• Are Sellers Required by Law to Disclose a Death or Murder in the Home?
  • October 28, 2014 | Author: Michael T. Brown
  • Law Firm: Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall LLP/s.r.l. - Ottawa Office
  • A few years ago, I purchased my home. It was an Estate Sale. As part of the negotiations, I inevitably asked my Realtor to enquire to the vendor’s Realtor, “did the deceased pass away in the home?” The Realtor for the vendor confirmed that as far as she knew, the deceased passed away in a hospice care facility. After closing, I briefly met with the executor of the estate to discuss minor maintenance tips associated with the home. During the course of our discussions and without my prompting, he confirmed that the deceased did indeed pass away in hospice care.

    At some level, asking the question, “has anyone ever died in the home?”, seems juvenile or trifling. Many resale homes are decades old. In older communities, rural areas and more established neighborhoods, some homes can trace their history back to the early years of Confederation. It is entirely possible that someone could have passed away in a home long before a current seller took title. That said, it could be very important for some buyers to know whether a property was the site of a death. For example, a colleague of mine once acted on a purchase where the sellers voluntarily disclosed that the home was the site of a murder-suicide in the early 1980’s. The vendors even included an old newspaper article summarizing the affair with the amended offer to purchase.

    So the question arises: in Ontario - is there a positive duty on a Seller to disclose his or her knowledge of a death, murder or suicide in the home? The answer at this stage is “No.”

    In the recent Ontario case of 1784773 Ont. Inc. v K-W Labour Association et al,[1] a corporate purchaser of a commercial property sued the vendor for failing to disclose that the property was haunted. The basis for the claim was a newspaper article where a director of the defendant vendor acknowledged that the subject property was haunted. Relying on the article, the purchaser claimed that the property’s haunted nature was a latent defect that ought to have been disclosed. Justice James W. Sloan found no case law or other authority that obligates a vendor to disclose that someone has died in a building, how they died or a rumour that the building might be haunted or stigmatized as a result of the death.[2] The court found no evidence to suggest that the building was unfit for habitation or commercial use.[3] Further, no evidence was put forward to prove that the property was the site of a death or that in fact a ghost existed on the lands.[4] The claim was dismissed with costs awarded against the claimant.

    In the 2006 Quebec case of Knight v. Dionne,[5] the purchaser of a house sued the vendor for failing to disclose that the vendor’s son committed suicide in the house. The purchaser was very disturbed when a neighbour informed her that the vendor’s son had hung himself in the basement of the property some ten years prior to completion of the purchase.[6] The purchaser claimed that she would never have bought the house had she known of the suicide. In this case, the court found that personal fears, phobias, sentiments or sensitivity to such matters based on purely subjective apprehensions is not a valid reason to sue.[7] The court went on to say that it would be an “impossible burden” to require vendors to assess whether some personal events that occurred on a given property should be disclosed to a prospective purchaser.[8] It is salient to note that in this case the court found that the purchaser’s knowledge of the suicide did not render the building in any way uninhabitable.[9] The Realtors who acted on the matter also noted in their testimony that it is not common practice to ask a vendor if someone has died in the home.[10] The court noted that the best solution is for buyers to ask questions up front about what is important to them with respect to a given property and its history.[11] The claim was dismissed.

    Based on the above decisions, in situations where someone has died in a property, the principle of caveat emptor, otherwise known as “buyer beware” still applies.

    There are certain steps buyers can take if they are concerned about purchasing a “murder house” or a haunted property. One of the advantages of using a realtor in Ontario is that real estate agents can take steps to determine and obtain disclosure of facts relating to the property that may be relevant or material considerations for their respective clients.[12] If a buyer is particularly sensitive to the possibility that a property is a site of a past murder, suicide or if it is haunted - then they should instruct their realtor to make such enquiries of the seller’s realtor to such effect. It is difficult to draw a line between what should be disclosed and what should not when it comes to murder, suicides or the haunting/stigmatization of a property. What is considered material may depend on the nature, timing and proximity of the event. Ultimately, a buyer should ask the questions that are important to them.

    [1] 1784773 Ont. Inc. v K-W Labour Association et al, 2013 ONSC 5401.

    [2] Ibid. at paras. 12, 14, 15 and 16.

    [3] Ibid. at para. 18.

    [4] Ibid. at para. 19.

    [5] Knight v. Dionne, 2006 QCCQ 1260.

    [6] Ibid. at paras. 9, 17 and 19.

    [7] Ibid. at para. 51.

    [8] Ibid. at para. 52.

    [9] Ibid. at para. 56.

    [10] Ibid. at para. 23.

    [11] Ibid. at paras. 45, 46 and 53.

    [12] See: CREA Realtors Code of Ethics at: http://www.crea.ca/sites/default/files/files/REALTOR%20Code.pdf