Payson » When a California couple pulled up Kay Mortensen’s winding driveway, they found the for-sale sign — peppered with bullet holes — lying in the bushes.
It had been about two years since someone tied up the retired Brigham Young University professor in his Payson Canyon home and killed him.
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I 12:15 p.m. Monday » Real estate agent Dave Frederickson and reporter Michael McFall join Jennifer Napier-Pearce to discuss marketing and selling homes where a murder or other heinous crime happened. To comment, use #TribTalk on Twitter or Google+ or send a text to 801-609-8059 › sltrib.com
The murder was widely publicized, and while Mortensen’s family tried to move on, there was the matter of trying to get someone to buy his house with its grisly story.
"A lot of people thought we were absolutely crazy," said the man who pulled the sign out of the bushes, called the real estate agent and made an offer. He and his wife — private people who did not want to be named as they try to make a new life in an infamous house — knew of the home and its history through a mutual friend of a Mortenson relative. But it didn’t bother them. The house was in a beautiful location that felt secluded, yet close to town.
Two years in, the couple have made a big investment remodeling every room to give a once darkened house a new life. It can be a challenging and disheartening journey from a grim murder to a new mortgage but with a strategic sales pitch and hard work, such homes can make it.
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Stigmas and secrets » In the real estate business, there’s a name for homes that carry the shadow of a murder, suicide or similarly sordid story: stigmatized properties. The rules differ from state to state but in Utah, the seller and the broker are under no legal obligation to tell the buyer about a stigma if it has nothing to do with the home’s structure. If potential buyers ask, though, they have to tell the truth.
Angie Nelden, president of the Salt Lake Realtors Association and a Coldwell Banker real estate agent herself, always advises her clients to be upfront about whatever stigmatized the house. The National Association of Realtors suggests the same.
That doesn’t always happen, though. A Wright State University study examined 102 stigmatized homes in Ohio and found that the brokers failed to disclose the stigma to the buyer about 19 percent of the time. Sometimes, it was because the seller didn’t tell the broker.
But their silence does not keep the truth hidden.
"If [the agent] doesn’t tell you, the neighbors will," said James Larsen, co-author of the Wright State University study. Larsen’s own father learned after the fact that he lived in the same home that Jeffrey "The Milwaukee Cannibal" Dahmer did as a child.
Several years ago, a Pennsylvania woman, her spouse and children moved into a home only to hear later from the neighbors that it was the site of a murder-suicide. As in Utah, Pennsylvania law did not require the seller or real estate agent to divulge the grim tale upfront. She sued, but the state’s Superior Court ruled to uphold the status quo.
Aaron Drussel, who sells homes in Salt Lake and Utah counties, has heard similar stories of people who only discovered a home’s history after they moved in.
"They didn’t like that everybody knew. They felt like people weren’t honest with them," Drussel said. The couple who moved into Mortenson’s house pointed out that the real estate agent never told them about the history — though, to be fair, they already knew.
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Counting the cost » In the two years Mortenson’s home was on the market, only one person other than the California couple made an offer on the house, the couple said. And that’s no surprise: Stigmatized homes languish longer on the market. The Wright State University study found that, on average, such homes took 45 percent longer to sell than comparable properties that did not carry a stigma, and they sold for about 3 percent less.
In the event of a well-publicized murder, the notoriety can hurt a home’s value by 15 percent to 35 percent, according to an appraiser who specializes in stigmatized homes cited in the study. The appraiser — Randall Bell, who has worked on such homes as O.J. Simpson’s house, and the Heavens Gate Mansion mass suicide — says the impact may take five to seven years to wear off.
The value of Martin MacNeill’s Pleasant Grove home dropped by about $30,000 between his 2012 arrest, when it came to light he had killed his wife years before by drowning her in a bathtub, and a 2013 trial conviction, according to the online real estate database Zillow.
Matthew David Stewart’s house in Ogden, the site of his 2011 deadly shoot-out with narcotics investigators, had a market value of $115,000 before bullets riddled the walls. The home’s value has dropped 19 percent, according to Zillow.
The online database estimates that Susan Cox Powell’s home is worth 21 percent less now than when she disappeared in 2009.
Decline is not limited to the high-profile cases. When Stuart Halliday shot and killed his parents in their upper-class Salt Lake City home before killing himself in 2010, the house was worth about $937,000. Zillow’s records show a 6 percent decline since.Next Page >
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