Murder houses a tough sell, but a home’s dark past may stay hidden

For some, knowing that a murder took place in a home is enough to make them walk away from a purchase

It was a “stunning” property in the heart of downtown Toronto, but for broker Caroline Baile it was a tough sell.

That’s because the home had been the site of a recent murder, a domestic dispute turned fatal. Baile would tell potential buyers about the tragic death that took place, but the property’s story was already well known thanks to intense media coverage of the crime.

“It was challenging to sell it,” she said, not wanting to go into too much detail to protect client privacy. “So we ended up leasing it to cover carrying costs.”

The renters were aware of the property’s history and once the media attention subsided, the property was sold.

But for some people, the knowledge that a murder took place in a home is enough to make them walk away from a purchase — even if it is at a steep discount in a hot market.

That is, for those who are aware that something happened.

While there are rules requiring disclosure of issues concerning a property such as defect like a hole in a roof or mould, for non-physical problems such as violent crime, the law largely says “caveat emptor” or buyer beware, said Alan Silverstein, an Ontario-based real estate lawyer.

Quebec does have a law that requires sellers to disclose when a person has died an unnatural death on their property. But in other provinces, the guidelines are blurry.

“A murder is more psychological than factual… When you get into the area of murder and suicides, natural causes, we don’t have clear rules,” Silverstein said.

There are also differing guidelines for agents or sellers, he added.

MONEY MONITOR: What to consider when breaking up with a realtor

In Ontario, for example, the seller has no legal requirement to disclose a stigma such as murder and the onus is on the buyer and their realtor to find out.

However, real estate agents in the province have an ethical obligation to disclose the existence of stigmas, according to the Ontario Real Estate Association.

Agents are also required to tell potential buyers about these issues at the earliest possible convenience, said Barry Lebow, a Toronto realtor and expert on stigmatized properties.

“You cannot disclose it at the table once there is an offer…. you don’t wait until the last minute, but that happens,” he said.

If the agent or seller is asked a question, they cannot give a false answer, Silverstein said.

The former owner of a Vancouver mansion learned this lesson after the B.C. Supreme court ordered her to return a $300,000 deposit after a sale fell through because she didn’t tell the buyer about a suspected gang-related murder of her son-in-law at the front gate in 2007.

Feng Yun Shao reneged on her $6.1-million offer on the 9,000-square-foot mansion in 2009 just days after forwarding the deposit. The would-be buyer asked why they were selling and was told the owner had moved back to China and her daughter had moved to a location closer to her child’s school, according to court documents.

Neither the owner, her daughter or the realtor told Shao about the unsolved slaying, and the judge said she was the victim of a “fraudulent misrepresentation.”

Still, as homes change hands over the years, a property’s dark secrets don’t always get passed on.

“If the seller doesn’t know about something, it’s hard to hold them liable,” Silverstein said.

Also, it’s unclear how far back in a property’s history must be disclosed. Some jurisdictions, such as California, stipulate the seller is obligated to disclose a death on a property if it occurred within the three years prior to the sale.

“We need some hard and fast rules,” Silverstein said.

Buyers who are uncomfortable with living in a home where a violent crime took place should do extensive research on any property that catches their eye. In addition to the obvious online address searches, potential buyers should also ask their would-be neighbours for information about the home, said Silverstein.

Another thing to look for is a line in the listing that asks potential buyers to call the listing agent before preparing an offer, said Toronto realtor David Fleming.

“It could mean something big or it could mean something small… When you see something like that, it usually means that there is a catch and they don’t want to put it in a listing,” he said.

Buyers can also add a clause that the sellers acknowledge that to the best of their knowledge there hasn’t been a murder or suicide in the home.

Sandra Pike, a realtor based in Halifax, said most agents in the region add in this caveat stipulating that the property has not been stigmatized by things such as murder, suicide or illegal drug cultivation.

“You wouldn’t want to be dishonest and not bring that up… If it comes back and bites you, it’s not worth it,” she said.

Some homes may never shake off the stigma, no matter how much time passes. The St. Catharines, Ont. home where convicted killer Paul Bernardo and his former wife Karla Homolka raped and murdered two teen girls was torn down in 1995.

Even in high-profile cases, there are some people who aren’t deterred, said Barry Cohen, a Toronto-based luxury property realtor.

The unsolved murders of Apotex Inc. founder Barry Sherman and his wife Honey at their mansion in northern Toronto has not hurt the sale prospects for nearby homes that he is representing, as most see it as an isolated incident and not a reflection of the neighbourhood, Cohen said.

As well, while the Shermans’ home is not currently on the market, Cohen said there is buyer interest.

“The client would buy it as is.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Fraser Lake business offers equine therapy to deal with life stressors

The idea is to have diverse businesses that provide more options to residents and tourists says Kim Watt-Senner

Smithers man receives two-year sentence for fatal car crash

Over a year after a fatal crash, a Smithers man has been sentenced to two years plus a day in jail.

First Nations push for massive conservation area in northern B.C.

Includes ancestral areas of three Kaska Dena First Nations, just shy of the B.C.-Yukon border

Tahltan reach benefits agreement over Seabridge’s massive KSM gold mine project

$308M agreement provides additional billions for Tahltan jobs, contracts

B.C. court to mull continuing order against Coastal Gaslink pipeline opponents

Coastal GasLink was granted an interim injunction in December following arrests and protests

10 facts about Father’s Day

Did you know that the special day for dads was first celebrated in 1910?

B.C. university to offer mentorship program for former youth in care

Students using the provincial tuition waiver program will soon be able to form a community at KPU

Cyclists competing in one of the toughest bike races on the planet pass through Fernie

Divide riders looking strong as they finish first leg of 4160 km race

You might not know these B.C. records are public

Hired a lawyer to file a civil claim? Those are published online

B.C. bus driver loses case to get job back after texting while driving full bus

An arbitator ruled that Tim Wesman’s phone usage was a “a reckless disregard for public safety”

B.C. Interior First Nation family ‘heartbroken’ over loss of young mom

RCMP have released no new information since the June 8, 2019 homicide

Revamped B.C. Lions set to battle veteran Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Lions’ first test of the season will be a big one

No business case for Trans Mountain expansion, says former environment minister

Cabinet is expected to announce its decision on the expansion of the Alberta-to-B.C. pipeline by Tuesday

LETTER: British Columbia’s forest industry crisis being made worse

Andrew Wilkinson warns of regulatory overload by John Horgan’s NDP

Most Read