Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected].
Question from Alice in MD: Hello Brian, I don’t want to disclose exactly where I live but it is among a row of Victorian houses. I’ve seen a few gruesome crimes in my time. Just six months ago, I saw a shooting in front of a grocery store. The man’s head was grazed by the bullet, but he wasn’t seriously injured. A couple of years ago, there was a shooting on my block where a car was shot up and crashed into a tree. There were three people inside, but no one has hit by any bullets. One did go to the hospital with injuries from the car crash. None of this even made the evening news. Both shootings happened near the house that I owned before the one I now live in.
That brings me to my point that people can be sold houses that were crime scenes that they might never know about. I’m one of those people. I just moved into this row house three months ago. Yesterday, a neighbor told me that my home was a murder scene several months ago. The neighbor said it happened right at the front door. As his story goes, the previous owner opened the door to a knock and got blasted away. The killer or killers have not been caught. The neighbor doesn’t think the previous owner even knew who shot him.
I don’t want you to think this is a gangland where I live. It’s definitely a middle-class neighborhood. I never would have thought that I bought a murder house. Now I’m fearful that the killers that weren’t caught might come back for some reason that I don’t know about. Do I have any rights or recourse since I never knew this was a murder house?
Answer: Hello Alice. The security of a neighborhood is a crucial factor for many people when deciding where to live. In my opinion it isn’t right, but a couple of legal websites say that under Maryland law neither a real estate agent nor a seller is required to disclose to a prospective buyer or tenant that a homicide, suicide, natural death, or felony occurred on the property. In fact, both real estate agents and sellers are immune from civil or criminal liability for any failure to disclose such events to a prospective purchaser or tenant. That makes it pretty clear to me that you don’t have any recourse that a murder happened at your front door.
Sorry Alice, but I don’t think I have any encouraging words for your situation. The laws vary from state to state. Neighborhood crime is a very big deal to many homebuyers. For other potential homebuyers, you might want to ask about your state laws regarding the disclosure of major crimes in a home for sale.
What I can offer readers are some tips for checking neighborhood crime statistics on your own. Peculiarly in many states, sellers are only required to disclose a death in the home if they are asked. So, directly ask the seller or have your agent ask the seller. The key point is that you must ask. It has to do with “material facts.” Material facts are anything that is a potential defect to a property, like mold, a leaky roof, or a broken furnace.
In many states, a death in the house is not considered a material fact. You also need to know how to ask in different states. For instance, in Delaware the question must be in written form. In Maine and North Dakota, these facts can only be disclosed by the agent if the seller gives permission (try asking the agent if they have permission). In many states, agents are not required to disclose anything but can’t obscure the truth if asked. On the other hand, in California, any death on a property (peaceful or otherwise) needs to be disclosed if it occurred within the last three years. So, you can see how important it is to know the laws in your state.
But murders and shootings aren’t the only crimes that buyers want to know about. One of the best ways to get a feel for crime in the neighborhood is to brazenly talk to neighbors. The neighbors have the best insight into what goes on. Both reported crimes and unreported crimes. By knocking on their doors, you’ll also get a feel for the kind of neighbors that you might soon have. If you’re not comfortable knocking on doors, at least visit the neighborhood at different times of the day (both daylight and nighttime) and weekdays as well as weekends.
There are also websites that keep track of crime based on zip codes and neighborhoods (CrimeReports, NeighborhoodScout, and SpotCrime as examples). These and other similar sites break down the type of crimes committed, such as violent crime, property crime, or organized crime, and the dates they occurred. You might also want to visit the National Sex Offender Public Website to determine if any sex offenders live close to your future home.
Alice, I wish I had a better answer for you. Researching before you buy is the best answer. That goes for school districts and fire stations as well. There are reasons home insurance companies want to know the distance from the home to the nearest fire station and fire hydrant. You want to make sure you’re making the best decision possible. Ensuring neighborhood safety is an important part of the process.
Readers, I’m sure I left out something important. Please add your comments.
Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].