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Home sellers are able to remain mum about violent crimes committed there

Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
3071 Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill on Thursday, July 24, 2014.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
 

Soon after Laura Smiley submitted an offer to buy her Squirrel Hill home, she began hearing about the grisly events that unfolded inside.

The stories included the words “strangled,” “stabbed” and “bathtub,” said Smiley, 49, the executive director of a theater company.

They didn't paint a pretty picture.

Only after Smiley moved into the three-story brick home on Beechwood Boulevard did she learn that Jeffrey Farkas, 26, a Children's Hospital intern, was beaten, strangled and stabbed during a robbery in the house in December 1989. A roommate found his body in the bathtub.

“When I bought the house, I didn't know about the murder,” she said. “I would have thought twice (about buying), but I already put an offer in.”

Although some states require sellers to disclose violent crimes that occurred in a property within a specific time period — generally, the previous two or three years — Pennsylvania has no such statute.

Last week, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that sellers of properties where horrific events occurred are not obligated to tell prospective buyers.

“I think that's wrong,” Smiley said. “Some people would be really upset by this.”

The court's decision stemmed from a Delaware County case filed by a woman who claimed fraud because the sellers of a $610,000 house did not tell her it was the site of a murder-suicide 14 months earlier.

Janet S. Milliken said she became aware of the house's gruesome history three weeks after moving in and would not have bought it had she known that Konstantinos Koumboulis fatally shot his wife, Georgia, and himself in February 2006.

The justices said such “psychological stigmas” do not constitute a “material defect” of the property like a cracked foundation or a leaking roof.

“Regardless of the potential impact a psychological stigma may have on the value of property, we are not ready to accept that such constitutes a material defect,” Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote. “The varieties of traumatizing events that could occur on a property are endless.”

The decision validates what the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors has said since 1996, when a law took effect requiring sellers to disclose physical defects of a property, said Hank Lerner, director of law and policy for the Cumberland County group. Lerner said the court's ruling “makes it perfectly clear” that a stigma is not a physical defect.

Although not required to do so, the association tells its agents to discuss pros and cons of disclosing a stigma associated with a house, and advises that Realtors let seller decide, Lerner said.

It's unclear whether a stigma lowers a house's value. That's a “subjective issue,” Lerner said.

A buyer seeking a home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, for example, might not want to live in a house where someone was murdered or that's located too close to a cemetery, he said.

“Everybody's got their own triggers. As an agent, you have to figure out what those are and work around them.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927.

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