How Would You Sell A ‘Murder House’?
Murders, suicides, hauntings — all provoke prurient interest in a property that can often morph into a three-ring media circus. If you became the listing agent, would you downplay the media attention to avoid the property becoming more stigmatized, or would you capitalize on the free publicity?
More importantly, what disclosures would you advise your clients to make as you sell their home?
Nancy Sanborn of Berkshire Hathaway Beverly Hills, a long-time friend and the top probate agent in Los Angeles, called me recently about a probate listing she had just taken.
The property was the site of a grisly murder-suicide back in 1959. Reportedly nothing on the inside of the house had been changed since that fateful day, right down to the Christmas presents under the tree.
Sanborn raised the question about whether it was wise to capitalize on all the local and national media inquiring about the property.
The publicity would have been great for her business, but what about what was best for her sellers? The media circus would draw curiosity seekers and probably make the property even more difficult to sell.
Sanborn and the sellers were in total agreement — they didn’t want to do anything that would fuel any more sensationalism about the property. Consequently, her property description cited that the property was a probate that needed court approval for the sale, specific architectural details including the spectacular view and that it was a special opportunity for the right buyer.
As much as Sanborn tried to downplay the issues, the news media jumped on the fact that the property had been listed.
L.A. Curbed profiled the property in fall 2015, and a movie about the property’s history is already in the making. Eerie stories from bloggers and other trespassers have only added to the legend.
Moreover, the property is a regular stop on the Dearly Departed Tours: The Tragical History Tour of Los Angeles.
The stigma of violent death
One of the most notorious double murders in L.A. history was that of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Although the Brentwood condo building where the murders took place is still standing, the people who purchased O.J. Simpson’s Brentwood Park property bulldozed the house and built an entirely new home.
The decision to bulldoze the house also probably kept the Dearly Departed folks from including that property on one of their tours as well.
A case of real bad vibes
One of the most bizarre experiences that I have ever had took place during my first year in the business. My buyer was interested in purchasing a home in the Los Feliz (Los Angeles) area. One of the properties I scheduled to show her was 3301 Waverly Drive.
The tenant-occupied property had a beautiful green rolling lawn. The house itself was located up a long driveway. Inside, it was a major mess.
As we walked through the property, I had the worst vibes that I have ever experienced in my 30-plus years in the business.
My client felt it, too, especially when we walked into the pool house. The sleeping bags, the trash — the whole scene was weird and deeply disturbing. We headed back to the car as quickly as our high heels would carry us.
As I was scheduling some additional showings for the same client, I chatted with one of the listing agents about our strange experience on Waverly Drive. His response was, “Don’t you know about that house? That’s where the Charles Manson family murdered the LaBiancas.”
The site is so notorious that Dearly Departed Tours has a “Helter Skelter Tour” devoted exclusively to the Waverly Drive property and the property where Sharon Tate was murdered.
Ironically, Leslie Van Houten, one of the perpetrators of the brutal murders, was granted approval for parole on April 14, 2016, after 19 previous parole hearings. It’s now up to Governor Brown whether her request will be granted.
What are your disclosure obligations?
Sanborn’s property has garnered exceptional publicity, but what disclosures would you be required to make in your state if you were the listing agent?
For example, in Texas, there is no obligation to disclose unless the death is related to the property. Murders are exempt, as are suicides.
The problem here is highlighted by what happened just a block from my former house. About two years ago, a well-known childhood TV star made national headlines when he shot himself at a family member’s home.
When we listed our home, I inquired about the house, which was clearly a comparable sale for our home. Our broker asked, “You mean the suicide house?” I had no idea, but apparently just about everyone else did.
This is exactly why — even if your state doesn’t require you to disclose these types of events — it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. You can bet that the neighbors won’t waste any time telling the new owners the gruesome truth.
If you are marketing a house that has been stigmatized by a violent death, the dearly departed or for any other reason, there are many articles on how to market these properties, no matter how difficult the situation is.
The real truth about the Los Feliz murder house
Most of the hype about this property is exactly that. After the murder-suicide in 1959, the property was conveyed in a probate proceeding to the new owner in 1960.
The woman who purchased the property was reclusive and conveyed the property to her son in 1998. After she died, the son never moved into the home (as per the neighbors), but did spend a fair amount of time there.
In other words, everything associated with the grisly murder-suicide was removed over 56 years ago. All the peeping toms and trespassers have seen are the possessions of a reclusive old woman who lived in the property for almost four decades.
When her son died, he didn’t have a will, so the property is being probated. There is a pending bid on the property, and the court date should be scheduled in the next four to six weeks.
Realize hype is often exactly that
If you do decide to proceed with taking the listing on a stigmatized house, check your state’s disclosure requirements, educate your sellers about their options and the steps you are required by law to take — and if you’re really concerned, you can always hire a priest or a psychic to clear the property.