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Stories in the Walls

Stigmatized property disclosures and what realtors aren’t telling you.

This past winter, a nearly skeletonized corpse of a man was found, gun still in hand, in a Milwaukee home. The home had recently been foreclosed on, and an unassuming realtor had the horrifying job of finding him during the initial inspection of the new listing. The man had been dead, and unmissed, for 4 years.

This really happened. And while such horrors may be hard to wrap one’s head around in the normal course of a normal day; suicide, and other terrible tragedies, are unfortunately much more common right here in our little state than most people realize. Realtors, in their capacity as counsel to clients thru life’s transitional phases, are sadly privy to more catastrophes than they would be in less intimate professions.

This week brought with it a shocking new record for me. We are barely seven months into the year, and I have already had three transactions impacted by unanticipated suicides. The worst kind of record. Given my former life as a criminal attorney who dealt with death row clientele, the amount of tragedy I see in what would be considered by most to be less a intensive profession constantly surprises me.

I am by no means alone. Every realtor, if you ask, will tell you their own tales of horrors that have occurred in and around their listings. Children drowning, multiple murders, high school suicides, haunted houses … the list goes on and on.

The purpose of this article is not to depress you. My purpose is to address a highly controversial aspect of the profession: stigmatized property disclosure. While about 10 states require realtor disclosure of stigmatisms, Rhode Island currently does not.

On our state’s required sellers disclosures, sellers are required to put down all known material facts about their house – structural, mechanical, etc. In Rhode Island, the acts of persons living in the house are not considered to be “material.” This makes sense from a practical perspective, as any acts of an owner not affecting the structural/physical aspects of the home really have nothing to do with a property’s soundness. But practicality is not always the appropriate prioritization. And because of this, realtors and sellers are often faced with the “to disclosure or not to disclose,” conundrum when dealing with in-home deaths.

My advice to buyers and buyers agents is this: Never forget the classic “buyer beware,” methodology. If the unknown history of the inhabitants of your could-be new residence is something that you think will affect you, take the extra steps to research the home you are interested in. A simple google search will reveal more than you may think.

But keep this advice in mind as well: every home, every plot of land, every piece of furniture, every door knob, every floorboard and every tree in the yard has a story that it can’t tell you. And if you consume yourself with the unknowns of the past, you will lose sight of the present and your position to add happiness and growth to the history of a place.

We all know that the past cannot be changed. And while the uncertainties of the unknown may initially intimidate, a proactive and positive attitude will always benefit any buyer.

If you are curious about the state law, its citation is R.I. Gen. Laws § 5-20.8-6.


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