We talk to a man who helped sell Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home to get tips for selling your own creepy castle
By Megan Seling
You’ve heard bumps in the night, seen shadows dance across the walls, and been chilled by an inexplicable breeze on an otherwise warm day. Yup, you’ve concluded that your house is haunted and you’re starting to think it’s time to move.
If you’re worried no one will want to buy a place that comes with its own ghosts, think again. Haunted houses and stigmatized properties hit the market every day, and what’s scary for one person can even be a selling point for someone else. Even some of the country’s most notoriously spooky spots have become someone’s happy new home.
Here’s everything you need to know about selling—and buying—a haunted house.
Questions we’ll answer
- Does the law require sellers to disclose that a house is haunted?
- What is a stigmatized property?
- What are the disclosure rules regarding stigmatized properties?
- Do people buy haunted and stigmatized houses?
- Who lives in haunted houses?
- What do I need to know about selling a haunted house?
Do I have to tell if the house I’m selling is haunted?
The quick answer? No. While disclosure rules vary from state to state, nowhere in America are sellers required to disclose alleged paranormal activity because, well, it’s very difficult to prove, from a legal standpoint, that a property is indeed haunted.
It has been done! In 1991, a house in Nyack, New York, was declared legally haunted by the New York Supreme Court after owner Helen Ackley and her family claimed they were harassed by ghosts Ackley believed to be from the Revolutionary War era.
The case—Stambovsky v. Ackley, but generally referred to as the “Ghostbusters ruling”—concluded, “Seller who had undertaken to inform the public at large about the existence of poltergeists on the premises to be sold was estopped to deny existence of poltergeists on the premises, so the house was haunted as a matter of law and seller must inform the purchaser of the haunting.”
Ghosts or not, you will have to mention if the paranormal presence has managed to affect the physical space. Did oozing green slime cause cracks in the foundation? Did a river of blood like the one in The Shining flood the hallway and cause damage? You’ll have to give your potential buyers a heads up. Wouldn’t you want to know?
What is the difference between a haunted house and a stigmatized property?
A stigmatized property is different from a haunted house. Stigmatized properties are homes where something notorious has taken place, though that event may not have physically damaged the home in any way.
Common causes of stigmatization include death, murder, suicide, and high-profile crime. Perceived hauntings can also cause a property to become stigmatized if, as in “the Ghostbusters ruling,” the property’s reputation and appeal have been tarnished by the claims.
Whether or not you have to disclose that a home is stigmatized can be tricky, as disclosure laws vary from state to state. If you’re the owner of a stigmatized home, you’d be wise to familiarise yourself with your state’s disclosure laws and how those laws define stigmatized properties. Your real estate broker can also help you understand the local situation.
In Ohio, for example, the Residential Property Disclosure Form requires a seller to disclose only “material issues.” Crime and perceived ghosts are not considered material issues, so a seller is not required to disclose such instances unless they physically affected the home.
If a property is stigmatized, however, it’d be wise to not hide that information from potential buyers, even if the law doesn’t require you to do so.
In 2014, an Ohio realty company was tasked with selling Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home, a 1952 house that the family moved into in 1968. The Dahmer family was no longer living in the home in 2014, but it’s no secret that the infamous serial killer grew up there and committed his first murder on the property.
Trying to hide that from buyers may have been a temptation—it’s pretty alarming!—but the listing team was up front about it.
Jim Fox, Principal Broker of Record and Vice-President General Sales & Operations for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Stouffer Realty, helped oversee the sale. He tells Flyhomes his company required, as part of the Exclusive Right to Sell Agreement, that the sellers “disclose the history by providing any public and court records to which every buyer had to acknowledge in writing that they are aware of the stigmatized nature of the property prior to the showing of a buyer.”
“We worked with the Trustees of the estate and our attorneys to make sure every I was dotted and T was crossed to avoid potential litigation,” he adds.
One person’s fright is another person’s fascination
It’s true that selling a known haunted house or stigmatized home can come with a unique set of challenges—more on that in a minute—but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck accepting a low offer or, worse, unable to sell.
The previous owner of Dahmer’s home, Chris Butler, is a musician who founded the new wave band The Waitresses in 1978. In an interview with the New York-based culture website Observer, Butler said he fell in love with the home first and then was told about its notorious history. Still, he went through with the purchase and enjoyed living there.
“The house has a great vibe,” he told journalist Tim Sommers. “I mean, after all, the house didn’t kill anybody, and I don’t believe in ghosts, and there’s absolutely no reason to think there’s anything untoward here, other than it’s an old house, and old houses creak, but I am quite positive there’s nothing from the afterlife playing with my clothes dryer.”
Butler is hardly the first artist to find a happy home in a notorious house. Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor was living in the home in which Sharon Tate was murdered while he recorded the band’s Grammy-winning record The Downward Spiral and actor Nicolas Cage once lived in Louisiana’s Lalaurie House, a popular stop for many New Orleans ghost tours.
What to know when selling a haunted house
There are many helpful tips on the internet to ensure your sale goes smoothly—everything from how to decide on the right list price to common mistakes to avoid—but selling a stigmatized home comes with its own set of challenges that aren’t often talked about.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you set out to sell your haunted house:
- Your house won’t scare off everybody
The home at the center of New York’s “Ghostbusters ruling” may have been a nightmare for the Ackley family, but not everyone experienced the hauntings. One former resident, singer Ingrid Michaelson, told People magazine in 2019, “It’s a magical home. It’s a memorable home. It’s a home where people gather, it draws you in and comforts you. And the view is unbeatable.”
- Prepare for the looky-loos
When Jim Fox was helping prepare Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home, he and his colleagues knew the house’s reputation would appeal to true crime fanatics. They had requirements in place to ensure things ran smoothly.
“All buyers had to provide proof of funds prior to viewing the home,” Jim says, “and no one was allowed to bring in cameras, cell phones, or any recording devices.”
- Watch out for backlash
If your home is famous—or infamous—enough to draw a crowd, prepare for that as well. While the Jeffrey Dahmer house did get a lot of press while it was on the market, Jim says not everyone was happy with the attention.
“The backlash we received was from neighbors and local law enforcement dealing with increased traffic and people attempting to view the grounds and trespassing on neighbors’ property to view the house through windows.”
Haunted houses aren’t for everyone
No, not all buyers are willing to take a chance on a house with a complicated history, but it’s also clear that not everyone is scared away by a stigmatized home, either. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re working with and being honest with your buyers—and, perhaps, hoping the ghosts behave themselves during your open house.
About the author: Megan Seling is an author and journalist who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She loves to write about music, snacks, hockey, and haunted houses. Her favorite scary movie is Get Out, her favorite podcast is My Favorite Murder, and her favorite Halloween candy is 100 Grand. While she likes to think ghosts are real, she has never actually encountered one.
Cover photo by @Barefoot_Traveller via Twenty20