if someone is trying to sell a house, do they have to tell the buyer someone died there?
As I write, there are some brand-new luxury condos being built in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. They’re overpriced and not very attractive (think, giant white Tupperware), but we can be pretty sure no one has died in them. Yet.
Pro Tip: if you have your heart set on living somewhere that absolutely, positively no one has ever died in, buy a new house. Preferably one that you’ve watched being built. Because the truth is, if you live in a charming prewar bungalow or a grand Victorian mansion, it’s possible you’re watching TV and eating popcorn where somebody breathed their last breath. And nobody has to tell you about it.
The laws differ from place to place on what someone selling a house is legally required to tell the buyer. Generally speaking, if someone died a “peaceful death” in a home (meaning it wasn’t part of an ax murderer’s chopping spree), the seller doesn’t have to tell the buyer. The same goes for accidental deaths (say, falling off a ladder) and suicides. And no place in the United States requires sellers to disclose deaths related to HIV or AIDS. In some cases, the seller will be advised not to reveal that a death has occurred, as it could cause unnecessary stigmatization of the property. No seller wants the buyer’s mind reeling off into visions of gory crime scenes, torrents of blood like the elevator in The Shining, or you know, ghosts.
Death has happened in many homes, more homes than you probably realize. Perhaps in the very house in which you’re reading this book. Remember, people mostly used to die in their own homes, not at hospitals or nursing homes, so if your house has been around for one hundred years or more, it’s highly likely to have seen death within its walls.
If someone died peacefully in their home, they were probably attended by loved ones or hospice workers. After the death, the corpse was removed from the home way before any heavy-duty putrefaction set in. These are not the types of deaths that ghost stories are made of.
Even if, for some reason, there was heavy-duty putrefaction going on, a skilled cleanup crew can get a place so spick and span that you’d never know that there was once a corpse decomposing in the room that’s now your man cave.
For example, a friend of mine, I’ll call her Jessica, lived in a fifth-floor apartment in Los Angeles. One spring she noticed an odd smell pervading her apartment. At first, she thought she just needed to do a better job of cleaning her cat’s litter box.
It wasn’t long before it became clear that the smell was coming from the apartment directly underneath hers. A man had died alone at home, and nobody had found his body for over two weeks. The “cat litter” smell was decay, wafting up through the floorboards of the old apartment building. Authorities were called, and the corpse was removed.
Jessica, unable to help herself, climbed down the fire escape to peek in the open windows of the dead man’s apartment. She saw what remained of her neighbor after the coroner took the body. A thick, black stain spread across the floor, and rogue maggots wriggled through the liquid.
No, you obviously wouldn’t want to rent the apartment in that condition. But, fast-forward a couple of months, and the apartment had been overhauled—everything was sparkling clean—and rented again. Jessica met the new people who moved in and asked them how they liked their new apartment. They were very happy, no complaints about smells or such. Jessica decided not to say anything about her former neighbor.
Did the new tenants know a death had occurred in their apartment? Legally, a California landlord has to tell you if there has been a death in the apartment within the last three years. California is one of the only states with a law this specific. If, later on, the tenant comes to feel harmed by the death in their home, they may be able to sue. So disclosing the death to them in advance, before they rent, is really the only way for the landlord to protect themselves from a future lawsuit. But it’s possible that Jessica’s landlord didn’t know the law (or ignored it) and never said anything.
It’s worth noting that in some U.S. states, Georgia for example, a landlord only has to tell you about a recent death if you ask. But if you do ask, they are required to answer truthfully. Sort of like how a vampire can only come into your house if you invite them in. The takeaway from Jessica’s story is, if you are worried about recent deaths in your potential new home, you should ask.
Asking should work in most places, but not all places. (Oregon, I’m looking at you.) In Oregon, it doesn’t matter when or how someone died; nobody has to tell you anything. Brutal, violent deaths included. Murder, suicide, peaceful death—it’s all the same in the Beaver State.
In realtor-speak, what matters is something called “material facts.” Material facts are things that can affect a buyer’s desire to purchase a property. Most often this is stuff like cracks in the foundation or invisible structural problems. Depending on what state you’re in, a violent death, like a murder, might fall into the category of material fact, meaning it has to be disclosed. But peaceful or accidental deaths are not usually considered material facts.
Being the site of a grisly murder can turn a house into a “stigmatized property”—that is, a house with a “reputation.” The same goes for reports of violent crimes, or even hauntings. The seller probably doesn’t want to tell you about the triple homicide there in 2008, but if they don’t tell you and you learn about it from the neighbors (the house has a “reputation,” you see), you might have grounds to terminate the contract or file a lawsuit down the line. Again, it probably depends on what state you’re in.
Really, the best thing I can tell you is to get comfortable with the fact that you may someday live in a house or apartment where a person died. You’ll be okay. My mother is a realtor, and just sold a house in which the ninety-year-old previous owner died. Mom told the potential buyers (because she knew the neighbors would tell them if she didn’t), and they went home to think about it. They came back and wanted the house anyway, because the woman must have loved the house so much she wanted to die there.
I hope to die peacefully at home, and I don’t plan on staying around to haunt it, either. But if you’re still terrified that someone has died in your next potential domicile, get comfortable having those types of conversation with your realtor or landlord.
Unless you’re in Oregon.
if someone is trying to sell a house do they have to tell the buyer someone died there?