Tuesday, March 31, 2015

(In)Famous Houses

     In a previous column I mentioned the story of the Amityville, New York house, the scene of a gruesome family murder that was sold, led to claimed paranormal activity, movies, books and more sequels, all detailing the house’s sordid past and its alleged possession.  That house has been occupied and sold repeatedly despite its infamy, and without further incident. 

    Other famous or infamous houses face similar problems.  The house used in the Brady Bunch is a real home in Studio City, California.  The real house, built in 1959, was a one story, typical middle class home.  A false second story fa├žade was added for exterior shots and the home was frequently shown during the show’s run and many subsequent movies.  Tourists continue to flock to the home, despite many years of change and the installation of a privacy fence.  Simply google “the brady bunch house” and you will get 23,100 hits, including a www.zillow.com listing at http://tinyurl.com/4yfmj33. Given the notoriety, any listing would have to disclose this to prospective buyers.

   Another infamous house was the home leased to the Heaven’s Gate cult that committed mass suicide in the 9,200 square foot mansion in March, 1997.  The notoriety and required disclosure drove the value of the home down from over $1.2 million to less than $700,000.00.  Eventually, due to so many onlookers and no buyers, the neighbors bought the house, changed the street name and tore down the house, to protect their community.  Apparently, a street name change with a slightly different address has solved the issue, as it appears that a multi-million dollar mansion is now located on the same property.

   One house affected by its notoriety is the Highland Park home of Cameron, Ferris’ best pal in the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the scene of the infamous Ferrari car kill.  Originally listed for $2.3 million in 2009 with hopes that the film’s tie-in added value, it languished on the market for years despite a unique and historic architectural design.  The home finally sold after five years on the market for less than $1.1 million.  One factor that drove down the price was the constant presence of curious tourists, including some who trespassed to get a closer look.  Zillow does not even mention the film in its listing at http://tinyurl.com/lmc9dg.

   The owners of the home in the movies Home Alone and Home Alone 2 put a large “Private Property – Stop” no trespassing sign right on their front lawn to stop the constant flow of trespassing tourists.  Despite the sign, tourist intrusion is a fact of life for this famous house.  Selling for $1.6 million in 2012, the home may not have suffered as much from the notoriety as some other famous houses, as Zillow still describes the home (http://tinyurl.com/ygwbdfq) as, “the quintessential family home, as depicted in ‘Home Alone,’ filmed here 20 yrs ago.”

   An allegedly haunted house was the subject of a legal challenge of rescission when a buyer, after signing a contract, discovered the history of the home as “haunted.” Prior to the sale, the former owner had a deep knowledge of the home’s alleged haunted past. The owner had even written an article that was published in the 1977 Reader’s Digest, “Our Haunted House on the Hudson.”  Prior to signing the contract, neither the seller who wrote the article, nor the listing agent, disclosed the haunted history to the buyer.

  The buyer, unaware of the history at the time of the sales contract, became concerned about the ghostly facts prior to closing and refused to close.  The $32,500.00 deposit was retained by the seller for the buyer’s failure to close, and the buyer’s lawsuit was initially dismissed. The buyer appealed the dismissal and won on his claim for rescission. The appellate decision that followed is full of interesting and ghostly puns and can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/yzdcr6n.

  The appellate court held that the Reader’s Digest article, in which the seller claimed the house was, in fact, haunted, rendered it haunted as a matter of law, whether or not it actually housed poltergeists. The court further held, as a result, that rescission was appropriate under those circumstances, despite New York’s then adherence to the legal rule of Caveat Emptor, or “buyer beware.” 

  Further, the court rejected the buyer’s additional claim of fraud, which sought damages against both the seller and broker, based on allegations that both parties had a duty to disclose the haunting. The court reiterated the general rule that neither party had a duty to disclose those facts. As a result, the court held that the buyer was entitled to rescission, return of the deposit and nothing more.  Under Florida law, the opposite would have been true as to the fraud claim.  Since 1985, the law in Florida is no longer Caveat Emptor, requiring sellers and brokers to reveal all material facts that affect the value of a home for sale.

   In hindsight, the buyer of the haunted house may have made a financial mistake.  The lovely home in Nyack, New York was sold for over $1.7 million in 2012, nearly triple what he would have paid in 1990.  Because of possible issue underlying any home, the best advice to buyers on any home purchase is to ask questions and research any home thoroughly before buying lest something unwanted be discovered.


Michael J Posner, Esq., is a partner in Ward Damon a mid-sized real estate and business oriented law firm serving all of South Florida, with offices in Palm Beach County.  They specialize in real estate and business law, and can assist buyers and sellers in loans and purchases/sales.  They can be reached at 561.594.1452 or by e-mail at mjposner@warddamon.com

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