Stigmatized homes: Does your house have a dark history?

Jun 28, 2011, 3:25 AM | Updated: 7:05 am
LISTEN:

As you turn onto the street, a sign reads “DEAD END.” A woman comes to the door of a small green house on the quiet block in SeaTac – she peaks her head outside the screen door.

She speaks little English, but knows the house she lives in has a dark past. Her neighbors know it too.

“It’s a landmark,” said a man up the street. “I can tell people where I live. Two houses, three houses up from Ridgway’s house.”

That’s Gary Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer. In the 1980’s and 90’s, he murdered 49 women while he lived in that small green house. The current resident bought the home in 1999, before the world found out that it once belonged to one of the most notorious serial killers in history.

In real estate, it’s what they call a stigmatized home.

“Because a major criminal event occurred there,” said real estate columnist and author Tom Kelly.

And, believe it or not, Washington state law doesn’t require that a real estate agent tell you about such a past – even if someone like the Green River Killer lived there.

“If there was a murder committed in a home, the seller is required by state law to put that on the Form 17 when that home is sold,” he said. But, that doesn’t mean the agent has to pass the gruesome details on to a potential buyer.

“The state’s legislature has made a determination that a murder in a house is not a material fact,” said Doug MacPherson, an attorney for MacPherson Real Estate. “That would not be something that needs to be disclosed. A material fact is determined as, had the buyer known about it before, would they or would they not have entered into the transaction.”

Not all agents choose to keep such dark secrets, said MacPherson, who knows a bit about selling a stigmatized home. When MacPherson’s was Prudential MacPherson’s Real Estate back in 2002, he helped advise perhaps one of their most infamous homes sales; the Auburn house Gary Ridgway and his wife lived in when he was finally arrested.

“Judith Ridgway had originally bought the house with us and so she used us to sell it,” he said. “We absolutely disclosed the fact that it was the Ridgway house.”

He said disclosure, in that case, was necessary given the fact that the property was the subject of an active police investigation.

“We just made the disclosures about, the home was owned by Gary Ridgway and had been the subject of a forensic investigation and may be the subject of investigation in the future.”

Police had already dug up the yard, ripped up floorboards and tore down dry wall as they tried to build a case against Ridgway prior to his confession and guilty plea, said MacPherson.

Because of that stigma, he said, the house was sold at a bargain.

“It was priced to sell, absolutely, just because he lived there.”

But not all stigmatized homes are a good deal.

The Lake Washington estate where musician Kurt Cobain was found dead from an apparent suicide in 1994 has sold several times at market value. At the time of his death, his wife even believed the stigma would bring top dollar from a serious Cobain fan.

“Courtney Love thought it would be a terrific place for a wonderful Kurt Cobain fan to buy,” said Kelly. “So she really overestimated the market value of that home.”

Not all stigmatized homes have a past as well-known as Cobain’s, or as gruesome as Ridgway’s. Burglaries, drug activity and other crime can also leave buyers with an uneasy feeling. But, it’s not uncommon, said Kelly, for people to purchase homes with even the darkest of pasts.

“People will go into a house in which a murder was
committed, maybe do some painting, replace some rugs and live there peacefully,” Kelly said.

That is, if they were told about it.

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Stigmatized homes: Does your house have a dark history?