Buyers Beware: Was That House a Crime Scene?

People are attracted to homes with history, but some houses come with back stories that may be too gruesome for most buyers. Just this year, for example, the Long Island, N.Y., home of serial killer Joel Rifkin and the Amityville Horror house, also on Long Island, went on the market. Both are the scenes of horrific crimes.

And in August 2010, Anthony and Rita Bucklew discovered that they had signed a contract to buy the Colorado home (pictured at left) where a convicted serial killer is believed to have murdered his young female victims.

"My wife and I want out of this house," says Bucklew, who moved in before learning about the home's history. He also wants to strengthen Colorado's disclosure laws, which like those of many states don't require sellers to tell prospective buyers if there has been a death on the property.

Murder aside, quite a few buyers would also opt out of a home where someone died from disease, natural causes, or suicide. If the idea of living in such a home makes you queasy, how can you be certain that no one has died on the premises? There are steps that buyers can take to do their own due diligence before signing a purchase agreement. Here are a few suggestions.

1. Ask the question directly. In most states that have formal seller-disclosure laws, sellers and their agents do not have to reveal ifa death occurredin the home if you don't ask. And in some states, they do not have to reveal it if it occurred more than a year or so ago, or if the death was due to AIDS-related complications.

If the agent won't say -- or doesn't know -- your best bet is to ask the neighbors. Neighbors generally know if a home has been the scene of a grisly murder. They might also know if grandpa passed away peacefully in the place and his heirs put the house on the market.

2. Request police records. Police precincts serving that neighborhood generally would charge you a nominal fee to give you a printout of any police calls made to a given address going back a few years. Discover whether the home was a meth lab, a site of frequent domestic disputes, was burglarized or had body parts stuffed under floorboards.

3. Research the address. Sometimes you'll discover newspaper articles written about the home or incidents that occurred there. In addition to the exact address, also try searching the street and city name with the words "in the block of."

4. Check city records. Just as you might want to know if the cross street is going to be turned into a major highway, you can find out a lot from city records, such as if the plot next door used to be a cemetery, or if the former house on the site was torn down and rebuilt. If it was, you should ask why. For instance, serial killer John Wayne Gacy buried 29 of his victims in the walls and crawl spaces of his house in suburban Chicago. The place was later demolished, and the lot sat empty for about a decade until a new home was finally built there.

The Bucklews discovered the tragic past of their property less than a month after they moved in. "My wife cried for two days after finding out," says Anthony Bucklew. Now the family of seven is hoping the seller will let them out of their lease-to-own deal.

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