Haunted Houses: How to Investigate Your House’s History

By: Dawn Colclasure (Dawn@theshadowlands.net)

Most people don’t take issue if a home they plan to buy has a shady past. Despite stories being passed around of how a house whose former tenant committed suicide now has the tenant’s spirit lurking in the halls or how one home’s morbid history comes to life in the forms of moving furniture and slamming doors, it’s not very common for prospective buyers or renters in the U.S. to get spooked out of signing the contract.

Yet these stories remain, and they often leave tenants and prospective buyers wondering if looking into the history of their future or present home will help them figure out what’s going on. The question on most peoples’ minds, however, is can researching a home’s history really explain a haunting?

“I think the history of the property can help in understanding a haunting, but there aren't any guarantees,” advised Kristyn Beaty, Acting Assistant Director of the South Jersey Ghost Research (http://www.hauntedhelp.org/). “Residents might be picking up activity that is better related to a house nearby, rather than their own house."

With this in mind, Beaty commented on how exactly to go about researching property history. "This can be a somewhat frustrating process for residents,” she said. “As a county librarian, I'm not even 100% sure, and people have been referred to local libraries looking for property information. I always suggest to people- keeping in mind that the process could vary from location to location- that they go to their municipal building and speak to the ‘Registrar of Deeds.’ I think that is their best source, and if not, that person would be able to refer them to who they need to speak to.”

Trying to uncover the history of a home can be an arduous task, one which Beaty understands can frustrate residents or prospective buyers concerned about their homes. “Hopefully their town or municipality is cooperative- if a resident is looking for property history due to a haunting, they are more than likely anxious for answers, and the run-around will frustrate them greatly."

Mary Pope-Handy (http://www.PopeHandy.com and http://www.ValleyOfHeartsDelight.com ), a realtor for almost 13 years located in Los Gatos, California, has had personal experience in working with things on the paranormal side. Co-author of the book Get The Best Deal When Selling Your Home In Silicon Valley, Pope-Handy runs the Web site http://www.HauntedRealEstate.com and has a BA in Religious Studies and an MA in Systematic Theology. With this under her belt in addition to her own personal experiences with hauntings inside of a home, Pope-Handy understands the feelings of prospective buyers or residents aware of activity occurring in the home.

She offers valuable information in how to conduct research on a home’s history.

“Property records are public information! So yes, you can investigate certain aspects of a home,” she said. “One of my cousins, Ryan Slack, has a cool site called Property Shark (www.PropertyShark.com) that gives folks info on a property, recent comps nearby, and all kinds of good info. It's in NYC now but is spreading. Agents have access to county records via their title companies, Dataquick (a subscription service) or Metroscan (another subscription service). But anyone can go to the county recorder's office and look up the basics. But that will NOT say if a home is haunted, if there was a crime committed there, or if there was a death there. You'll have better luck talking to neighbors and reading the local paper and doing a Google search for that.

“As far as I know, there is no online service listing haunted homes (that aren't tourist traps, etc.). In fact I'd be afraid to list a place as haunted without the owner's written permission - it could be construed as damaging (liable, possibly - but also if they suddenly got unwanted traffic and odd folks hanging out at their place they wouldn't be too happy).

“It depends on the buyer, of course. Some folks might want a psychic or sensitive person to visit the home and give their impressions of the place.

“Most purchase agreements allow time for the buyer to conduct investigations on the home, the area, and anything they believe will affect value and desirability,” Pope-Handy said. “During that time, the buyer can research the presumed ghost issue a number of ways.”

“The easiest, and usually best, way to learn if a home is haunted is from the current owner (if it's owner-occupied, anyway). This is a little tricky because the laws vary from state to state on disclosure and what is required. Some states insist on the seller disclosing any ghostly type of activity (
California and Hawaii fall into this category). Other states say that only physical, structural attributes or defects of a property need be disclosed (Oregon falls into this category). In many states, sellers only have to reveal whether or not a home is haunted IF the buyer requests this information. There is also the problem of agents and sellers not understanding the law; so even if a state does require this disclosure, it may not be forthcoming if the seller and/or agent is either negligent in understanding the requirement or simply avoids complying. So my suggestion would be that if the buyer wishes to know, for certain, what the seller knows in this vein, ask the question in writing.”

She offers some further tips on how to research a property’s home:

“Talking to the neighbors is an age-old way to discover what an area is like, the history of the street, and so on. So if there's a concern about a haunting, I would advise the buyers, once in contract, to introduce themselves to the neighbors and gently prod for information. Open-ended questions usually yield the best results. Instead of asking directly, ‘does that house have a ghost?’ (remember, half of the neighbors will think you're crazy by asking), you might ask, ‘are there any interesting stories associated with that house?’”

Pope-Handy offers caution, however, when it comes to asking the open-ended questions. “You need to be sensitive to the situation - if you have an old widow there and her husband died recently, you need to be careful not to offend or upset her, just on a human-kindness level,” she said. “Some basic questions are: ‘did anyone die at the property?’ and ‘were there any violent or criminal happenings at the property?’”

She added, “Reviewing old newspaper articles may also turn up some interesting information. This may be found on the Internet, or if it's a small town paper, by going to the local library. What would be helpful is knowing if there was a death on the property and if so, what kind (natural death in old age will be viewed differently than either a suicide or a murder). Sellers may not be required to tell the buyer if there was a murder, suicide, or other death on the property - so asking is also a good idea, and following it up with research even better.”

One other aspect to keep in mind is good old common sense. Ask yourself, how does the home make you feel? “Usually, if they're sensitive to this type of thing, they won't make an offer if it feels negative,” Pope-Handy said. “Conversely, if a home has a warm energy, I've seen people make an offer even though there are things about it that they might have decided were too negative to overlook in other homes. Many agents go into homes and get a "take" on whether the home felt happy or tense. Sort of like when you go into a room just after someone's had a fight - you can sort of feel it in the air.”

Should there be any difference between old property and new property? “New property can still hold some answers- residents can find out what was on the land before their home was built,” Beaty explained. “I’d still caution them to take their findings with at least a grain of salt- the activity and impressions that they are picking up could be from another location. Spirits sense who is able to communicate with them in the area, and will gravitate towards those people or that person. A home could have gone for decades without any activity, and when a new family who is sensitive moves into a home, spirits in the area tend to gravitate toward them- spirits will have to use less energy to communicate with sensitives."

In the event residents or buyers uncover information relating to a haunting, what’s the next step? “If there IS a ghost disclosed (or more than one), do ask what kind of activity occurs, and if possible, when (like on the anniversary of something?) and how frequently. Many, many ghosts are rather quiet most of the time but may act up if there's remodeling. Some just occasionally appear on a staircase or gently play hide-and-seek to remind you they're there. If they aren't throwing knives or locking you in the basement, it really may not be an issue at all!”

This echoes a sentiment which Pope-Handy feels about haunted houses. “If a place is found to be haunted, the question has to be asked if it's actually a problem at all. Most ghosts are not nasty (remember, they're just people without a body), but either may be simply attached to the place or confused. Plenty of stories abound regarding friendly, and sometimes even helpful, ghosts. Not that we want to keep them like pets, but it should not be presumed that just because there's a ghost, it'll be out to make your life miserable. So that, too, needs to be checked out. If the ghost IS a problem, there are a variety of ways to address that too, from having a priest visit the house and blessing it, to burning sage, to remodeling (ghosts often stay because a home is familiar - when it ceases to feel like home, many move along).”

The reality, though, is that even if you ask questions, most people who don’t believe in the paranormal won’t attribute things they know and see to anything consisting of a haunting. “About half of all Americans don't even believe in ghosts, though, so it's possible for a seller to hear noises and experience things but attribute them not to ghosts but to who knows what - rats in the attic, a draft, or something else,” Pope-Handy said. “So even asking directly is no guarantee of full disclosure.”

Another hard fact about using property research to explain a haunting is that, often, nothing will turn up helping the case. “I would tell people to be careful about property research. It may not give them the answers they are seeking, but if they are curious about the history of their area, and anxious for answers, it could still prove helpful in other ways,” Beaty said.

Bottom line, Beaty explained, doing the research isn’t exactly a lost cause. “I think that even if the search is unproductive, it may have psychological benefits to the residents, because they feel a sense of being proactive, like ‘well, I have left no stone unturned.’ This can help calm them down- they can take comfort in the fact that they made every attempt to find out what was behind the activity."