HOME > BLOG > Buying and Selling > When a home for sale has a murky past

One thoroughly creepy property tale which has recently come to light again is the “The Watcher” mystery

The sorry saga highlights the dilemma of what exactly a vendor needs to disclose to the seller upon selling a property.

Back in 2014 Derek and Maria Broaddus bought the house of their dreams - a stately home in Westfield, New Jersey, for nearly $1.8 million (US$1.35 million). But unbeknownst to them, the six-bedroom house also came with an added extra - its own stalker who goes by the name of “The Watcher”. Since the purchase, the stalker has sent the Broadusses a string of disturbing letters suggesting menacing intentions towards the couple and their children, and claiming that the house has been “watched” throughout the century by the stalker’s father and grandfather, dating back to the 1920s.

Terrified by the letters, which started soon after they signed the papers, the family never moved into the dwelling. Now the Broadusses are suing the town for blocking their plans to demolish the home and replace it with two smaller properties, fearing no-one will buy it as it stands given its now well-known history.

The Broadusses also sued the former owners of the house in 2015, after they found out the vendors had received a letter from “The Watcher” but never disclosed it to them during the selling process. The ex-owners then counter-sued, saying that whilst they had received a letter, it was not threatening.

Did You Know?

The subject of a home’s chequered past when selling is a complicated one both in the US and here in Australia. Currently, Australian disclosure laws vary from state to state.

The issue gained national attention back in 2004 when the Sydney home in which Sef Gonzales murdered his family was sold to unsuspecting buyers who were not informed of its past. Once they found out, they pulled out of the deal which prompted a review of NSW disclosure laws.

What agents are supposed to do

In NSW agents are supposed to find out from the seller whether the property is “stigmatised” – so for example whether a murder or suicide has occurred in the dwelling. They must then disclose “material facts” about the property’s past to the buyer. But what actually constitutes a material fact, and what degree of disclosure is necessary, is not always clear.

In 2011, the Sydney home of Sydney businessman Michael McGurk was put on the market, two years after he was shot dead outside the property. Because the death did not happen inside the home, no legal declaration of the murder was required, and the home was successfully sold without mention to its past.

However, in Victoria agents are required to disclose whether a murder has occurred at a property only if the prospective buyer asks them. Australia wide, when it comes to other issues such as troublesome neighbours, environmental issues and even the presence of “ghosts”, exactly what an agent is supposed to disclose becomes even more muddled.

It’s always a good idea to always ask an agent up front if there has been any deaths in a home or whether they know of any conflicting issues with its past. To be really certain, you could contact the real estate institute in your state before you start house hunting to really understand what an agent is required to disclose to you. That way you can quiz them about it and make a more informed choice.