No this is not a discussion about Steve Jobs whose death affects us all in ways sadly we’ll never know. No, this has to do with the odd stigma of “in home death” and the increasing trend of people choosing to die peacefully, with dignity, in their home.
I showed a home the other day – a little one story. It was filled with “old people” furniture; you know the kind: the narrow backed, scalloped couch with a quilt like stitching, in a silky floral fabric. It was a Grandma’s home. In my grandmother’s home, we were never allowed to sit on that furniture and the same was true in many of my friend’s homes too… plastic carpet runners and arm rest covers. In this particular home, the closet was filled with clothes; women’s clothes, no gentleman’s clothing. Since I see a lot of homes, I make it a habit of sleuthing the story behind the seller. This can often shed light on their motivations and give my client an advantage when it comes to negotiating. For example, if there are only women’s things in the bath and closet, I might surmise there was a divorce forcing the sale, especially if there are no pictures of the dad or husband around, but title shows ownership in two names. Or if there are only women’s clothes and toiletries but there are husband/dad pictures all over, this often indicates the spouse has passed away and the surviving spouse has to sell, perhaps for financial reasons. I know, you might be thinking that this is sleazy or low, because it gives the buyer an upper hand in negotiating, knowing that the seller is in a disadvantageous or distressed position. Remember however, that my job is to represent the buyer in this scenario. The seller has their own representation and when I am the listing agent, I educate my sellers on the importance of “neutralizing” our situation… If you’ve been reading my blogs, you know I maintain that not all Realtors are the same.
So back to the little old lady’s home… It was clear to me that her husband had long ago passed and the empty refrigerator left me with only two conclusions: Mrs. Seller had gone into an assisted care facility or she too had passed away. I pointed this out to my client and that it was very possible the woman had passed away in her home. My client immediately said that I needed to find this out because if she had passed in the home that would, “creep him out”. I said “Really? People die all the time…” but he had a real problem with it. As it turned out she did die in the home; peacefully, surrounded by her family, at the tender age of 92. Lucky lady, don’t you think?
Two weeks ago my wife’s 82 year old uncle passed away. He was given the choice of dialysis which would mean just 3 good days a week and maybe prolong his life a few months. This man was a tough guy from Detroit. They called him Big Al because he backed down from no one. Al was 5’6″. Given the options presented to him, he told his wife from his hospital bed, “Take me home sweetheart, that’s where I want to go.” He died 10 days later with his family around him, in the bedroom he and his wife spent virtually every night in for the past 35 years. He went on his terms. Lucky guy.
In California a seller is required to disclose “death on property” for three years. It’s considered a material fact that “affects the value or desirability not known to or within the diligent attention and observation of the parties”. The problem I have with this is that the Baby Boomers and their predecessor the “Greatest Generation”, are more and more electing to die at home rather than in the hospital or hospice. And can you blame them? Yet this “material fact” costs those left with the property, thousands and thousands of dollars because of the requirement they disclose the death on property. If they could afford to wait to sell for 3 years and one day, they would not be required to sell at a “death on property discount”. Hardly seems right.
Some years back, I sold a home where a young man took his own life. It was messy and very, very sad. The parents had cleaners come in, cut out the stained carpet; it smelled of bleach. They then packed their clothes and a few essentials, never to return. They depended on me to get the home “sell ready”. We painted, carpeted, refinished cabinets, scrapped ceilings, put in recessed lights, granite and new appliances. We re-plastered the pool. But we had a “Stigma” house and there was no way around it. In this scenario, I absolutely should tell prospective buyers about the suicide. It really was a material fact. Think about buying O.J.’s home or where the Manson murders took place. Clearly there is a duty to make a buyer aware of what had taken place. By the way, to combat the “stigma” of the young man’s death, I brought in a holistic healer, who burnt sage and spent an hour in the home, “cleaning up the vibe”. She said to me, “doesn’t it feel warmer already?” I figured what the heck, who am I to say there’s not something to it? I sold that home in three weeks in a brutally bad market, but at only about a 10% discount – not bad considering the events that had taken place.
My point here is that there are differences in deaths. Natural death does not seem to me to be a disclosure that should be required. Unnatural or violent death, that’s something different and I understand the need to make a prospective buyer aware of this. But if someone goes naturally I think we need to have a discussion about how “material” that event is. I mean consider England or Europe; there’s probably not a 300 year old home that hasn’t had someone die in it at some point. But here in America, where we are a relatively young nation, and especially so in California and those of us within the suburban sprawl even more so. We know the history of these homes because they just aren’t that old. But this is going to be an ever increasing problem as more and more people over the next 30 years are going to choose death with dignity, and want to pass in their home and it’s just not right that that choice should result in a lower sales price. We consumers and we real estate professionals are going to have to accept this and come to terms with it, because one thing is for certain, we all will go at some point and hopefully like Big Al or Grandma of the little one story, in our home, surrounded by our family and buyers are just going to have to deal with it and get over it.