Posted by Jonathan J. Miller -Monday, May 1, 2006, 12:01 AM
In Stephanie Rosenbloom’s cover story for the real estate section Some Buyers Regret Not Asking: Anyone Die Here? [NYT] she explores the realm of prior occupancy. Specifically she looks at people who have discovered that someone had died in the property prior to their purchase. It was a good read and explores far more about the topic than I thought existed.
She discusses the obligations of disclosure for the seller and broker. (shameless plug: I provided some commentary on the impact on value.) Basically, the death of an occupant is probably unlikely to have an impact on other units in a multi-family building, especially in larger buildings but it will more likely have an impact on the value of the individual property in the near term. The reason being that this condition simply dilutes the number of buyers that would consider this type of property as an acceptable purchase. I believe that this stigma’s impact on value would erode over time. If this were not true, many of the turn of the century properties in many urban markets would not be worth much.
I’d speculate that a murder has more stigma than and natural death, and a murder done by a stranger has a more severe impact on value than death by a relative. The concept of safety and security of the home seems fairly self-evident here.
Stigma tends to be more pronounced in a soft housing market than in a market where the supply of property is severely limited. This can apply to other unusual conditions such as house that are supposedly haunted, or have other nortorious histories.
For added fun, a mashup of New York Police Department homicide statistics and google maps are included in the online feature. One hundred years ago, before nursing homes and extended care facilities proliferated, it was more common for the elderly to die in their home. My own home was built circa 1825 so I am fairly confident there are a few stories to be told but I try not to think about it too much [wink].
A Story (Dancing On A Bleached Floor)
I remember appraising a multi-family 120 year old brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan about 10 years ago and the owner was telling me about the death of his last rent controlled tenant. The tenant was elderly and because of his central location in the building, it prevented the owners from converting the house to a single family. They had bought out the other rent controlled tenants over the years and he was the last one remaining. However, their relationship was cordial and the owners would see him entering and leaving the building a few times a week.
After a few weeks of a noted absence and an unpleasant smell coming from the apartment, the owners knocked on the door repeatedly to see if he was there but there was no answer. They suspected a problem and called the police. As it turned out, the gentleman had expired on the floor of his apartment. Without going into the gory details, he had taken his own life about two weeks prior. He had no known relatives.
The body was removed and the sellers convinced the police to let them clean the apartment right then, since the stench was so strong and was permeating the rest of the house.
They bleached the floors and threw a party shortly after to celebrate their good fortune… The house was now worth about triple what it was before. Real estate can be a cold business.
A Story (Haunted)
This is a story that pertains more to general concept of stigma, than it does specifically to death (sorry to disappoint). An appraiser colleague in another part of the country told me a story about a supposed haunted house he was asked to appraise. He is a well-regarded professional who was active in local and national appraisal organizations. Local residents believed the house to be appraised was haunted, which did not impress my colleague much at all.
The house was vacant and he was provided the keys by the owners (I believe he was appraising this for estate tax purposes). It was a bright and sunny day, no wind, nothing extreme or unusual in any way.
He entered the house and was immediately uncomfortable – a perpetual chill down his spine for the duration of the inspection. He became very anxious to leave but saw the entire house and completed the inspection. He walked out on the front porch to finish his notes. As he turned to look back at the house, the front door slammed shut. He ran to his car without looking back and got out of there. Needless to say, there was an impact on value of the house when it sold later on.