Home sellers can keep murders, suicides secret

Posted: January 05, 2013

Planning on buying a house this year?

If you're even slightly squeamish, get ready to do some extra detective work.

If the property was the site of a bloody crime, the seller does not have to divulge that scrap of information.

In a decision handed down last week, a panel of Pennsylvania Superior Court judges reaffirmed that the sordid reputation of a home - no matter how gruesome - does not count as a "material defect" and does not have to be disclosed to a buyer.

"The fact that a murder once occurred in a house falls into that category of home-buyer concerns best left to caveat emptor" - let the buyer beware - the appeals court wrote.

For those shopping on the other side of the Delaware, the same applies in New Jersey.

Janet S. Milliken bought a 14-year-old Delaware County McMansion in 2007 from Kathleen and Joseph Jacono. The Jaconos had spent $450,000 to buy the Thornton property at auction in April and flipped it, selling it to Milliken in August for $610,000, according to court records.

In September, Milliken learned that her new home had been the site of a murder-suicide the previous year.

Police said three children were in the house on a cold February morning when Konstantinos Koumboulis, 50, shot his wife, Georgia Koumboulis, 34, and then turned the gun on himself. The children were not physically harmed.

According to the court decision, the Jaconos and their real estate agents, Re/Max, knew about the home's history. They called the state Real Estate Commission, which assured them that they were not required to disclose that information.

Milliken sued, arguing that she never would have bought the house had she been aware of the grisly events.

Brokers often consider "stigmatized" the houses that have been the scenes of murders or suicides. The term also encompasses the belief that a house might be haunted.

Milliken asserted that the damage to the house was as real as any structural defect because the crime diminished the value of the property.

In a dissenting opinion to last week's decision, Superior Court Judge John T. Bender acknowledged that Milliken had suffered a six-figure loss.

Said Bender: "The financial penalty Mrs. Milliken has suffered was entirely avoidable had the sellers [from] whom she bought her home merely exercised a little more integrity and a little less greed."

The upshot to Milliken v. Jacono et al? If living in a former crime scene would keep you from a night's sleep, real estate experts say, ask for a written warranty in the agreement of sale that states the home was never the site of a murder, suicide, or other felony.

It also couldn't hurt to ask questions around the neighborhood, the experts say, such as: "Does that house have any local nicknames? You know, like, the Amityville Horror?"

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796, @samwoodiii or samwood@phillynews.com.

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