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Utah realtors give ‘murder homes’ another life
Real estate » Heinous crimes hurt market value and stagnate marketability, says study.

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The declines stand in contrast to the general uptick that Utah home values have enjoyed the past two years.

And while pervasive, the stigma is not a sure nail in the home value’s coffin: After Robert and Patricia Stom died in a murder-suicide in their Ogden home around Christmas 2009, its value fell for two years before starting to bounce back in 2012.

At a glance

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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

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Death and rebirth » Realtors and buyers alike try their best to give the haunts new life. For Drussel, that includes honesty.

"We don’t go out of our way to cover up anything about the house," he said. "The neighbors know what happened there. It’s going to come out at some time."

But Drussel doesn’t advertise the crime on the flier, either. The strategy is to sell the home on its strengths first, then disclose the home’s past after the prospective buyer feels an emotional attachment to the house and is more serious about buying it.

Drussel compares the process to setting up a friend on a date: Rather than dumping all of the date’s baggage on the friend beforehand, let the friend get to know the date first, without bias. Then when the baggage comes up, if the friend likes the date, it’s easier to accept.

The baggage was pretty grim for Mortenson’s home: Utah County prosecutors claim two people killed the retired BYU professor the night of Nov. 16, 2009, so they could steal his guns. Mortensen, who had been tied up, was found bent over the bathtub of his Payson home with his throat slit.

"We cleared that whole place out," Drussel said.

Besides removing all the furniture, real estate agents put in new carpets, touched up the paint and other parts of the home to make it feel new — to give it another chance.

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When the California couple moved in, they completely gutted and changed every room. They put in a fireplace, tore down the early 1970s magenta wallpaper, tiled the floors, knocked out walls. They even replaced the plumbing and wiring and landscaped the yard. The couple attest that the front door and a kitchen light are the only parts of the house that are original.

But then there was the matter of the bathroom.

"[My husband] said this is the one room in the house that’s pretty decent and doesn’t need to be torn out. I’m sorry, it’s got to go, give me the sledgehammer and I did it," the wife said. "It has a claw-foot bathtub, no shower, we even knocked out some of the walls to make it bigger."

And the work has paid off. "It has changed the energy," the wife said, sitting in a kitchen that feels as warm and bright as it looks. "We don’t think about [the murder]."

Like Mortensen’s home, many find a new life. Someone moved into Uta von Schwedler’s house south of the University of Utah after investigators suspect the professor’s ex-husband drowned her in the bathtub. In fact, von Schwedler’s, Powell’s, Halliday’s and MacNeill’s homes are not for sale, according to Zillow.

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Healing advice » Some owners choose to demolish a stigmatized house rather than remodel, thinking it will do more good. But they are wrong — the land holds the memories, too, Bell said. The Heavens Gate Mansion was not only destroyed — every blade of grass was torn up. It was as though the California property had never been developed. And yet people still look at the new house that stands there now as though it were the mansion where 39 cult followers committed mass suicide in 1997, Bell said.

A remodel — or a totally new house — does not hide the story from potential buyers, either. Drussel advises sellers to disclose the stigma and to form a game plan with the real estate agent on when to tell the potential buyers. Like with Mortensen’s home, Realtors also advise touching up the home to make it feel comfortable — and not look exactly as it did at the time of death.

Buyers can do homework to learn about the property, too, said Walter Molony, a National Association of Realtors spokesman. "There is so much information available online," he said. And when the stars align and someone does move in, it not only heals the house, it can heal the neighborhood, too.

"That’s a real opportunity in a neighborhood to kind of be heroic," said Bill Freeze, president of Utah County Association of Realtors. "You take something that’s been very negative, and obviously neighbors around you feel bad about it, and make it a fresh start for everyone — not only for you, but for your neighbors."

When the California couple moved into Mortensen’s home, they could tell the tragedy had shaken the area. A neighbor had put up surveillance cameras.

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