, and comfort  is what homes are about.

If the seller is like tgt, and regards any concern about the slaughters in the home as mere superstition, fine: let him live there. At least he has a choice, knowing the facts. Why do some people like or dislike vaulted ceilings, or skylights, or picture windows? It’s just taste and accumulated emotions and biases from life experiences. But if I don’t like wall-to-wall carpet, I can pull it out and put down some orientals. If I don’t like the fact that people have been getting shot in my house, I can’t do anything about it. I’m stuck with it as long as I live there.

Don’t tell me that I shouldn’t feel sad at my father’s gravesite, and don’t tell me I shouldn’t feel less cozy in a home where people have been dropping like flies. I do. It’s a normal human reaction, whether we call it superstition, or nervousness, or the result of seeing too many horror movies. It’s still real. It doesn’t matter whether the feelings are sufficiently rational for somebody else. It’s real to me, and I’m the one who has to live in the house.

It’s unethical not to inform any purchaser about murders in a house for sale. Since so many of you out there don’t believe that the Golden Rule applies when you don’t share the same sentiments and beliefs as the person affected by your actions, there needs to be a law in every state requiring disclosure. Ethics, however, should be enough, because feelings and emotions are as much a part of existence as rationality.

16 thoughts on “Murder House Ethics and the Validity of Feelings

  1. I’m the Real Estate Business Guide writer for the New York Times owned website at About.com. I write for the trade, not the consumer. The only problem I have with your argument is the discussion of my commission as being a factor in a disclosure decision when disclosure isn’t legally required.

    The small difference in commission is a minor point when the seller can sue me as the listing broker/agent if I disclose something that isn’t legally required to be disclosed and it damages them … lower price or lost buyer.

    If I’m a legal “agent” of the seller, I’m required to work only in their best interests and obey their instructions. This creates a situation where I can be sued, maybe even lose my ability to earn a living in real estate, all because I agree with your “ethics” argument.

    What do I do about it? I no longer take listings. I only work with buyers, and try to dig up EVERY pertinent fact about the property.

    • That’s the best argument for a law. I’ve been remiss in this and other posts by not emphasizing the role of law in keeping ethical professional from having to sail between ethics Scylla and legal Charybdis when the seller wants to keep something secret that that the buyer should know. Without a law, the only alternative is to refuse to take the job, so as not to be a party to misleading a buyer. Or to sell the house to tgt.

      But why the scare quotes around “ethics”?

      • This is a bit off-topic for the thread of this, but your part of the message about visiting the graves of your parents at Arlington brought to mind a poem by the late Ogden Nash:
        The Middle
        When I remember bygone days
        I think how evening follows morn;
        So many I loved were not yet dead,
        So many I love were not yet born.

  2. If there have been several murders in a house, might it not be rational to conclude that the house or the neighbourhood is unsafe, or perhaps might be unsafe and therefore not want to live there? If that is so, then the rationalist argument (there are no ghosts, bad juju etc.) breaks down.

    • Personally, my approach would be this: for whatever reasons, if given the choice between a house that has a history of murders (or even other crimes) and one without such a history, I’d prefer taking a chance with the latter. Who wouldn’t ?

      • I dunno. I think it’d make a nice conversation piece.

        “Hey man, you know someone was murdered right over there?”

        Also possibly good for driving off solicitors.

        However, I agree with the assessment that a buyer’s feelings should be respected. Eventually, someone like tgt or myself will come along and buy/rent it.

    • Is the house nextdoor in a safer neighborhood? If your logic is sound, we would have to come to that ridiculous conclusion.

      Might it be more rational to look at the murders/crimes in the actual neighborhood (and surrounding areas) to determine if the neighborhood is unsafe? You know, useful data points with a much lower chance of a false positive/false negative?

      Look at the details of the murders in this specific house: a stop in a random murder/rape spree and a domestic dispute. Do those have any predictive power on crime in the neighborhood, or crime that may occur in that specific house?

      Now my case: A previous resident at my property was a convicted sex offender. Does that make it more likely that any kids I have will be sexually abused or that I will have a future tenant who commits a sex offense?

      • I think any BUYER’s realtor would be ethically bound to show the relative safety of neighborhoods being looked at.

      • Yes, I’m not persuaded that the safe neighborhood argument is a legit here. Of course, if the last three owners were pistol-whipped on their front porch by different roving gangs, that’s a different story. By definition, the issue has to be about non-substantive features that only appeal to gut emotion, fear , superstition, etc.

        I’m pretty certain that if we found out we were living in John Wayne Gacy’s house and our crawlspace had once been packed with kids’ bodies, we’d seriously consider moving. We might not do it, though, because we’d have to tell the next buyer, and we’d lose too much money as a result. Actually, the first candidate we might call is YOU, confident that you offer us a fair price, not a low-ball because you knew so many buyers would be irrationally squeamish. Right?

  3. Jack,
    “Betts was horrified when he learned of the story, and when he couldn’t have the sale rescinded, heasked two ministers to bless the house. It didn’t work: Betts was shot to death in his bedroom in April of last year by a man he met on a gay chatline.”

    While I realize you’re not making the argument that the house had anything to do with his murder, however, the wording of the above sentence makes it seem as though it did. “Had but the realtor said something!” “If only the minister’s hadn’t had their fingers crossed!” (How can the realtor be held accountable when not one but TWO men of G-d failed to “clear” the house of its bad mojo?)

    I tend to stand firmly in the “these idiots are hockey and superstitious crowd,” that being said, I don’t live in large, impersonal apartment communities because I don’t like the ambience .. so I don’t see how that makes me any more normal. I will say, in the case of the Ramsey house however, it’s likely a moot point as there isn’t likely to be anyone ignorant of THAT house’s history.

    -Neil

  4. Sorry, no intent on quotes around “ethics” other than maybe to point out the contrast and problem with being an “agent.” I’m with you one thousand percent, and could really go to the loony bin if I spent too much time in studying ethics violations of real estate agents.

  5. While I am appreciative that Jack though further on my dissent, I am not satisfied by his response.

    I still want to know the line that determines what ethically does and does not need to be disclosed. It was never settled. This post generally boils down to another emotional appeal that something should be done in some cases. I want to know which cases and why those. Otherwise, my argument holds fast. I don’t see multiple murders (the latest clearly having nothing to do with the earlier ones) as being any more relevant than 1 murder.

    I also believe Jack misrepresented my position on emotion in general. Us rational humanists still mourn our dead, though we try to celebrate their lives more than anything else. While humans are not special in the concept of the Universe, we understand that we are special to ourselves and in our relations with other people. Humanism is about celebrating human life and relationships.

    As for death specifically, I see no need of a grave or burial rites. A dead body is just decomposing flesh. It does not need to be prayed for and cleansed. The person though, the lasting effects they have had on others, the memories of them – these are all important. I cried when a somewhat distant high school friend died in a freak accident at 17. I sent his family flowers on the anniversary of his death for the next 2 years. Why? Because it let his family know that he wasn’t forgotten, that he made an impact on other lives. It let them knew that people cared… people they only knew by name. I cherish the cards they sent in response.

    Emotional attachment to people and representations of them is human, and is desirable. If someone stole the above mentioned cards from me, I would be hurt, but I would know that they were just physical objects that conveyed emotions from one party to another. Those emotions themselves would be untouched. And that would let me feel the rush of feelings anew.

    It is a common mistake for people to assume atheists and realists reject emotion. As seen above, we don’t reject emotion. We simply reject when people use emotion as a weapon, when people prey upon (or unintentionally abuse) superstitious beliefs and unformed feelings to get people to believe and support causes that are contrary to reality. An emotional reaction to there having been a murder in a house (as opposed to a murder in the driveway, a murder on the land prior to the building of the house, or abuse in the house) is based on superstitious belief. It is really just one of the negative side effects of previous emotional manipulations. Perpetuating it, writing rules based on it (and giving it credence in the process) is exactly the opposite of what should be done. A previous murder occurring at a specific location (so long as the locations wasn’t special) is a trifle. The life of a loved one is immeasurably valuable.

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