You may laugh at the notion of spooks and spirits, but when it comes to selling houses, it’s a real issue. And it comes up more than you might expect. Here’s what you need to know.
Haunted houses are fun to visit. But what if you’re putting a “For Sale” sign in the yard of a home that has ghostly “squatters” from the past? How much should real estate practitioners divulge to a potential buyer? And what happens if your spirit shows up during one of your showings?
“Haunted properties fall within the category of stigmatized properties, or real estate that is not defective in any physical manner, but due to psychological or emotional factors may have a reduced value. Among the situations covered under the title of stigmatized is a property that was the site of a murder, suicide, alleged haunting, or other parapsychological phenomenon,” says Steven J.J. Weisman, a Cambridge, Mass., lawyer and college professor who teaches about paranormal disclosures in his business law class at Bentley University.
About half of U.S. states have laws that deal with stigmatized properties, but most don’t require sellers to disclose if they have a ghost. For instance, Massachusetts law says property owners do not have to disclose if the property is the “site of an alleged parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon.”
If a state doesn’t have a statute that requires disclosure of hauntings, Weisman says sellers don’t necessarily have to spill the beans about spirits that roam the halls. But even if your state doesn’t require you to disclose that you’ve got things going bump in the night, it’s often good customer service that can save a sale.
“We don’t have paranormal disclosure laws in our market — however, I always encourage sellers to disclose any factor that may affect the desirability of a property,” says Timothy J. Singer, a practitioner with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
If you stay tight-lipped and the buyers freak out when they find out a ghost could be living in the closet, they could be able to back out of the sale. “In one well-documented New York case from 1991, the sale was voided due to the seller not informing the buyer of the house’s reputation for being haunted. The same reasoning could also be used in other states if there aren’t clear laws about disclosing paranormal activity,” Weisman says.
That’s because in addition to scaring buyers, paranormal activity may lower a property’s value. But in some cases, ghosts and ghouls may also up the price or a property.
“Some customers look for homes with an interesting history, as they feel it adds to a property’s character,” Singer says. “Not everyone is bothered by the possibility of spirits hanging around.”
Explaining the Ghost
There’s some bad news for real estate practitioners wondering about the floating mist or cabinet doors that mysteriously open: You have to deal with it, even if you don’t take it seriously. If a potential buyer is wondering about ghosts or other supernatural characteristics, they talk to their agent, who then gets answers from the listing agent.
“I try to explain everything from broken faucets to ghosts to the best of my ability with some thought to the buyer’s level of understanding. After all, you don’t want to scare the client away, but some clients may interpret incidents differently. If the consumer exhibits understanding of ghosts and the like, it is easier to talk about,” says Jerry Grodesky, a real estate broker with Farm and Lake Houses Real Estate, in Buckley, Ill.
Of course, downplaying a ghost is much easier if the ghost doesn’t come out to play during a showing.
“I was sitting at the dining room table doing an open house and saw movement on the staircase in my peripheral vision. When I asked the seller about any unusual experiences, she said her boyfriend saw the ghost quite frequently and the house was known in the neighborhood to be haunted,” says Cindi Hagley, a real estate broker and the owner of Past Life Homes, a division of the Hagley Group at Prudential California Realty that sells and consults on stigmatized houses of all types, including hauntings and paranormal activity.
If a spirit pops up on a showing, Hagley says she explains some people claim to have experienced paranormal occurrences at the property. “I ask how the prospective buyers feel about what they saw or experienced and if it made them uncomfortable, or if it would prevent them from buying the property. Addressing it immediately and creating dialogue is much better than pretending it never happened,” she says.
What to Say, and When to Say It
Considering not everyone believes in ghosts, divulging information about the presence of paranormal activity could lead to people thinking you’re crazy. Before you sign a statement saying your house is haunted, you should check all the commonsense possibilities first.
Instead of thinking a shadow is a spirit, explore its origin. Is it caused by a car passing by the house or a bird flying by the window? Try to recreate the shadow to see if there’s an explanation other than paranormal activity.
Funny noises and creaks can be loose boards or pipes, and flickering can be as simple as a bulb that’s not screwed in properly. And a home inspector can help you rule out ghosts by uncovering these types of issues.
Still convinced that house is haunted?
Weismann says if you suspect that’s the case but can’t explain why, you might not want to disclose anything to a potential buyer. However, if you see a wave of blood wash down the hall or creepy kids in old-timey clothes asking you to come play with them, you should speak up (and also cancel the listing agreement, for that matter).
In all seriousness, though, you should say something if you or others have noticed:
- Objects levitating or moving by themselves.
- Strange voices or sounds when no one else is around.
- Recurrent, out-of-the-ordinary phenomena with light and shadow.
“It’s tough to use broad strokes when defining what should be disclosed if there are no laws stating such. Paranormal activity could be more prominent or not at all depending on the person. Some may dismiss weird occurrences as a novelty,” says Grodesky.
“I believe that if a home is known to be haunted, it needs be disclosed to the buyer,” adds Hagley.
Of course, if the question comes up, and Singer says from time to time potential buyers do ask about paranormal activity or ghosts, you need to come clean. And remember, if your home has an open and notorious reputation of being haunted, you might want to spread the word. “This may even add value to some prospective buyers,” says Hagley.
Send Spirits Packing
Debra Duneier, a real estate broker in New York and author of EcoChi: Designing The Human Experience, recommends having your property cleared to get rid of ghosts. “Clearing the property will give any lingering energy the permission and strength to move on,” she says.
Professional “space clearers” claim to communicate with visitors from the Great Beyond, by either helping them resolve the issues causing them to live rent-free in a house or simply asking them to leave, thus clearing the property of ghosts.
Bonnie Vent, a psychic medium who runs the site SD Paranormal, which helps match buyers and sellers with haunted properties, cautions not to pay for a cleaning. “In my experience, they are not effective.”
You can save a few bucks and try to clear your space yourself. Many home owners have kicked spirits to the curb by lighting dried sage and letting it smolder (over an ashtray, or course) so the smoke can fill the room and send the spirits packing.
And if none of that stuff works, you know who to call.