Wouldn’t Any Homebuyer Want to Know About a Murder/Suicide on the Property?

The big news in real estate law these days is a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court holding that a home buyer has the right to sue the seller and the real estate agent for neglecting to disclose a murder/suicide that had taken place in the house for sale. (See Milliken v. Jacono, 2011 PA Super. 254). The crime took place in 2006, when Konstantinos Doumboulis, who owned the home prior to the Jaconos, allegedly shot his wife and himself, leaving his children to call 911.

It was a crime that made the news, such that two professional real estate appraisers stated (on behalf of the buyers) that the property was worth 10-15% less as a result. The buyers themselves stated that they wouldn’t have bought the place had they known.

The Milliken case is based on a Pennsylvania law requiring sellers to disclose “material defects” in a property during the sales process. Nearly every U.S. state has a similar law, or common law concept, mandating that sellers tell prospective buyers what they know about the property — instead of withholding key facts that might affect how much the property is worth, under the bad old rule of “caveat emptor” or buyer beware.

The Pennsylvania supreme court’s decision doesn’t seem too surprising, although it was hardly inevitable, given that the trial court had ruled in favor of the sellers. Court decisions across the U.S. have emphasized home sellers’ responsibilities to be upfront about the condition of the property — not just regarding physical defects, but other matters that may affect what an ordinary consumer would be willing to pay. A classic example is the 1991 Stambovsky v. Ackley case, from New York, holding that the sellers of a Victorian mansion that had become the site of local haunted house tours should have told the buyers about its supposed ghostly inhabitants. (For details, see “Buying a Haunted House: How Will You Know Beforehand?“)

One thing that does stand out about the Milliken case, however, is the home sellers’ assertion that they asked their real estate agents something along the lines of, “Should we tell the buyers that they’ll be living on the site of a recent murder/suicide?” and the agents said, “No need.” That’s a rather large “oops” on the agent’s part, and a reminder that agents are not lawyers, and should not be looked to as the last word on such matters. Not that all home buyers need a lawyer in order to fill out their disclosure forms, but given the general real estate wisdom that sellers should err on the side of disclosure, specifically to head off the possibility of lawsuits, I would have thought the agents themselves would have had the wits to advise the buyers to consult a lawyer.

For more information on disclosure requirements and best practices, see Nolo’s article on “Required Disclosures When Selling Real Estate.” And if you’re a home buyer, do your research before relying entirely on the sellers’ disclosures! A little Googling about the previous sellers might have turned this news story up.