For many home buyers, karma matters more than the kitchen

WASHINGTON - As homes nearby sold fast and for higher prices than sellers imagined, one property near the vice president's official residence in the nation's capital stood apart. Its "for sale" sign went up in 2019, and there was scarce serious interest until the price was slashed, and it sold five months ago.

The reason: Four people were murdered there.

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The killings of three members of the Savopoulos family and their housekeeper turned their desirable address into one of the country's "stigmatized properties."

The National Association of Realtors defines stigmatized properties as those that have been "psychologically impacted" by murder or other crime, or by events "suspected to have occurred" - including "alleged hauntings."

Many people don't want their dream home to have a sad or spooky past. While a good kitchen matters, good karma can matter more.

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With millions of people spending far more time inside their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been extraordinary interest in real estate and many real estate agents said that includes everything from a home's history to its vibes.

The amount of property information online has exploded. Websites such as allow buyers interested in a certain home to learn, for example, that police once found a meth lab in its basement or that an owner died of a heart attack in the living room.

"People have information overload and access to so many more data points about a property," said Harrison Beacher, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. Sometimes, he said, "they really can go a little bit too far with the things that freak them out."

Beacher said wealthy people buying the priciest homes tend to be less emotionally attached. But others, for whom a home purchase is their biggest investment, are more likely to care about "the intangibles, the information outside of empirically provable data."

They know those factors can hurt the value of the home.

The National Association of Realtors says, especially in the short-term, "violent crimes tend to have a strong negative impact on property values."

Beacher said what some buyers describe as the feeling they get when they walk into a home is a "subjective vibe" and can be influenced by what a person heard or read about the property.

Most of the property information online is from the 1980s or later, Beacher said, and so some homes in Georgetown and other older neighborhoods that were built before the Civil War have "history that far exceeds the information age and what is recorded online. If you actually knew what went on in some of these places where folks had slaves and domestic servants, there's probably stuff that would upset you."

But in May 2015, people across the country knew about the "mansion murders" in one of the most exclusive D.C. neighborhoods.

Savvas Savopoulos, 46, and Amy Savopoulos, 47; their son, Philip, 10; and the family's housekeeper, 57-year-old Veralicia "Vera" Figueroa, were killed inside their large brick colonial. They had been beaten with baseball bats and stabbed while being extorted for $40,000 in cash.

During the many hours the four victims were held hostage, the killer had pizza delivered, and his DNA on a pizza crust led to his arrest. That man, who had worked for a company run by Savvas Savopoulos, was convicted of multiple counts of murder in 2018, though law enforcement officers have noted in police reports that they doubted he was the only person involved.

Before the killings, the assessed value of the 6-bedroom, 7.5-bathroom Savopoulos home was nearly $4.6 million, according to D.C. tax records. Assessed value is typically below market value.

A fire set during the sensational crime damaged the home, but real estate agents who toured it said it could have easily been restored. So it was considered a bargain when the house sold a few months after the murders for $3 million.

"It was a tainted property," said Anne Hatfield Weir, a Washington Fine Properties agent involved in the sale. The $3 million sale "was substantially lower" than the house was worth before the killings - perhaps by as much as $1 million.

Hatfield Weir said the new owners felt that the murders were not random and not specific to that property, but they still demolished the traditional brick home. "They just wanted to put something completely, radically different there."

They paid an architect for drawings of a stunning new home with glass walls and a pool. But their plans changed, and they put the property up for sale again in 2019. In August 2021, it finally sold for $2.6 million.

A large empty lot is rare in the Woodland Normanstone enclave, and normally it would draw huge interest. Last year two of the most expensive homes sold in Washington were on the same street as the Savopoulos house; one went for $10.9 million and the other for $13 million.

A home nearby on a similar size lot is on the market for $6.3 million.

Beacher said if the new owner of the Savopoulos property now spends $2 million to create a gorgeous home with attractive outdoor space, "there is every reason to believe" it could be worth "north of $8 million."

"I never thought my offer would be accepted," said the new owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was on the market for a while, and no one was buying it, obviously, because of the stigma."

He plans to build a modern home and live there with his family. And no, he added, he does not believe the place is haunted.

"Even my contractor asked if he could hold a little seance at the property," he said. "I laughed and said, 'You can do whatever the hell you want, I don't care. I don't believe in ghosts and goblins.' "

Yet many people do.

A 2019 CBS News poll found that 43 percent of Americans said they believed "that the spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations."

While polls show sharp division over many issues, ghosts are not one of them. A 2019 YouGov poll found 46% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats said they believed in ghosts. (Demons were more divisive, with 54% of Republicans saying they believed in them compared with 37% of Democrats.)

Real estate agents said even people who don't believe in ghosts can be reluctant to live in a home if they know previous owners were killed - or even if they had a nasty divorce or died there of natural causes.

In most states, real estate agents and sellers have no obligation to disclose a murder or other event that could stigmatize a home.

When middle school principal Brian Betts purchased a home in Silver Spring, Md., in 2003, he was upset to learn that a man and his 9-year-old daughter had been murdered in it the year before.

Betts had ministers light candles and perform a ceremony in the house "to rid it of spirits and any sort of negative vibes," according to Rene Sandler, a lawyer who represented Betts's family.

Betts tried to sell the home but got no decent offers and stayed - until he was murdered in that house in 2010, during an apparent robbery.

While that home has been harder to sell, sometimes murder doesn't affect the price, especially if the home is in a particularly sought-after location.

The value of a townhouse on Swann Street near D.C.'s Logan Circle neighborhood has kept rising since a lawyer named Robert Wone was murdered there in 2006. It had been bought the year before for $1.27 million. Since then it has sold three times, always at a higher price, most recently for $2.16 million in 2019.

But sometimes a property can't shake its past. The suburban Chicago home where serial killer John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 men and boys was torn down. The address was changed, and four decades have passed since the notorious crimes. But last year a house built on that lot sold for well below its asking price - after almost two years on the market.

One person's bad omen, though, can be another person's good deal.

Roy Condrey, the software developer who created, said when he posts about a death in a home, some people lose interest in buying it. But others looking for bargains ask, "Hey, you got any more addresses?"


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The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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