Tips on Selling, Buying -- or Avoiding -- 'Haunted' Houses

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By Geoff Williams

Louisa Eyler didn't buy a haunted house, as far as she knows, but her new home does have a creepy past, and some friends and family members have already declared their intentions to stay as far away from it as possible. Her 12-year-old son, R.J., has asked for a thermal imaging reader to use on their first night in the Harrisburg, Pa., home, which could be in a matter of weeks. But Eyler isn't spooked. When she saw the house -– 8,000 square feet and with multiple bedrooms and baths and a courtyard and pond -– she thought to herself, "This is my forever home. This is my final resting place."

Those probably aren't the words most of us would have chosen, especially given her house's history. It wasn't just a home but a place of business, built in 1900 by a funeral director and embalmer. "Thousands of dead bodies have passed through my home," says Eyler, a 38-year-old entrepreneur who specializes in product distribution.

But she isn't concerned. As she sees it, this was a setting where loved ones came to see their deceased family before they went on to hopefully a better place. In that light, when you picture people sharing stories of their dearly departed relatives and acquaintances, the house doesn't have such a morbid history. Still, some of Eyler's friends have made it clear they have no desire to visit.

That may be their problem, but it can be a homebuyer's or seller's problem when their house is perceived to be haunted or steeped in spookiness. Even in the 21st century, some people get jittery by the idea of purchasing a home with a dark past, Eyler included. She says that she wanted an old house, but adds, "I didn't want to move into a house with a spooky history. You watch 'American Horror Story' on TV, and those ghost shows. You don't want a house that has bad karma." So if you're going to buy or sell a house with a questionable history, here are some helpful tips.

The law. As you might expect, whether a seller must disclose a house's dark history depends on the state. For instance, in California, if a death occurred in a house more than three years ago, a seller doesn't need to say a word unless the buyer asks. In Massachusetts, sellers don't have to disclose a death, but they, too, have to reveal the house's sordid past if they're asked about it. So if you're wondering about your house's past, ask your real estate agent or the seller: Is the house haunted?
You may get a strange look. But you'll probably also get the truth.

Research the home yourself. Bruce Ailion, an Atlanta real estate agent, suggests that concerned buyers or sellers run a search for their home on the Internet. If you're really curious whether a death occurred in your home, he suggests going to DiedInHouse.com (but get out your credit card because a single search costs $11.99). Rob Condrey, a South Carolina software project manager and property owner started the site; he came up with the idea after one of his tenants claimed the rental property was haunted.

Of course, you can always research the home you're interested in, for free, at the library or search through property records with your local government.

Hire a medium to cleanse your house of spirits. Yes, there are such services, at websites like HouseHealing.com, that purport to cleanse your home of ghosts or other specters that go bump in the night. (For homes that are 2,000 square feet and under, expect to pay at least $200; for larger homes, add $100 per additional 1,000 square foot.)

You could also attempt a DIY cleansing. But according to Terri Jay, a medium as well as a pet psychic and life coach in Reno, Nev., that involves lighting a saucepan of alcohol on fire and walking throughout the house, "circling each room until it feels clear." So it might be best to leave it to the professionals, and if you sense that the ghost you're sharing your home with is friendly enough, you may want to leave well enough alone because from what she suggests, you aren't in any danger.

"I am often called upon to clear houses that the owners feel are haunted," she says, adding that if a home is giving you the willies, what you are likely feeling is negative energy. She says most people don't realize they are "a 99 percent spiritual being in a 1 percent physical body or 'meat suit.' When we leave our meat suits behind, we return to being pure, positive energy."

If you believe the house is haunted, don't panic. Well, if you think you're in mortal danger, panic, by all means. But if you're panicked because you think your haunted house isn't going to sell, you may not do so badly after all. Despite reports that a seemingly haunted house will cause it to lose its value, more than half of homebuyers are open to the idea of buying a haunted house, according to Realtor.com's 2013 Haunted Housing Report. You may sell it just fine.

Still, it probably depends on the house's history: How far back in time did the incident happen, and what happened? Are we talking a house that's haunted by a lonely farm girl from 1818 who surely means no harm? A buyer may eat that story up. Or was your home the site of a grisly triple homicide in 2008? That might be a harder leap for a buyer.

For instance, Eyler grew up in a house that had a far spookier past than her new home, which is why she probably sees living in an old funeral home as rather charming. In 1958, her parents bought a house in Pennsylvania that had been built in the mid-1700s, but unfortunately for the sellers, its dark, tormented episode occurred in the relatively recent past in 1942. In fact, the house didn't sell for 16 years until Eyler's parents bought it.

The Gettysburg Times reported that a 17-year-old stabbed his mother in the backyard when she was hulling walnuts because he resented her for nagging him to help around the house. Then he poured gasoline over his mother's body and set it on fire, trying to cremate her. When that didn't work, he dismembered her.

Eyler admits that while growing up there, she felt creeped out by the story, and friends would warn her not to sit under the walnut tree. Which is probably why Eyler's parents were able to buy the house for a relative steal -- only $7,000. According to TheCostofLiving.com, the average house in 1958 cost $20,000.

But people who are squeamish about buying a house in which a resident came to a grisly end might want to consider buying the home anyway, especially if it's selling at a dirt-cheap price. Eyler's mother, she says, still lives in that house purchased for seven grand, and today it's worth $2 million.

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Tips on Selling, Buying -- or Avoiding -- 'Haunted' Houses

Location: San Jose, Calif.

It’s as if original owner Sarah Winchester wanted her home to be haunted. The eccentric widow of William Winchester, founder of Winchester rifles, held nightly seances to gain guidance from spirits and her dead husband for the home’s design. The end result?  A maze-like structure that took 38 years to build and includes twisting and turning hallways, dead ends, secret panels, a window built into a floor, staircases leading to nowhere, doors that open to walls, upside-down columns and rooms built, then intentionally closed off -- all to ward off and confuse evil spirits.

Photo: Flickr/HarshLight

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the location of the Winchester Mystery House. It is in San Jose, Calif.

One of the unfinished rooms in the home is said to be particularly active with hauntings. Sarah Winchester had construction on the home going around the clock from 1884 until 1922, when she died. Perhaps her spirit is always distressed by the parts of the project that were never completed.

Photo: Flickr/plong

A set of stairs to nowhere in the house is one of the creepiest features. It might be meant to confuse evil spirits, but it's definitely confusing us, too!

Photo: Flickr/plong

A window in the floor of the home is a reflection of the tormented mind of Sarah Winchester.

Photo: Photobucket

Location: Cleveland

Franklin Castle has both a creepy history as well as a creepy exterior. Home to Hannes Tiedemann, the house was reportedly the site of many vicious murders. Built in 1864, the home has all the makings of a haunted mansion: stone tower and turrets, gargoyles and wrought-iron fencing, not to mention sounds of babies crying, doors slamming and footsteps.

According to the property history, the home was last sold for $260,000 in August 2011. No word yet if the homeowners are having any eerie experiences.

Photo: Flickr/Pythaglio

At one time, the home had fallen into extreme disrepair, adding to its sinister vibe. Some people reported strange happenings when they were inside, such as eerie orbs of light showing up in photos like this one from 2005.

Photo: Flickr/hearsegirl

One family moved into the home in 1968 after it had been abandoned for years, but they left after reporting several encounters with ghosts. The property changed hands a few times afterward, but nobody stayed long enough to make repairs to the home.

Photo: Flickr/hearsegirl

A fire reportedly set by a vagrant dealt serious damage to the home in 2011. Today, there is talk that the recent buyer who snapped up the home wants to turn it into a three-family dwelling.

Photo: Flickr/That Nikon Girl

Location: Alton, Ill.

Haunted houses? How about a whole haunted city? Alton claims to be one of the most haunted areas in America and is home to McPike Mansion, which is host to a number of active ghosts.

There’s no specific backstory to the ghostly going-ons, but visitors and residents of the brick manse have claimed to be hugged by an unseen woman, hear the laughter of children and see mysterious mists and orbs of light. As far as hauntings go, not too sinister.

Photo: Flickr/Black.Doll

The vaulted wine cellar in the basement of the home is a focal point of paranormal activity. Many unexplainable events have been reported there. According to one account, a group of paranormal investigators were huddled in the cellar when two of them left but said they would return. A few minutes later, the people who stayed behind heard footsteps come down the stairs, cross the basement floor and stop in front of the cellar door. The heavy metal door opened -- but no one was standing there.

Photo: Flickr/Phantasmagoria Photography

People have claimed that things have popped up in photos of the house that weren't seen with the naked eye. In this photo, the photographer claims to see a face in the window of the home, along with a white mist and an eerie orb.

Photo: Flickr/melhudspeth1

Location: Fall River, Mass.

This home was the site of one of the most infamous crimes of all time: the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, allegedly at the hands of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie. As the nursery rhyme goes, Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave both her father and stepmother whacks. However, Lizzie was acquitted and moved out of the home.

The home of the murder still stands in Fall River and operates as a bed-and-breakfast, where guests report seeing Andrew and Abby wandering about.

Photo: Flickr/dbking

Many guests have reported seeing the ghost of a woman in Victorian-era clothing dusting furniture and straightening bedsheets. Others have reported seeing doors open and close on their own and footsteps crossing upstairs floors -- even when no one else is in the house.

Photo: Flickr/jimcintosh

In one instance, a guest at the inn reported that when he and his wife went to their room, he noticed a nicely made bed as he unpacked their things. When he looked again a few minutes later, the bed had the indentation of a body, and the pillow had the indentation of a head. He ran out of the room to get his wife, but when they returned, the bed was back to its clean and untouched state.

Photo: Flickr/dbking

Location: San Diego

In 1857, entrepreneur Thomas Whaley took advantage of a deeply discounted property in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood that once held the area’s hangings. He tore down the gallows and proceeded to build his Greek Revival brick home. However, soon after Whaley and his family moved in, they reported hearing heavy footsteps moving about the house. Even after the Whaleys moved out, various tenants reported seeing ghosts and hearing the footsteps.

Today the historic home is a museum and is open daily for tourists to see if they, too, hear and see the ghostly apparitions.

Photo: Flickr/snabby

The first reported paranormal encounter at the Whaley House was with the ghost of James "Yankee Jim" Robinson, who was hanged at the site before the home was built in 1852. Whaley concluded that the footsteps he heard were those of Robinson.

Photo: Flickr/snabby

A former housekeeper at the Whaley House said that a little girl who was visiting waved to a man in the parlor, but no one else around saw the man.

Photo: Flickr/snabby

Location: Savannah, Ga.

This historic home was moved to its current location in Savannah by a local restoration expert. As work began on the house, workers reported odd noises and a male presence. Early on, they discovered a crypt on the building site that was  half-filled with water and covered it.

Despite the rumors of hauntings, the home was finished and was last on the market for $2.2 million in 2011. Although it’s off the market now, there’s no word of a buyer.

Photo: Flickr/bbcamericangirl

A construction worker who went to the upper level of the house didn't return. When his colleagues searched for him, they found him lying on the floor, shaking with fear. The worker said that as soon as he entered the room, he felt like he plunged into ice-cold water and lost control of his body, according to TruTV. A force, he said, was pulling him toward the chimney shaft -- where there was a 30-foot-drop.

Photo: Flickr/Carole.Athens

Location: New Orleans

This Greek Revival home was the site of one of the grisliest murders in New Orleans history. A Turkish merchant renting the home was buried alive in the backyard, and his harem entourage was murdered. Years later, the French Quarter home is still said to be the site of the merchant’s wanderings, and that on certain nights, exotic music and incense from long-ago parties waft from the home.

Photo: Flickr/tessconrad

Location: New Orleans

The LaLaurie House, like many haunted homes, has a pretty horrific backstory. Owned by socialite Madame Delphine LaLaurie and her husband, Dr. Louis LaLaurie, the house was the reported setting for vicious cruelty against the couple’s slaves. Reportedly, the slaves were subjected to torturous medical experiments that went on unbeknownst to the New Orleans community until a fire broke out and  neighbors rushing to rescue discovered the gruesome scenes. The LaLauries fled the country due to the backlash, and the home passed through several owners, each of whom claimed to hear mysterious screams and see apparitions of the tortured slaves.

At one point actor Nicolas Cage owned the home, and while he said that he never saw any ghosts, he wasn’t immune to the home’s sinister vibes; he lost the property to foreclosure in 2009.

Photo: Flickr/Reading Tom

Location: St. Francisville, La.

An antebellum home in a voodoo-rich area of Louisiana is the likely place for a haunted home. Built in 1796, the Myrtles Plantation was taken over in 1808 by Clark Woodruff, his wife, Sara, and their three children. According to legend, Woodruff had a relationship with one of his slaves, Chloe, who was jealous of Woodruff’s wife. The story goes that Chloe baked a birthday cake for Sara and the kids, including poisonous oleander leaves in the treat. Sara and two of their children died. Chloe confessed, but fellow slaves retaliated, hanging Chloe and dumping her body in the Mississippi.

Chloe isn’t the only ghost said to haunt the Myrtles Plantation. A Civil War soldier was murdered on the steps of the home, and an ancient Native American burial ground is said to be beneath the house. All this adds up to a home rich in creepy incidents.

Photo: Flickr/ShanLane

Location: San Francisco

Like most haunted homes, there’s a bit of confusion surrounding the true story of the Chambers Mansion. Built in 1887, the home was named after its first owner, silver tycoon Richard Chambers, who lived in the home with two nieces who reportedly hated each other.

When Chambers died in 1901, the nieces inherited the mansion. One reportedly bought the house next door and moved in while the other sister, Claudia, stayed. Claudia was discovered cut in half at the mansion one day, due to a “farm implement” accident. However, a ghost expert has claimed that Claudia was in fact murdered, and still haunts the Pacific Heights home today.

Photo: Flickr/CinnamonChickInSF

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