Editor’s note: This four-part series delves into the realm of haunted houses, examining tales of home hauntings that seem to live on forever in film and paperbacks and how they affect real estate. Every scary Halloween story inevitably involves a house, and usually one with a sordid past. This series offers a practical look at the commonalities, overlooked facts in famous stories, and disclosure issues that haunted-home sellers face. (See Part 1: Homes ripe for haunting; Part 2: Dead movie stars return home for another ‘curtain call’ and Part 3: Amityville: Haunted house or horrendous hoax?)
It seems that nearly everyone likes a good story about a haunted house. Living in one, however, raises a host of practical and more down-to-Earth issues.
How do you know if your house is really haunted? If it is, how do you get rid of an unwanted spirit?
And when you eventually decide to sell, are you legally required to tell the buyer that there’s a ghost in the garage, a demon in the den, or a poltergeist in the parlor?
Though ghost stories are common, actual sightings are rare. Experts on the supernatural say that it takes an unusually large amount of energy for spirits to actually materialize, so most have to make their presence known in other ways – like making noises, moving small objects around, or levitating the occasional chair or table.
Of course, not everything that goes bump in the night is caused by supernatural forces. Before strange sounds send you fleeing from a house or hunting for a real-life ghostbuster, it’s usually best to call out an expert in more mundane matters – like home-inspections, roofing or plumbing.
“Most of the time, there’s a simple reason to explain why a house may seem haunted,” says Dale Kaczmarek, president of the respected Ghost Research Society in Oak Lawn, Ill.
Kaczmarek estimates that about 90 percent of the supposed hauntings that are investigated each year have rational explanations. “That strange thumping at night might just be air in the bathroom pipes, or you might hear creaking sounds in the attic simply because you’ve got a creaky old attic,” he says.
Yet, it’s the remaining 10 percent of cases – the ones where ghostly images or sounds can be recorded, or scientists can actually measure supernatural activity using high-tech equipment – that continue to capture the attention of the American public.
Hauntings don’t always last forever. For example, many people have reported being visited by the spirits of loved ones in the days or weeks after the funeral, but that the ghosts then went away of their own volition.
“Sometimes, spirits come back just to say ‘goodbye’ one last time, or to let you know that they’re OK and at peace. Once they’ve accomplished that, they don’t return,” says Bonnie Vent, who helped to create the San Diego Paranormal Research Project and works on spirit-related cases across the U.S.
Vent says that more persistent hauntings have sometimes been ended after a homeowner has called in paranormal investigators, a medium, or even an exorcist.
Homeowners who’ve tried unsuccessfully to cast out their unwanted spirits can’t be blamed if they simply decide to sell.
Marketing a haunted home, though, can raise some devilish legal matters. One key issue: Do you have to disclose a ghost?
The answer isn’t necessarily cut-and-dried.
For example, California and a handful of other states have laws that require a seller to disclose whether a property has been the site of a recent murder. But a murder is a known fact: There’s usually lots of documented evidence of the killing, arrests have been made, and there’s usually at least one guy rotting in a jail cell while another lies in his grave.
In such a case, legal experts say, there’s no question that the seller should disclose the murder so the prospective buyer can decide whether to go forward with the purchase or look for someplace else.
But hauntings fall into a more shadowy area of disclosure, in part because there’s typically little or no solid proof that the ghost exists.
Few court cases have addressed the issue of haunted homes. Perhaps the most famous is the 1991 New York’s Appellate Court decision in Stambovsky v. Ackley (169 A.D.2d 254, 572 N.Y.S.2d 672).
In the late 1980s, seller Ackley sold her home to buyer Stambovsky. Ackley’s home was in Nyack, N.Y., about an hour’s drive away from Stambovsky’s home in New York City.
Before the deal closed, Stambovsky discovered that the house in Nyack home was widely believed by many neighbors to be haunted. Ackley hadn’t disclosed the alleged hauntings to her buyer, even though she participated in a Reader’s Digest story about its strange goings-on a few years earlier and had also been the focus of stories in local newspapers.
Stambovsky sued to rescind the deal and asked for damages. The lower courts rejected the request, citing the state’s “buyer-beware” approach to real estate transactions.
The Appellate Court, however, took a more sympathetic view of Stambovsky’s plight.
The Appellate judges noted that while people who lived in Nyack were quite aware of the home’s reputation, Stambovsky lived an hour away and couldn’t be expected to have the same knowledge.
Further, the court said, because seller Ackley so happily participated in telling the story of her home’s hauntings to the press, she certainly had an obligation to share the same information with prospective buyers when she put the property up for sale a few years later.
The Appeals Court granted Stambovsky’s request to rescind the deal. But its oddly worded decision didn’t provide much clarity for future real estate cases involving the supernatural: Neither the seller nor her broker had a duty to disclose the purported ghosts, the presiding judge wrote, but the rescission should be permitted anyway because the seller – having “promoted” stories about the ghosts to the media – was no longer “in a position to deny their existence.”
Considering such confusion, perhaps it’s no surprise that some sellers of haunted properties do the same thing to disclosure laws that they did when they first saw their spook: Close their eyes, and hope for the best.
Such strategy isn’t necessarily a good idea. “To play it ‘safe,’ if you really believe that your house is haunted, I would suggest that you disclose it to the buyer when you sell,” says Ralph Holman, associate general counsel for the National Association of Realtors.
“By letting the buyer know about the ghost in advance,” the attorney says, “you might lessen the chances of being ‘haunted’ by a lawsuit later.”
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