How do you go about selling property with a grisly past?
The security deposit never covered the full cost, financial or emotional, that Brooke Hadwen incurred at the rental property she once owned on North Avenue.
Early one morning in September 1997, one of Hadwen’s female tenants showed up at the Burlington Police Department to report a domestic assault by her live-in boyfriend. Soon thereafter, officers entered the apartment. In the ensuing struggle, the boyfriend picked up a handgun and fatally shot himself in the head; police fired on him at the same time.
After the crime scene investigators were gone, Hadwen contacted a disaster-response firm, but the expected cleanup crew never showed up. So she and her then-husband, Mark Ransom, were left to deal with the bloody aftermath themselves.
“It was pretty messy,” she recalls grimly. “We had a lot of cleaning up to do.”
Even after the floors were thoroughly scrubbed and refinished, the bullet holes in the wall patched up and painted, and the room professionally sanitized, something lingered in the apartment — or in the public mind, which hadn’t forgotten that a violent death had taken place there. According to Hadwen, the apartment went unrented for at least six months. Though her insurance covered some of the cleanup expenses, she recouped little in lost rent.
The real estate industry has a catchall phrase to describe places that are scarred by gruesome or sinister events such as suicides, murders, cult activities, sex crimes and even paranormal phenomena: “stigmatized properties.” While sellers or landlords may not believe in evil spirits or bad karma, many of their prospective buyers and renters do, and those “psychological impairments” can have a very tangible impact on a property’s market value.
Stigmatized properties can be residential, commercial or institutional and come in all shapes and sizes. The Boulder, Colo., mansion where 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in December 1996 is a prime example. Despite years of almost daily exposure in the international press, the house remains unsold nearly 15 years after the crime occurred.
In Burlington, the Panda Inn Chinese restaurant on Shelburne Road sat vacant for years following the March 1999 double homicide of owners Shiao-Fa Tao and Tong-Hsiang Tao by their former business partner, Davis Chan. The restaurant was eventually torn down and replaced by a Kinney Drugs.
Most states have laws that require sellers to disclose such dastardly details to prospective buyers; Vermont isn’t one of them. According to Robert Hill, executive vice president of the Vermont Association of Realtors, state law is silent on whether sellers have a duty to disclose the history of “psychologically impacted properties.”
That said, Hill points out that the licensure law for Vermont real estate agents does require them to disclose any material “facts a licensee [i.e., real estate agent] reasonably believes may directly impact the future use or value of the property.”
But how do real estate agents know whether they are legally obligated to mention that, by the way, that spacious master bedroom, with its new Jacuzzi, walk-in closets and spectacular view of Mount Mansfield, was also the spot where one former owner stabbed her husband 52 times? Or that the old carriage house where his wife caught him shtupping the maid is occasionally visited by his ghost?
In such a hypothetical case, “the agent would need to determine whether it’s fact or fiction, rumor or reality,” Hill explains matter-of-factly. “If it’s fact, then you need to determine whether it would likely impact the price someone is willing to pay. If so, it has to be disclosed.”
Admittedly, such grisly incidents rarely occur in Vermont, which has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country. (For his part, Hill claims he’s never dealt with the issue in his eight years at the association.) That said, it’s quite common for Vermonters to live in the same home for years, even decades, then pass it to their children. Which means that the collective memory of what occurred in that creepy house down the lane can linger for generations.
Jon Stebbins, a real estate attorney in the Colchester office of Bauer, Gravel, Farnham, Nuovo & Parker, says he’s dealt with a stigmatized property before. A title search he did for a client on one Essex property turned up a death certificate. It revealed that a suicide had taken place in the woods behind the house.
“When I read that, it kind of sent a chill down my spine,” Stebbins recalls. “But everyone reacts to that kind of situation differently.”
Although Stebbins wasn’t required by law to disclose that grim detail to the buyer, he chose to do so.
“It’s one thing if the seller doesn’t tell the buyer about a roof that’s leaking, but some people believe in ghosts,” he says. “My general rule of thumb is, always overdisclose. Tell them every last detail, even if it’s not necessarily relevant or important.”
Such background information probably matters less to commercial investors than it does to prospective home buyers, suggests Ernie Pomerleau of Pomerleau Real Estate in Burlington. Pomerleau, whose firm handled the Panda Inn transaction with Kinney Drugs several years ago, says the long-term difficulties involved in leasing that building before it was demolished had less to do with any stigma caused by the double murder than with the restaurant’s location and leasing price per square foot.
“The only thing the bank wants to know is, who’s your tenant and how credit worthy they are,” Pomerleau says. If you’re still concerned about a psychic stigma hanging over the place, he suggests jokingly, “Just get some geomancer guy in there to get the bad jujus out, and you’re done.”
Burlington’s biggest real estate mogul didn’t have anyone listed in his Rolodex to handle that particular service. But one place to start might be David Franklin Farkas of HouseHealing.com . Farkas, whose business is based in Amherst, Mass., has worked in Vermont, throughout New England and all over the world. He describes his service as “remote healing for real estate, people and businesses.”
Farkas says his clients, most of whom find him by word of mouth, describe him in any number of ways, including “healer,” “psychic,” “exorcist,” “ghostbuster,” “karmic cleaner” and even “quantum mechanic.” His preferred label: “technician of the sacred.”
“Basically, I’m using the kinds of things indigenous shamans have used for thousands of years,” he says. “I’m just applying it to the modern world.”
What exactly is “house healing”? Farkas explains that most of his clients are people whose homes aren’t selling or whose real estate deals keep falling through. Sometimes the reason is known, as with houses where a violent crime or recent unexpected death took place. In other cases, explanations are murkier or seemingly absent, at least when the house is compared with similar ones in the neighborhood.
Farkas, who claims he works on multiple levels of matter and energy, starts by charting the meridians, or “ley lines,” of a property, looking for negative and positive energy vortices. Like dowsers, he researches underground water sources on the land and other potentially significant details, such as nearby historic battlefields, sacred burial sites and hauntings.
“Frequently, there are ghosts that have been there for thousands of years,” he explains. “People will feel that, but they may not know what it is.”
How long does it take to, say, power-wash the soiled karma off a typical 19th-century colonial? According to Farkas, the answer varies from house to house. The process can take just a day, or as long as several weeks. He notes that nearly all of his work is done remotely; some clients are as far away as Australia.
And the price of such a psychic reboot? Like most providers of real-estate-related services, Farkas charges by the square foot. For a residential property, his fee starts at $200 for 2000 square feet, with an extra $100 for each additional 1000 square feet.
As for guarantees, Farkas admits he’s “struggled with that.” Nonetheless, he claims to have at least an 80 percent success rate in helping people sell their homes, and he says he’ll continue to “tweak the energy” for weeks if a house still isn’t moving on the market.
For her part, Hadwen says she didn’t employ such a professional service to get her apartment re-rented. Eventually, a tenant moved in who’d heard about the shooting but wasn’t fazed by the idea of living in the room where it had transpired. Still, Hadwen says she and Ransom “smudged” the place with burning sage, just to be on the safe side.
Concerned you might be buying or renting a house with a questionable past? Don’t expect to get a definitive background check from the cops, as police departments don’t maintain a master list of crime scenes or domiciles where people have given up the ghost. But, if they did, many houses in Vermont would probably make that list. And, since Vermont has one of the oldest housing stocks in the country — with little new construction under way — perhaps the more relevant question is, what’s the statute of limitations on bad vibes?
“People have died in just about every building here,” Hadwen points out. “Whether they die by natural causes or by violence, they have to die someplace. And it’s often at home.”