US: Consumer Services

Did someone die in this house? New site lets you search

Ben Popken
Chris Inch | E+ | Getty Images

A text in the night put Roy Condrey on the trail of the dead.

"Did you know that your house is haunted?" read the letters glowing on his screen. It wasn't a message from beyond, but rather came from one of the tenants in the properties he rents out to supplement his income as a software project manager.

But the text got him pondering: Even if you suspected you had a paranormal force inhabiting your home, how could you tell if someone died in it?

Thus was born. The site cross references between public records and other databases to find who used to live in a particular U.S. address, whether they're alive or not, and if they died while in the house. It can tell prospective homebuyers information the seller isn't obligated to disclose, which can sometimes lower a house's final price.

The night the idea was germinating, Condrey sat in front of the computer and began searching for answers. He discovered it's not that easy to electronically dig up a body under your roof.

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From one source he could get a list of everyone who lived in the house. Then he had to check each name against another list to see if they were alive. Other databases and searches could turn up clues as to whether their death happened at the address itself. Few states require sellers to disclose if anyone died in the home, even if it was a murder-suicide that everyone else in the neighborhood knows about.

By and large, it's let the buyer beware ... of ghosts.

In that informational void Condrey saw opportunity. He grabbed a few programmer pals, and in June of this year his website was spawned. In the first five months, it sold a few thousand reports for $11.99 per U.S. address searched. A few Halloween-minded media mentions later and it's now selling a thousand per day.

"I can't confirm or deny ghosts," said Condrey. "I want to know if I'm moving into Andrea Yates' house where she drowned five children in the bathtub."

It's like a Carfax for haunted houses.

Besides the curious and those in the spooky spirit, the site is also getting traction among ghost hunters.

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Leslie Self, 36, a caregiver and pro bono paranormal investigator in Craig, Colo., has used a Diedinhouse report for six of his recent clients.

In one case, a couple was bedeviled by knocking sounds in the night in the home the woman inherited from her grandmother. Self ran a search on Diedinhouse and didn't find any evidence the grandmother had died in the house. After descending into the basement, he discovered the ghastly noises in the night came from the water heater kicking on.

Existing home sales: Issue for consumer?
Existing home sales: Issue for consumer?

Not only does it give the dwellers the creeps, the specter of a specter hanging over a house can have a very real-world impact.

A "psychologically impacted" house, such as one that is reportedly haunted, can sell for 3 percent less and take an average of 45 percent longer to sell than other properties, according to a 2001 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Real Estate Research.

In 2010, after its owner was shot and killed in his bedroom by an intruder, a Maryland home sold for $200,000 below asking price.

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And in 2007, a woman moving from California with her two kids after her husband died bought a home in Thornton, Pa., for $650,000, only to learn from a neighbor that there had been a murder-suicide in the house. According to her lawsuit against the sellers, which asked to have the transaction rescinded, they had bought the house below market value at $450,000 and then flipped it for comps.

Though they knew of the house's bloody past, the suit alleged, they kept it hidden from the buyer, whose children learned about it while trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Standard contract law holds that sellers are responsible for any "material" defects to a good or service they're representing, but the laws of more than 20 states don't consider tragic events such as a murder-suicide to impact the building structure.

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"Material is the key word," said Mary Pope-Handy, a real estate agent who sells houses in Silicon Valley and who publishes stories on her Haunted Real Estate Blog. "In Oregon they only consider material anything that impacts the physical structure. In California, it's anything that impacts the sense of a property's value and can include intangible thingslike school issues and pollution."

While acknowledging the site's novelty appeal, the founder also sees it as a force for consumer protection.

"The disclosure laws say you have to tell someone about a water leak or aging roof," he said. "A water leak can be repaired; you can't reverse a violent death."

—By Ben Popken, NBC News