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House For Sale: The Case Of A Murder-Suicide

Updated on August 12, 2014

by Rachael O'Halloran

Published July 29, 2014

Guess what I heard ...

made with Pizap photo editing program
made with Pizap photo editing program | Source

Seller Disclosure

Generally, in most states in the United States, home sellers must disclose any material or structural defect (that they are aware of) in the home and list it on a "Seller's Disclosure Form," which is then placed in a packet with their realtor.

Potential buyers (and their realtors) have access to this form so they know how old the roof is, the age of the kitchen, baths and any additions, and if there has been any flood or termite damage, etc. Usually the supplied information is purely material, not anecdotal or "psychological."

Example: If your husband died in your house due to committing suicide, it might be a point of interest to some buyers, especially to those who rather not live in a house where someone died in it, but it really doesn't have anything to do with how sound the house is structurally.

At an open house, it is not too likely that potential buyers will think to ask: "Has anyone ever died in this house?"

Likewise, a seller does not have to disclose that a crime had occurred in the home - either during the time they owned it or before - be it a home break in, or a murder.

But what happens when the neighbors tell the new homeowner all about it?

That's exactly what happened in this case.

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Source

Background

On February 11, 2006, Konstantinos Koumboulis, age 50, shot himself and his 34 year old wife Georgia, in a murder-suicide inside their home in a suburb of West Chester, outside of Philadelphia. The crime was witnessed by the oldest of the couple's children who called 911. Their three children ranged in age from 7 to 13.

For about 24 hours, the story was a big topic of conversation on the internet, and it made front page news in local newspapers as well as a mention on nightly news broadcasts all over the United States. By February 12, 2006, it was old news for the media, but it would become the topic of neighborhood lore for years to come.

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The home was put up for sale in March 2006 by the Koumboulis Estate.

With no buyer prospects after six months, the home was put up for auction and sold for $450,000 to Kathleen and Joseph Jacono on September 23, 2006.

The Jaconos learned about the murder-suicide while at the auction, but it didn't matter to them. They had no intention of living in the home. They were going to invest some money to rehab it, then flip the home for a profit.

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Would you buy?

Would you buy a house where a gruesome murder or murder-suicide had occurred in the very recent past?

See results

The New Buyer

After investing thousands of dollars in rehabbing, the Jaconos listed the house for sale on June 4, 2007 at $610,000. The Jaconos told their realtor that they didn't want the murder-suicide mentioned to potential buyers or stated anywhere in the seller's disclosure documents, saying it would hurt their chances to sell the house at a good price.

The realtor was concerned about ethics and decided to seek advice from the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission and the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, and was told that although it would be a common courtesy to do so, the sellers were not required to disclose the murder-suicide to any potential buyers.

The realtor relayed the advice to the sellers, who reminded the realtor that the seller disclosure documents clearly stated that only "known material defects" must be disclosed and that murder-suicide was not a material defect. They felt sharing such knowledge would degrade the value of the property.

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Gossip

Heard Through The Grapevine

On June 17, 2007, Janet Milliken, then residing in California, signed an agreement of sale for the purchase price of $610,000. She decided to move back to Pennsylvania with her two children, while still in mourning for the recent death of her husband, which happened in their home in California.

When Janet Milliken entered into the sale agreement, the Seller Property Disclosure Statement she received only said that the property was last occupied about March 2006, that the Jaconos had owned it for 7 months and that there were no material defects.

After settlement, Janet Milliken moved her family into the house in September 2007 and within three weeks, she learned about the murder-suicide from the neighbors. She decided not to tell her children, but they learned about it anyway while trick or treating on Halloween.

She considered her options and in November 2008, Janet Milliken filed a lawsuit in a Pennsylvania court against the realtors for both parties, and against the sellers Kathleen and Joseph Jacono alleging fraud, negligent misrepresentation and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Laws.

In her lawsuit documents, she stated that she would never have gone through with buying the house if she had known about the "psychological damage."

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The wheels of justice turn slowly, so that nearly two years later, in 2010, a Superior Court judge in Pennsylvania issued the ruling that material defects are the only issues that the real estate law says a seller must disclose to a buyer.

  • "We find that psychological damage to a property cannot be considered a material defect in the property which must be revealed by the seller to the buyer."

The case was dismissed and Plaintiff Milliken appealed to a higher Pennsylvania Superior Court.

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Murder

If a murder happened long ago in a home you were going to buy, would you still want to know about it?

See results
Thinking
Thinking

The Question In Question

All sellers are obligated to answer: "Are you aware of any material defects to the property, to the dwelling or to the fixtures which are not disclosed elsewhere on this form?"

Pennsylvania Law defines "Material defect" as: A problem with a residential property or any portion of it that would have a significant adverse impact on the value of the property or that involves an unreasonable risk to people on the property. The fact that a structural element, system or subsystem is near, at or beyond the end of the normal useful life of such a structural element, system or subsystem is not by itself a material defect."

Even though there is no law which said a seller had a duty to do so, the buyer was asking the Supreme Court if they would rule that a seller was required to disclose a past murder-suicide on or in the property on the Seller Disclosure Statement.

Settled

Rulings

Plaintiff Milliken appealed to the highest Superior Court in Pennsylvania, asking for a jury trial to not only determine if non-disclosure was fraud, but to also award monetary damages in her favor. The only thing she did differently in this appeal was she introduced two real estate appraisals to show that the crimes had diminished the value of the property by 10 to 15 percent.

She didn't get the jury trial she wanted, but she did get a surprise.

In 2011 a three judge panel surprisingly reversed the decision of the lower court in favor of Milliken, the buyer.

The Superior Court ruled that the seller's failure to disclose the murder-suicide amounted to common law fraud because of the misrepresentation in the documents that there were no other "problems" with the property. The Court felt that the sellers should have included notice of the murder-suicide in the summary part of the disclosure form that asks sellers to disclose any material defects “not disclosed elsewhere on this form.”

The three judge panel went on to admonish the sellers and the realtors for making inquiries to the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission and the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors stating that if the question of disclosure was important enough to seek advice, then clearly the disclosure should have been made.

The court said that instead of putting forth all the investigative effort, they would have been better off simply acting in good faith to just disclose the grizzly fact up front.

Plaintiff Milliken had a very short-lived victory because after receiving many friend of the court letters, the same Court decided to reconsider their position in December 2012.

The new ruling stated that "psychological damage" cannot be considered a material defect and that a seller does not have to report it to a buyer.

Superior Court Judge Emeritus Kate Ford Elliot wrote for the presiding judges: “Today, we find that psychological damage to a property cannot be considered a material defect in the property which must be revealed by the seller to the buyer.”

"The sellers did not engage in any deceptive conduct. The sellers merely declined to inform Buyer about a factor of which they were under no obligation to disclose," Elliott wrote. This reversed their 2011 ruling and the judgment was made for the sellers.

The sellers, the realtors and the pundits who followed this case all felt this ruling settled the issue once and for all. Plaintiff Milliken did not.

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In January 2013, Plaintiff Milliken appealed all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the only court in the state which could reverse the Superior Court's decision regarding disclosing information about "stigmatized properties."

A state Supreme Court is the last pit stop either party can go to seek a favorable ruling. The only place after this is the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC who can reverse any ruling of any court in the country.

In July 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court began their year-long consideration of the appeal and they rendered their ruling last week, on July 21, 2014.

The parties learned the ruling was essentially the same as the lower court:

"Psychological damage" to a property is not a material defect and does not have to be disclosed in the Seller Disclosure Statement. The judgment was again for the sellers.

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Questions To Ponder

How recent must the murder be to warrant a disclosure to a buyer?

Would 25, 50, or 100 year old crimes have to be revealed?

Should disclosure just pertain to murder, or should other crimes be revealed too?

If heinous crimes were to be revealed and assuming sellers could sell their property, can they really expect to make a decent profit?

As a buyer, would I want to know about the crimes beforehand?

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Disclosure

Should seller disclosure be limited to gruesome murders, or must other gruesome crimes be revealed also?

See results

Epilogue

After the Supreme Court's decision, buyers shouldn't assume that sellers have any duty to disclose past gruesome or traumatizing events occurring on the property.

In the age of the internet, buyers have many tools at their disposal in order to be able to uncover the history of not only their house, but of the neighborhood, and the city and state.

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FOR READING
FOR READING

Thank you for not copying my article

DO NOT COPY
DO NOT COPY

© Rachael O'Halloran, July 29, 2014

© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran

Comments

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  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

    A very interesting case Rachael. I think a murder or other serious crime havng occurred in a house should have to be disclosed before sale. If it happened long enough ago it wouldn't bother me. In fact it would be a great talking point and conversation starter. I think there sould be compensation paid for not revealing a fact the sellers and agent were aware of. Voted up.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #Jodah,

    I agree. If the agent was concerned enough to investigate, then it was an issue to be considered. This should have been a case of "go with your gut." If it bothers you, chances are it will bother a potential buyer. Considerable time was expended in trying to decide if it was important enough to tell. If they spent that much time checking, then it should have been shared.

    I think I would want to know no matter if any crime happened 5 years before or 100 years before. The history of a house should be a checklist item. In 5 states out of 52, it is. It's the other 47 we gotta work on. :)

    Selling that house is going to be either a snap or a siege, due to all the publicity it got for this lawsuit. Sad to say though, it will probably be demolished in years to come just like many homes before it where something bad happened and the resale value dropped so much, it was cheaper to demolish, than to pay the taxes and fees to leave it standing.

    Thanks for reading and voting. :)

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

    I also agree with full disclosure. Although someone buying the house might not care, it could affect the value down the road, as the property is not as marketable. What a tragic story.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #ologsinquito

    I agree. Full disclosure is only common sense. If the seller or realtor doesn't tell the new owners, there will always be a neighbor who will tell. I'd rather know up front, but that's just me.

    But really, unless it was Jeffrey Dahlmer's house where there might still be outraged people who would want to set fire to the house, a crime in the home's history wouldn't bother me too much.

    The resale value is where it is at for me - if the crime was going to devalue the home. It is true that in 100 years the crime could be forgotten, but by then there are sure to be supernatural, paranormal and ghost stories being bandied about so that the resale value will be forever affected.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    R

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

    Rachael, I'd certainly want to know for the simple fact that I don't want to deal with unhappy ghosts. And yes, I believe they can lurk for as long as they feel the need.

    When I was in my 20's I rented a small efficiency. One day I discovered a curious looking hole in the wall behind the headboard. When I asked my landlady about it, she said her husband had shot himself in that room. That really freaked me out. I found another place to rent shortly thereafter.

    I think buyers (and renters) have every right to know the FULL history of the dwelling before signing on the dotted line.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Fascinating! I'm not sure if I would want to know or not...I mean, why not, right? Unless you believe in homes being haunted....but then, I'm not other people, so what do I know? :)

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

    Very educational and logical presentation. This is good information to know. Thanks, Rachel.

  • Brie Hoffman profile image

    Brie Hoffman 2 years ago from Manhattan

    I used to be an agent and when I decided to purchase a home because I knew about this I went around (this was before the internet) to all the neighbors and asked them about the house I wanted to buy.

    I think the court ruling is wrong. Anything that would negatively affect the house should be disclosed and obviously a murder/suicide would negatively affect the house.

    If I were you, I would change the title though ..because someone might want to know this before purchasing a house and the title wouldn't lead them to your article..just a thought.

    Great article, voted up and shared.

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    A devastating story. I won't buy a home in such cases. Interesting of how summed this all up. Always a thought provoking hub from you.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

    This is a doozy of an issue, Rachel! On one hand, if it were me purchasing the house, I would surely want to know. However, the other side of me considers the estate -- the children in the case of the couple who committed murder-suicide. They have already suffered so much, and not being able to sell the house at a fair price because of their parents' tragedy (when there is truly nothing wrong with the house) only damages them more financially. It harms their futures, yet another strike against those orphans. People need to do their due diligence when making any large purchase and take personal responsibility for their research or lack thereof. There was nothing stopping the buyers from going to talk to potential neighbors to see whether it was a nice neighborhood or even searching the internet. Voted up and shared.

  • breakfastpop profile image

    breakfastpop 2 years ago

    The language suggests that a murder wouldn't need to be revealed, but I would want to know and I would never buy a house where something so gruesome happened. Having said that, there are plenty of people who wouldn't care at all, so I say reveal, disclose and tell the truth. Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

    This opens up a whole world of consideration, for example, should you be advised if someone died in a car crash in a vehicle you're about to purchase? Anytime you buy something used, it has been owned by other people and may carry the psychological stigma that surrounds the item. Like buying a used butcher knife...who knows about its previous uses?

  • lambservant profile image

    Lori Colbo 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

    Very interesting read Rachael.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #bravewarrior, I think I'd want to know too, especially if it was in the recent past - like 20 years. Ghosts hang around earth when they first die and I read somewhere it can be up to 20 or 25 years if it was a terrible crime.

    Unfortunately real estate laws in Pennsylvania say that only material and structural defects have to be disclosed. I wonder if a ghost suddenly "materialized" in front of many witnesses, would that meet the critera of "material" on the disclosure? Probably not. This story just proves that you have to do your homework on the internet, at the library and even going door to door in your prospective new neighborhood asking questions until you are satisfied with the answers. Thanks for reading and commenting :)

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #billybuc, I think sometimes homes are haunted. If there were mysterious goings on, I'd want to know about it. I don't think sellers and their realtors should decide whether it would be in my best interests to know something or now. I'm a big girl, I can decide for myself. lol Thanks for reading.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #MsDora, thanks for reading my article. It is food for thought, that's for sure.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #DDE, Thank you for your praise and for reading my hub. It is certainly something to think about. :)

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #Brie Hoffman

    Not everyone thinks to interview the neighbors before they decide to buy a house. I did, but then I'm not like other people. I wanted to know what kind of people lived in the neighborhood - if they were snooty or had an attitude against new people moving into the development, I wanted a heads up on that beforehand.

    I think this court ruling is wrong in ethical sense, but from the viewpoint of what the Sellers Disclosure Form is supposed to used for, there really is no place to enter it on the form unless one writes it in the section "Is there anything to add not covered under material or structure?" or words to that effect.

    It should have been entered there and let the buyer decide if it meant anything to her or not. For all the trouble they went to in order to decide if the buyer should be told, if it worried them so much, they should have erred on the side of caution and just told her. Like I said in another comment, some people don't care if there was a death in the house before they buy it. But then there are people who do care. Thank you for your advice about the title. I don't know what I'd change it to in order to bring it to the attention of others searching. This hub has been shared a lot since posting and has over 72 views today so far, so I'll wait and see. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #FlourishAnyway, I would want to know too. I thought about the kids too, but the Estate sold the house at auction, so the kids benefited from the $450,000 auction price, assuming there was no debt on the house. As much as bad news will devalue the house, neighbors talk and it is best to know these things before you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a house than after. 40 years ago I never would have thought to do any homework on a house I was considering buying. I would have taken the documents at face value and believed them. This story should make everyone think twice about that and do their homework, like you said. Thank you for reading and commenting

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #breakfastpop, I say reveal as well. Thank you for reading, voting and commenting.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #PegCole17

    I wondered if anyone would bring up used cars and such. lol

    In the case of the home, just how serious does a crime have to be in order to warrant being disclosed to buyers? A rash of burglaries? A murder? Crib death? A suicide? A family who beat their kids and got locked up for child abuse? How much is too much and to what degree of severity? This case is a "thinker" for sure. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #lambservant

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

    That's a good question, Rachael. I once bought a house to fix up for resale and it had a really negative feel in one particular room. I was almost certain that something awful had happened in there. Sure enough, I found out later that there had been a felony arrest of the previous tenant. It really gave me the creeps.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #PegCole17

    Thanks for following me :)

    We rented houses almost everywhere we moved because we moved a lot due to my husband's job. As a renter, you aren't entitled to the same knowledge or disclosures as you would if you were a buyer. So we didn't know that a house we rented in Michigan had once been owned by a mobster in the 1940s. He was known to "take care of business" in the cellar of the house then hose down the blood after each killing, leaving the cellar very damp. When he moved his business to California, he killed someone very influential, and was sentenced to Alcatraz in the late 1940s.

    We didn't hear the stories until we had been renting there for about a year because neighbors were protective of the neighborhood. They didn't want people moving out because of "stories" and past history. When they realized we were renters and not going to stay anyway, they felt better about telling us.

    All those stories you hear about people experiencing strange happenings? Well, it never happened to any of us (5 kids, and me and Joe). The only thing was the cellar was perpetually damp no matter the weather or what time of the year it was.

  • techygran profile image

    Cynthia 2 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

    Hi there Rachael,

    You've written up this case in a very interesting fashion, asking the readers to respond to your psychological and ethical opinion polls in positions in the article that encourage continued reading. Excellent! I'm sharing this!

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

    That was fascinating rachael! I think if it was me selling their probably would have been another murder by the time the buyer had finished! lol! how stupid was that? for goodness sake! it states in the legal documents, just show and tell property problems, that should have been the case and the case should have been closed. I think I would have sued the buyer for stress, being messed about and causing all that trouble! as you said, we have the Internet these days, why didn't the buyer look up the property history? great read and really interesting too, thanks, nell

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
    Author

    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #Nell Rose

    Can you imagine taking this all the way to the Supreme Court? In a way it is good to have a court system where if you don't like a judge's ruling, there is another court you can appeal to. But if it is something cut and dried, after the 2nd year of dragging on, I'd have probably shot someone too. Thank you for commenting.

  • RachaelOhalloran profile image
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    Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

    #techygran

    Thanks for your praise and for sharing my article. Also, many thanks for the follow. I'm glad to follow you back on HP and Google. :)

  • techygran profile image

    Cynthia 2 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

    Hi again Rachael, When I came back to check your notification, I found that due to some very weird (I would say "twisted") algorithm used for these things, the Related Search sidebar listings for your hub were: Cheating Spouse, Birthday Card, Horoscope, Diet Meal Plan, Astrology and Attract A Man. Just thought you might find this amusing...

  • mothersofnations profile image

    Mothers of Nations 2 years ago

    Very interesting article! Something not too many people consider - not even myself and I worked in the real estate industry a number of years ago. I would definitely want to to know that kind of information beforehand.

    However, you were absolutely correct when you wrote:

    "In the age of the internet, buyers have many tools at their disposal in order to be able to uncover the history of not only their house, but of the neighborhood, and the city and state."

    God bless you.

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