Saturday, September 12, 2015

Suicide and Other Violent Deaths Must Be Declared

Patrick Lagacé, one of La Presse's liveliest columnists, recently had a piece about a West Island couple who were having trouble selling their family home. You can read it here.

In an unimaginable turn of events, their 25-year-old son had committed suicide in the home three years before. They had many visits, but  potential buyers walked away when they learned of the unnatural death.

Quebec is the only jurisdiction in North America where vendors are obliged to disclose when a suicide has taken place in a property. It has been a standard question on the vendor's declaration since 2012.

In Lagacé's opinion this requirement is ridiculous. He hammers away at the fact that ghosts aren't real and don't haunt houses. He does not see why a grieving family should be doubly victimized, first by suicide and again by having their home stigmatized.

The courts disagree and have come down heavily on vendors and brokers who try to whitewash this information.

In 2013, a Superior Court judge cancelled the sale of a $275,000 home and ordered that the vendor pay the buyers $15,000 in moral damages and $23,000 in expenses after the vendor went out of his way to hide a double suicide in the the home he sold them.

The guilty vendor had picked the house up cheap from the estate of the double-suicide couple. He then tried two different listing brokers, both of whom told him the suicide had to be disclosed, before selling the property himself on Du Proprio. He told the buyers that with Du Proprio there was no such thing as a vendor's declaration. (An agent would have told them differently but hey, they thought they were saving money by cutting out the agent. Pffft!)

It did not take long for the buyers to hear about the double suicide from a neighbor. They were devastated. Instead of a first home in which to start their family, they were saddled with a place notorious among the neighbors and wreathed in sadness. They never even moved in.

 Lagacé also pointed to the case of a South Shore real estate agent fined $2,000  after she "minimized" the importance of disclosing such information to a prospective buyer. The home in question might have been the scene of a violent death some 40 years before. It was the home where Quebec Justice Minister Pierre Laporte was held hostage during the October Crisis. Laporte was killed by his FLQ kidnappers but it has never been established whether he was killed in the house.  

Peu importe, the disclosure form also covers violent death and asks whether the vendor is aware of any factors related to the property that might be likely to reduce its value, restrict its use, reduce the revenues it generates or increases the expenses associated with with operating it. (It isn't just about violent death. You would also have to disclose if the house had ever been a brothel, a motorcycle clubhouse, a gambling den...)

To the La Presse columnist the disclosure rule is ridiculous. He falls back on the very logical assertion that "There's no such thing as ghosts."  Case closed.

If only we were Spock-like creatures ruled entirely by logic...

I've twice had to deal with properties touched by suicide. It is true that selling such a home can be a tricky thing requiring tact, empathy and forthrightness.

Columnist Lagacé can assert that ghosts don't exist all he wants. I'm here to tell you firsthand that some people care very much whether there has been a violent or unnatural death in a home.

I sold a home for the estate of a well-regarded professional a few years back. He had lived alone in a nice house in a good neighborhood.Nearly every single person who walked into that house could tell that there was something off about it. There were no outward signs of violence because his death had not been violent. There was a certain sadness that dusted the place.

Each time I disclosed the nature of the vendor's death, people gasped, even took a step back, as though trying to evade the information. I was amazed at how many times I ended up on the sofa, listening to complete strangers share the devastating details of suicides among their own family and friends.

A Vietnamese family, mother and father as well as their adult children, was ready to make an offer but backed out as soon as they heard about the suicide. Death is not necessarily a dealbreaker, the father told me.
 "If an person lived a good life and then died in his own bed of old age, that would be an auspicious death," he explained. Suicide was never auspicious.

Ultimately, I sold the house to another immigrant family. The woman with whom I dealt absorbed the news. She did not care much about the suicide. Her cousin had commited suicide in her 20s, she mentioned. She asked whether I thought the kids of the neighborhood would single out  her kindergarten-aged son because of it? Would they refuse to come over to play?

I told her that I couldn't imagine they would. Kids aren't like that. With time, the stigma of the house would fade. Instead of being the house where Mr. X killed himself, it would become the house where the Y family lived.

Still, when the Y family does decide to sell, they will have to disclose the suicide, too. I can't imagine that anyone will care in 25 years but what I think and what the law says are two different things.

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