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Houses with violent histories frighten buyers

The spacious house in Orchard Park was home to Sean P. Keenan and his parents when Sean took an end table, beat his 70-year-old father and then stabbed him to death. Two years later, the two-story brick home on Hillsboro Drive remains unsold.

Keith Reed Jr., superintendent of Clymer schools, was ambushed and killed outside his house by a jealous husband in September 2012. When his residence was put up for sale in March 2013, the house sold for $30,000 less than its estimated value.

And now the Victorian double in Geneseo where two young people last month were slain and a third committed suicide stands vacant. One local real-estate broker predicted that the house soon will be back on the market, which raises a troubling question.

“Who would want to live there with what happened?” said Alan Cole Jr., owner of the real estate firm that sold the house more than a decade ago.

Most people don’t want anything to do with a house where a horrible crime occurred.

Tainted houses like the ones in Geneseo, Clymer and Orchard Park tell tragic stories that can permeate a community and red flag prospective buyers who don’t want to live in a home with bad mojo. These houses can linger on the market for years before being sold, experts said. And when they do sell, it may be for below market value.

“In the beginning, after a horrific crime, the property could sit for a few years,” said Bret Llewellyn, associate broker and branch manager of RealtyUSA’s Elmwood Avenue office. “There are a lot of people who die at home of natural causes. In most cases, that doesn’t bother buyers. But if it’s a tragic death, it can be unsettling. With time, everything passes.”

Selling the Simpson condo

The four-bedroom condo in Brentwood, Calif., sat empty for two years after Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were slain there in 1994. The property was put up for sale for $795,000 in 1995, and was sold in two years for $595,000.

Many factors play into the sale patterns of a house with a violent past, according to property experts. In a seller’s market, prospective buyers may not be put off by a house where a murder took place. So, too, a murder committed outside the residence may be less of a factor than one that occurred in the kitchen.

“Location of the murder definitely makes a difference,” said David F. Schmid, a University at Buffalo English professor who specializes in pop culture with a focus on violent crime. “If the incident took place in a high-traffic area within the house I imagine with some people that would make a difference.”

Cindy Magner, an agent with Metro Roberts Realty, noted the odd actions of Sean Keenan fueled the “bad vibes” that quashed buyer interest in that house, which was purchased for $467,500 in 2004.

“It wasn’t a quiet story,” Magner said of the murder. “It was bizarre.”

In the Orchard Park patricide, Keenan, who was 21 at the time, tried to flee the country. He attempted to look older by wearing a suit and shaving part of his head to appear as if he was balding. He then used his father’s identification in a bid to enter Canada. Customs agents stopped Keenan at the Rainbow Bridge because of his suspicious appearance, credentials and responses to questions about his father’s well-being.

“I do a lot of business in Orchard Park,” Magner said. “We don’t have a lot of murders. Even when people die of natural causes, some prospective buyers talk about spirits. Everyone has a different perspective on the afterlife.

“When something like this happens, if people absolutely love the house, they’ll look past the event,” she said. “This would be a tough sell. No clients expressed a desire to see the house.”

The Keenans’ Hillsboro Drive home entered the foreclosure process in August 2015. Magner said it could sit vacant for two years before it is sold.

If asked, seller must tell

A good source of information on the history of a house are the people who live near it, said Daria L. Pratcher, a real estate attorney.

“Neighbors will tell you,” she said. “They will tell you the whole story. Neighbors have absolutely no obligation to tell anything but they say everything.”

State law puts the burden of disclosure on sellers and their agents. Material defects that negatively affect the property’s condition must be disclosed, said Pratcher, who was a Realtor before becoming an attorney. Realtors are not obligated to disclose occurrences of death on a property unless asked specifically by the prospective buyer, said Llewelyn, a member of the Professional Development Committee for the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors.

“If a buyer asks if anyone died there, and if you know, you tell him,” Llewelyn said. “You must be fair and honest and disclose anything you know. We’ve come across a few of them, and the biggest concern of people who have children is: ‘What happens if the children get on the school bus and someone tells them?’ ”

Many times in Buffalo and in some rural areas where houses date from the early 1900s and before, it would be impossible to know what occurred in the previous century, Llewellyn added.

In those cases, Llewellyn said, the Realtor’s answer when asked about suspicious deaths on a property would be “not to my knowledge.”

Some buyers, though, go to extraordinary means to determine if something bad has occurred in a house.

“I know people who have had older houses checked out by psychics, mediums to see if there was anything wrong with the house,” said Schmid, the UB professor.

Schmid pointed to Fall River, Mass., and the house where Lizzie Borden allegedly killed her father and stepmother with a hatchet. Borden was tried and acquitted of the 1892 hatchet murders in a case that shook the nation.

“The house is now a B&B, and you pay more to stay in Lizzie’s room,” said Schmid, author of “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.”

“Obviously there’s a difference between living there full time and staying one night,” he said. “For them, there is some kind of attraction.”

The Charles Manson murders in the Los Angeles area occurred at two separate locations in August 1969: the Benedict Canyon home of director Roman Polanski, where five people including the pregnant Sharon Tate died; and the Los Feliz home of grocery store owner Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

The Benedict Canyon home was later demolished. The LaBianca home underwent renovations and an address change and has been consistently occupied.

“By renovating the house – making it different — you send the message that the event is in the past and it is over with,” said Schmid. “Whenever you move into a new place, regardless of how old the home is, you always want to personalize it, and I think that becomes more important in a house where something tragic has happened.”

Rural houses of murder

Homes in two rural settings where murders have occurred appear to have fewer problems selling.

The small house at 8448 Titus Road in the Town of Westfield, where violinist Mary Whitaker spent her summers while performing for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, was sold one year after two vagabond men killed her there during a botched robbery.

Whitaker, 61, was shot twice, knocked unconscious and stabbed to death after she answered her door to help what she thought was a stranded motorist. Authorities believed she was left dead in her garage, while the men drove off in her car using her cellphone and credit cards.

Joseph Bittinger, a neighbor of Whitaker’s, bought the house located on top of a hill for $50,000 and sold it one month later for $68,000.

“We’re always looking for bargains,” said the former auctioneer. “It was a cash deal. We made an offer and negotiated.

“People thought it would never sell,” said Bittinger, who now owns a small gravel pit. “That would be a cold day in hell. We had a lots of people who were interested.”

Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace is familiar with the murders of Whitaker and Reed, the Clymer school superintendent slain by a jealous husband. Both were killed either in or near their rural homes.

“It’s the ugly thing people don’t want to think about, when they learn someone perished in the house,” Gerace said.

“I think there is a stigma attached,” said Steve Holt, a Chautauqua County Realtor. “It’s really tough to say if it affects the value, but there are people who would be apprehensive. There are some people whom it would not bother at all.

“We have the same problem with the resale of a funeral home. A lot of funeral homes are merging in rural communities, and one facility is sold. These grand old homes were not specifically built as funeral homes. Some people will definitely have a problem living in a former funeral home. They can’t get over it.”

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com