Tuesday 12 November 2019

Home truths: Should you inform the buyer when your house is haunted?

The big view on Ireland's property market

Spooky precedent: 1 LaVeta Place in Nyack, New York, the first home in the world deemed to be legally ‘haunted’, is now for sale seeking US$1.9m.
Spooky precedent: 1 LaVeta Place in Nyack, New York, the first home in the world deemed to be legally ‘haunted’, is now for sale seeking US$1.9m.
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Many years ago a farmer's wife mentioned rather matter of factly to me that her husband - a no-nonsense cattle man in his sixties - had once seen a banshee on top of someone's house.

When I asked him about it, he sniped at his wife for mentioning the story. It was not something he liked to talk about. As a 12-year-old he had been coming back across the fields one night with two other boys, all returning from a house hooley.

At about 11 at night they suddenly heard an awful shriek. Down in the valley ahead of him, about a hundred metres away, they were confronted with an apparition floating on the roof of a neighbour's house. To them it looked like a wizened old woman, glowing in flowing white clothes. She screeched again, so horrifically that he and his companions legged it. The next day the man who had lived in the house was dead.

Our farmer asserted that the other two witnesses were still alive, living locally and that both would corroborate the story. The Banshee (Bean Sidhe - it means 'fairy woman') is Irish folklore's harbinger of death. By some accounts she's actually a friendly sort sent to escort the spirit to the next realm.

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But what do you do if the spirits aren't just visiting round at yours? Every Irish neighbourhood has its 'haunted' house. Some are even occupied, as estate house poltergeist headlines have testified through the years. And as the Halloween weekend approaches, two of the world's most famous haunted houses have been placed for sale. Aside from the trauma of possession, the history of each gives us an idea just how ghostly goings on can impact the demand for and the market value of a house.

First up is Clifton Hall, a 10,000 sq ft stately home in Nottingham in the UK, which made headlines globally in 2007 when it was abandoned by its then owners, the hotelier and nursing home chain millionaire Anwar Rashid and his wife Nabila. They had just bought it for £3.6m. After just eight months in residence, the couple bailed out and threw the keys back to the bank, complaining that there had been screaming in the corridors, mysterious figures appearing in front of them and voices and tappings from walls. The last straw came when blood inexplicably started appearing on their children's bed clothes.

The Rashids also reported the somewhat unnerving habit of Clifton's ghosts appearing in their own children's likenesses. Mrs Rashid would see her daughter wandering downstairs but the next minute discover her fast asleep in her bed. The phenomena were also reported by former students of a girls' school located at Clifton Hall through the 1950s and 1960s. They detailed meeting their own doppelganger apparitions in the corridors.

As a last-ditch attempt to hang on to the property, the Rashids had called in a British paranormal group. But its attempts to rid the property of spirits failed. The group said it had never found a house more haunted. Lee Roberts, the leader of The Ashfield Paranormal Investigation Team (TAPIT) hired by the Rashids said: "Clifton Hall is the only place where I've ever really been scared, even in the light."

Talking to the Telegraph newspaper in 2009, Mr Rashid, then worth £25 million, compared his experience to the 2001 film The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, in which a family is forced out of their home by ghosts.

"Clifton Hall is a beautiful property. I fell for its beauty but behind the facade it is haunted. We were like the family in The Others. The ghosts didn't want us to be there and we could not fight them because we couldn't see them."

Possessed, Clifton Hall then ended up repossessed. By the bank. The house, which is almost a thousand years old (it was remodelled many times) remained empty for years. It had been offered for sale in 2009 for £2.5m, the price soon falling to £1.5m. In this case the haunting (and likely the banking crisis) suppressed demand for, and the value of, the Grade 1 listed home for years.

But this month its north wing, measuring 10,000 sq ft, is up for sale through Savills, seeking £2.5m. It remains to be seen whether buyers will continue to beware. So far no takers.

Which also raises the question, should you be obliged to tell a prospective buyer if the house you're selling is haunted? Britain's 1991 Property Misdescriptions Act was in fact interpreted by lawyers some years ago on the vexed question of hauntings. The conclusion was that vendors should not mention it either way on the basis that it would be almost impossible to prove that a house is haunted through a survey; but conversely, equally impossible to prove that it isn't!

For firmer legal precedent on the responsibilities of haunted vendors we need to look across the Atlantic (also in 1991) to the remarkable case of Stambovsky versus Ackley, and a precedent regularly cited today to students of property law, both in the US and abroad. What is today termed "The Ghostbusters Precedent" centres on the 1890-built detached house at 1 LaVeta Place beside the Hudson River at Nyack in New York.

Helen Ackley, the former owner of the house, had put it on the market in 1989 and subsequently agreed a sale with Geoffrey Stambovsky for $650,000 with a securing deposit put down.

Stambovsky said he later discovered that the house was haunted but that Helen Ackley, as the owner, had failed to tell him. In fact, No1 had been subject to a number of articles, including one in Reader's Digest, relating the family's encounters with three ghosts at the property. Ackley had recounted several instances in which poltergeists interacted with her family including one ghost which would wake her daughter Cynthia each and every morning by rattling her bed.

Therefore Stambovsky argued that he was entitled to extricate himself from the deal and also to compensation for damages. The Supreme Court surprised all by ruling that the house was haunted "as a matter of law" and that Stambovsky was indeed entitled to extricate himself from the deal on the basis that he had not been informed of the hauntings; something Ackley ought to have done. Whether the ghosts existed or not, the fact remained that some might believe in their presence and that could damage the future saleability of the property.

But under the established legal precedent of "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) the court also decided that, despite failing in her duty to inform, Helen Ackley did not commit fraud by failing to reveal the skeletons in her cupboards. On that basis the court ruled out awarding damages to Stambovsky.

But how did the 'Ghostbusters Precedent' and the resulting global publicity impact the sale and value of the house itself? The publicity led to 50 more viewings of the property and it was quickly snapped up. It has since had a string of celebrity owners, none of whom reported strange happenings. Right after the case it was bought by award-winning film director Adam Brooks and was later home to indie singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson who loved it's ghostly reputation. Today it's owned by singer/rapper Matisyahu who has just put it on the market for $1.9m. With no blood spilled on children in the making of this haunting, LaVeta's "friendly" ghosts have ultimately enhanced its value.

Which answers our first question, on whether or not we should give up our ghosts when selling up.

It really depends on just how ghoulish they are!

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