Tragedies are not “structural defects”

July 26, 2014

If you’ve read “The Amityville Horror” or seen one of the many movies spun from it, you’re familiar with the tale it tells: A family moved into an abode on Long Island in 1975, a little more than a year after six people were shot and killed inside it. They only lasted there for 28 days, having been chased away by rampaging ghosts and an escalating series of alarming paranormal events.

The veracity of the story was later called into question, particularly since it so closely resembled the tone and texture of the “The Exorcist,” which obliterated box office records a few years before. But, along with jolting moviegoers and making readers a little more wary of the creaking noises in the attic or the funky odors in the basement, “The Amityville Horror” undoubtedly made a couple of generations of home buyers ask their real estate agents if anything, well, out of the ordinary, ever transpired in the clean, well-manicured house they were thinking about purchasing.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that, while those real estate agents should not necessarily hide any untoward events that occurred at a given property, they are under no legal obligation to divulge them. While we understand moving into an address that was once the domicile of a hatchet murderer might make a sound sleep a little harder to come by, the court made the right call – “psychological stigmas,” as Justice J. Michael Eakin described them, do not constitute the same kind of structural problems as moldy ceilings or sloping floors.

The court made the ruling as the result of a lawsuit filed by a California woman who purchased a home near Philadelphia in 2007 that had recently been the site of a murder-suicide. The new owner only found out about why the house landed on the market from one of the neighbors after she moved in, and she subsequently argued if she had been duly informed of the tragedy, she would never have signed on the dotted line and paid $610,000 for the house.

That would certainly have been her prerogative. But one can assume someone who has sufficient resources to buy a house worth over a half-million dollars also has a computer at home or work, and would be able to place the address in a Google search, as most reasonably savvy home-shoppers are in the habit of doing nowadays. Doing so would have quickly revealed detailed information on the murder-suicide, which received wide play in the media.

Besides, if home sellers did have to reveal every terrible thing that might have occurred in a house, how much digging would they have to do and how much would they be liable for? Let’s say you have a house that’s 160 or 170 years old. Some people might have been born there, but it’s a good bet that many also died there. Does this lower a house’s value? If the house is otherwise structurally sound, most of us would say no. What if, say, a Civil War veteran who was an amputee had wandered its halls after returning from the conflict? Or that Nazi prisoners of war broke bread in its kitchen while they were in custody during World War II? These are things that give a house character and a rich identity, and increase its value.

And for anyone who wrings their hands about what might have happened inside a house, there’s a simple, painfully obvious solution – buy a new one.



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