Three Bedrooms, Two Corpses: Should Real Estate Agents Disclose Murder?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last week that the seller of a home doesn’t have to tell the buyer about murders, suicides, and other gruesome events that have happened on the premises.

The decision—which sets aside fraud charges brought by a home buyer who paid $610,000 for a Delaware County house before learning that the previous resident had killed himself and his wife—brings Pennsylvania in line with other states that don’t consider psychological stigmas to be material defects to a home. (California and Texas are notable exceptions.)

Of course, the legal standard is just one code of behavior. Real estate agents, who often find new clients by referral, want happy customers, which can mean sharing more information than is required by law. On the other hand, the U.S. records tens of thousands of murders and suicides a year, to say nothing of other violent crimes. Many of those deaths happen in houses, and an agent could run himself ragged keeping track of the entire history of every home he lists.

How do real estate agents handle sales of so-called murder houses?

“We won’t take the listing if the seller won’t let us disclose that a homicide or suicide took place,” says Matt Russo of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach Realtors in Media, Penn. Two years ago, he says, he sold a house that had been the scene of a suicide by hanging. He didn’t know about the death, but the buyer found out through the local grapevine and didn’t care. Other buyers can be more put-off. “I can’t tell you how many first-time home buyers ask if the house is haunted,” Russo says.

Linda Gray, a broker at Brin Realty Group in Amherst, N.H., also gets questions about haunted houses, but says buyers are often attracted to the idea of sharing a roof with ghosts. Honesty is a good policy, she says, but “it’s not our job to go around searching police logs for old incidents.”

Rochelle Lecavalier, a partner at Pink Palm Property in Boca Raton, Fla., agrees that keeping track of every death behind a for-sale sign is impractical. “We have an aging population down here, and a number of people choose to pass away in their homes.” In Florida, a seller is required to tell the buyer if a house was used as a drug manufacturing facility, she says, but not if a house is haunted by past residents. “I wouldn’t belittle anyone’s concerns. For all I know, it’s a real phenomenon and I just haven’t experienced it yet.”