A Compliant, Law-abiding and Unethical Murder House Sale



We last considered the issue of realtors sneaking murder houses by trusting purchasers nearly two years ago, when Jon Benet Ramsey’s home and place of death came up for sale. We had a knock down, drag out argument about it too. My position: while it might be legal for a seller not to disclose that a home was the site of a murder or worse (and in most places it is), and while many regard sensitivity on such matters mere superstition not worthy of serious respect, the seller and the realtor have an ethical obligation to inform  potential buyers when the property for sale is a murder scene As I wrote in the conclusion to the post about the Ramsey home:

“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.”

This applies to the case at hand, where Pennsylvania’s Superior Court recently ruled that a murder-suicide occurring in a home is not a “material defect” that requires disclosure in that home’s sale. While a murder-suicide occurring in a house might be “psychological damage” to the property or its reputation, the court said, realtors don’t have to disclose it.

A man in West Chester, Pennsylvania killed his wife and then himself in their home, which was later  purchased for a bargain price—it was a murder house, you see— at a real estate auction. Then the family and their realtor, Re/Max, listed the house for sale at a much higher price after confirming with both the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission and the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors that they were not legally obligated to disclose the murder-suicide to prospective buyers. They successfully sold the house to a man unaware of the home’s violent history who later sued when he found that his house was a potential setting for an episode of “Paranormal Investigation” on cable.

To me, the unethical conduct here is obvious and undeniable. Why did the seller and the real estate agent inquire whether they had to disclose the violent history of the home? Obviously they knew it would make a difference to the seller. If they knew that, then they knew the ethical conduct would be to tell him about it. This version of the death house ethics scenario is especially clear: a buyer gets a bargain on a house because of its history, then sells it to someone at a higher price by not disclosing the feature that made it less attractive to other buyers when it was first for sale, and that buyer will now have to sell the house at a discounted price to anyone who knows what he never found out. Or perhaps he can “pass the trash,” and sell the murder house to another innocent purchaser, keeping a chain of bad ethical going until someone breaks it either by the imposition of good research or good ethics.

In its article about the ruling, Constitutional Daily has a concise summary of the laws about this problem in other jurisdictions. I’m not concerned about the laws. I understand why a property’s history is a potential litigation magnet if there aren’t limitations on what a seller has to disclose. If a murder or suicide is a material defect, what about a death from natural causes? How about many deaths? The death of a child? A fatal fire or accident? Criminal activity? There are horror movies and thrillers based on houses with all of these and more, with increasing numbers of silly TV reality shows reinforcing our primal fears and superstitions about haunted homes and evil energies left behind at the scenes of tragedies. Rather than draw arbitrary lines, the courts and law have generally chosen to say, “If this stuff matters to you, then research it yourself or ask about it directly.” That’s reasonable. In a follow-up post after our donnybrook about the issue, I wrote that the laws should require disclosure. I now think I was wrong about that. The law is right to stay out of the haunted house business.

A seller not disclosing is still unethical, however. The seller and his realtor in Pennsylvania knew that the information would make the house less desirable to a substantial number of people, so the Golden Rule directive was plain: they would have wanted to know, were they in the potential buyer’s position. The seller knew this for certain, since he did know, and because he knew, was able to get the property for a lower price. Yet he withheld the information anyway, so he could get a higher sales price. If that isn’t unethical, I don’t know what else to call it.

Other than “legal,” that is.

You can read the original murder house ethics post, the fascinating debate, and my follow-up here and here.


Pointer: Legal Blog Watch

Facts: Constitutional Daily




8 thoughts on “A Compliant, Law-abiding and Unethical Murder House Sale

  1. There is a great deal of gray area in this, obviously. A lot of it seems mostly to do with infamy of deaths/crime/murders related to a particular property.

    What we have competing here is: 0 scientific proof that ghosts exist vs a pretty damn strong psychological urge to believe in ghosts (an entire discussion separate about why, as temporal beings, we have every physiological reason to construct a belief in an afterlife and with that all of its possible derivatives – including ghosts).

    If a property had a murder on it so long ago that all cultural memory is generally lost, I don’t see a reason for disclosure. If a property had a heinous murder/death/kill on it so recently that, in the event a seller may not have disclosed knowledge of such, yet neighbors or a simple internet search may reveal to the buyers of such, it could easily be revealed to the buyers (who may indulge in such aforementioned strong psychological urges as ghost-believing) that they may feel wronged, then yes, disclosure of said murder/death/kill ought to occur.

    Somewhere between those two poles is some reasonable cut-off point where likelihood of a buyer discovering such an uncomfortable association with the after-life (as invented as it may be) and the likelihood a buyer may never discover such an association exists some standard that says “seller is not obligated to disclose knowledge of xxxx murder/death/kill”

    • I’d add on to this by saying that the ‘standard’ between the two ‘poles’ probably leans heavily towards the side that accommodates ‘ghost-believers’ more than it accommodates the ‘un-believers’.

      As much as I say, quite strongly, that “I do not believe in ghosts”, I can’t say I’d be 100% at ease in living in a house where the stigma of murder/death/kill may be attached.

      Of course that all can be assuaged if the right (real $ invested / non-ghost-stigma value $ returned) ratio overpowers my (ghost-stigma value $ believed / empirically-based-non-ghost-value $ beliefs) ratio

    • What about Indian burial grounds?
      The unease doesn’t have to be based on a fear or belief in ghosts. I stayed at a San Antonio hotel that had once been the old town jail. My bellhop went out of his way to point out that the stairwell by my room had once been the place where prisoners were executed and their bodies dropped down for gathering and burial. I wasn’t worried about ghosts, but it didn’t make the ambiance any more pleasant, and all night I was thinking about all the people who had died there. I wouldn’t go to that hotel again.

        • And I’ll clarify that ‘ghost’ may be too specific. But people’s unease with these places is ultimately attached somehow to a stigma associated with the dead…. be it a ‘cursed’ location or ‘haunted’ location or some other stigma.

          I’m getting at that it is irrational, but we are wired to make such associations, it is ok.

  2. I believe that’s the same hotel that’s suppposed to be haunted by Colonel King, the great south Texas rancher. Whether you believe in ghosts or not (and everyone has a reasonable doubt in the back of their heads) it’s also true that everyone loves a good ghost story… UNTIL the tourists and TV crews start showing up on your doorstep. On the other hand, it can also be a plus. Lizzie Borden’s home is now a successful bed & breakfast!

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