What are the ramifications when a real estate disclosure is misleading, and nasty surprises are revealed after sale?
May 21, 2009 7:08 AM   Subscribe

What happens when you buy a house with an unfortunate history (suicide) that has been disclosed, but no one bothers to tell you that the victim's blood is hidden under the new carpeting?

I have just purchased an older home in California, which had been on the market for many months. It was being sold by a local realtor for an out-of-state trustee. After I bid on the property, the seller's agent contacted my realtor with a disclosure: the previous owner had committed suicide in the house. Because of the resident's death, no other information was available, but I really liked the house, so after asking for and receiving additional information on the suicide—that it was with a gun, that the victim was elderly, that it happened in a back room that would not play a central role in my daily life—decided I was willing to live with the sad history. Inspectors came and said the house was sound, so I bought it.

Late last week the seller's agent happened to be at the house on the day that escrow closed, and introduced himself. He was friendly, and asked about my plans for the property. I told him I liked it pretty much as it was, but had pulled up some of the wall-to-wall carpeting and preferred the hardwood floors underneath, so planned to have them cleaned and buffed. He told me about another house he had sold for the same family that also had nice hardwood under carpeting, and after some small talk, he left.

Flash forward to Monday. My hardwood flooring contractors call me and say they have found something I need to see. They have pulled up the carpets and padding in the living room and each room off the hall, finding floors with some minor stains and scuffs that they think will clean up nicely, and have finally reached the central hall. They pulled up the hall carpet and the underlying pad, and this is when they call me.

Here they found a hideous scene: between the new carpet padding and the hardwood is a thick layer of dried, saturated blood and crunchy tissue which appears to be brains. The residue runs the entire length of the hallway, some 15 feet, with distinct lines at each of the five doorways. Despite the disclosure that the shooting happened in the back room, the blood evidence makes it clear that the suicide closed himself off in the smallest area of the house, the hallway, and shot himself there. The body was removed, the walls repainted, but the residue of the shooting was never cleaned up. Instead, someone had laid down new carpeting to give the impression of cleanliness.

I'm not a squeamish person by nature, but I was badly shaken by this discovery. Thankfully, the flooring crew said they knew how to handle the mess and could sand the stains away, and they did so that day. They also had to sand the rest of the floors, to match the diminished height of the hall floors, and the cost and length of my flooring job increased accordingly.

I am wondering now what I should do and what I can expect from the seller's realtor and the seller. There are issues surrounding the misleading disclosure (wrong room), and beyond that, the fact that I was sold a bio-hazard deliberately disguised as a livable environment. I have searched real estate law online, but this is such an outrageous and bizarre situation that I'm not finding any case studies that apply.

If you have any insight into possible ways that this situation might play out, what I ought to do and who I should talk to, who might be liable and for what, I would appreciate it. Of course I will be talking at length with my agent, but I hope the hive mind can provide some ideas and talking points.

(Posting anonymously because I'd rather not be known as the person who lives in the house that dripped blood. But if you have questions or want to reply anonymously, I can be reached at floorofgore@hushmail.com)
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (38 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Get a lawyer that specializes in real estate. Because you're about to come into some serious money from the realtor, the seller, the home inspector...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:11 AM on May 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

I previously posted "I hope you took pictures" with no context here, and the mods rightfully deleted it.

What I meant was "I hope you took pictures, because they will be useful when presenting a case when you sue the realtor, the seller, the home inspector, et. al"
posted by orville sash at 7:26 AM on May 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Contact a lawyer. If you had a lawyer involved in the purchase, start with them - even if they can't help you, they should be able to refer you to a lawyer who can deal with the issue. If not, have a look at the CA Bar website for referral sources: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/state/calbar/calbar_generic.jsp?cid=10180&id=1396
posted by marginaliana at 7:35 AM on May 21, 2009

Lawyer. Today.

Also, how goddamn gross and cheap and half-assed to just carpet over splattered brains.
posted by jerseygirl at 7:37 AM on May 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

It's possible they did not disclose because they didn't know.

After an incident like this suicide, many people hire a hazmat team to clean, repaint, carpet, and so on. Even if the blood is not contaminated with disease, it makes sense because cleaning would be distressing for the family. The homeowners' insurance sometimes pays for this service, a company comes out, and the house is repaired.

If it were me, I'd talk with the realtors involved (yours and theirs) to find out what's known. If the family paid a company to clean the home, and did not know about this, perhaps your recourse is with that company via the family of the previous homeowner.

It's sad, but people die in their homes. In truth, you probably got a good deal on the house because some people refuse to buy a home in which there has been a death.
posted by Houstonian at 7:46 AM on May 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Lawyer, definitely. I agree with orville about the picture thing, but if you didn't (or even if you did) you might contact the workers on the flooring crew to see if any of them would testify in court about what they found. Go over every inch of your house with a fine-toothed comb to see if there are any other issues they neglected to tell you about.

Also, ick. Ruin the bastards.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 7:47 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

All of the evidence has been sanded away. It is going to be tough to proceed with an action unless there was video documentation.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 7:48 AM on May 21, 2009

Slow down, legal avengers! Get a lawyer, but I doubt you're going to ruin anybody nor come into serious money. You may well get the cost of the sanding back, but I don't see how this will be anything other than a contract action against the seller. No one else owed you the disclosure. That will limit the type of damages you can get.

posted by palliser at 7:57 AM on May 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Quite a lot of commenters here are really quick to recommend a lawyer on this one. Probably not the worst idea, but you may want to sit down first and think about what your idea of a good resolution is for this and then ask the agent to make amends before contacting the lawyer. Its possible he didn't know about this and, as a human being, will do what he can to make it right. If he blows you off, then I nth everyone else -- lawyer, now.
posted by gagglezoomer at 7:58 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here they found a hideous scene: between the new carpet padding and the hardwood is a thick layer of dried, saturated blood and crunchy tissue which appears to be brains. The residue runs the entire length of the hallway, some 15 feet, with distinct lines at each of the five doorways. Despite the disclosure that the shooting happened in the back room, the blood evidence makes it clear that the suicide closed himself off in the smallest area of the house, the hallway, and shot himself there. The body was removed, the walls repainted, but the residue of the shooting was never cleaned up. Instead, someone had laid down new carpeting to give the impression of cleanliness.

I'm having some difficulty with this part of your question. It seems to me that a rational person would, upon finding such a large amount of dried human blood, halt all work and call the police to document the situation.

Furthermore, the average adult human body has only 10 pints of blood, slightly more than two two-liter bottles of soda. It doesn't seem that amount of blood would cover a fifteen-foot hallway, unless I'm misreading your description somehow.

"Crunchy tissue which appears to be brains" seems like it would most certainly have been addressed by the cleaners who had to deal with the aftermath of the suicide.

I would say that if your story is entirely accurate, you really need to be able to back it up with documentation in the form of photographs. I hope you took some.

I'd advise you to do some research: find out who the previous owner was, go to the police department and FOIA the report on the suicide incident in your home, etc. But those photos would really prove to be crucial in this case.
posted by brina at 8:01 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's worth ruining anyone over, except maybe the carpet installer.

People die in houses, as Houstonian said, and you did know there was a suicide and decided that wasn't a deal-breaker. It's the matter being left and hidden that's the problem, really.

Finding out who authorised & paid for the carpeting and whomever actually put it down will probably be the most useful bit of information to discover. The authoriser may not have known that the installer did such a hideous thing.

It seems like if there's an extra charge from your contractors regarding what was found and dealt with that this would be the primary thing to focus a lawyer's attention on.

If you can find it in yourself to honour the idea that the gentleman who removed himself just wanted to be free of the world instead of focusing on the ick-factor, it might make the situation itself easier to deal with. That and the fact that you get to give the house new, better history to succeed the tragedy it absorbed.
posted by batmonkey at 8:05 AM on May 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

What a shock! I'd suggest two things for after you deal with the legal stuff and get to figuratively smack whoever left you this mess:
- do whatever you need to have the house cleansed, whether that's a smudging ceremony or a priest with holy water or just a thorough cleaning; you need to feel that this house is entirely yours and not bearing some vestige of the previous owner(s)
- remember that the world has been populated for a very long time and that there are bones underfoot everywhere. Now that's not particularly comforting to some, but it does put things into perspective if you're creeped out at all by the suicide.

BTW, is there some regulatory board to which the people who didn't clean up and/or misrepresented what had been done can be reported? Sometimes that's a better satisfaction than money if your complaint is taken seriously and open for others to see.
posted by x46 at 8:08 AM on May 21, 2009

From the original poster:
Thanks for the feedback. Yes, I did take photos once the carpets were removed, before the flooring work continued.
posted by mathowie at 8:08 AM on May 21, 2009

Not much to add other than recommending a lawyer and sympathy, having once been in a similar situation -- except the selling agent didn't disclose it at all, my agent found out about it through gossip and confronted the other agent. (And it was even worse -- double murder with lots of sad, sad surrounding circumstances several years prior).

Worst worst part though? I was living with my parents when I put in the bid. Dad comes home, I say, OH JESUS, GUESS WHAT I FOUND OUT ABOUT THE HOUSE. Dad says "Someone died there. There was a serious cold spot at [location], but I didn't want to freak you out."

(You have to understand my father is just about as skeptical as can be, so this freaked me out even worse).


And in case you doubt the story -- ran it by my agent and she had discovered that yes, in fact, after the shooting the bodies were dumped down the basement stairs.

It's a pity, it was a nice house, and cheap, but that was too much for me in the end...I hope you soak whoever was responsible for the coverup but good.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:17 AM on May 21, 2009

brina brings up a good point.

Under the carpet is a carpet pad -- a very dense sponge-like material. I can see that the carpet pad might have dispersed the blood across a large area, and maybe made it seem like the suicide was in a different area that it really was (maybe a wavy floor or indentions in the pad). Although, it would not be a huge amount spread everywhere -- it would be thinly spread. But brain matter? I'm not sure how a brain could liquefy enough to get through the carpet and then through the pad, and yet still remain distinct enough to be identified when dried as brain.

I think it might be possible that what you saw was not what you thought. If you (and the flooring people) knew about the suicide, you are halfway expecting to see something related to that, and it makes sense that the suicide would be the first thing you thought of, and so what you saw might have been interpreted through the lens of that expectation. If there had not been a suicide in that house, would you have thought something like, "Eww, lots of cola and glue backing from the carpet" instead of "blood and brains"?
posted by Houstonian at 8:26 AM on May 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

IANAL alert: I am also recommending a lawyer and recommending that you keep a log of events. Write down everything about the transaction from the day you found out about the death in the house (pertinent dates, names, etc) and good job on keeping a photographic record.

At the very, very least, you do not deserve to be charged for the cleanup/aftermath of something that happened before your time (especially when that "something" includes biological waste on your floors). I think this is different from something like "they didn't tell me the furnace needed to be replaced" but again, IANAL.

Get a lawyer and find out who was responsible for the coverup so you can enjoy your new home.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:33 AM on May 21, 2009

Houstonian may be right that what you found was not necessarily human tissue. But if it was, you really do need to find a lawyer -- and not for the reasons posted above. You and your contractors may both be in violation of the Medical Waste Act of the state of California, which requires that all medical waste be disposed of in a particular manner.

If your contractors did indeed sweep up crunchy brains and sand down human blood, you and the contractors both may have inadvertently improperly disposed of medical waste.
posted by brina at 8:34 AM on May 21, 2009

Are you and the flooring contractors absolutely sure that it was human remains? Stains from pet urine can discolor hardwood floor in a manner that matches your description. (See this photo in particular.)

This AskMe thread from 2007 also discusses blood-like stains on hardwood floors. If it's at all possible to explain the stains as the result of anything other than the elderly man's suicide, your life (and the lives of everyone involved) will be much easier.
posted by aparrish at 9:20 AM on May 21, 2009

I'm having a hard time thinking that somebody would just lay down carpet over a big pool of blood and brains- seems like there would be an awful lot of smelly residue from that kind of scene.

It seems like there are other, more plausible explanations for what you found- not least because they told you it was a different room, etc. Did you save a sample for testing?

Is it possible that your contractor is pulling your leg?
posted by jenkinsEar at 10:20 AM on May 21, 2009

Yes, if this was a major concern to you, you would have called the police to ask about proper disposal of human matter.

I don't see anything to sue for except to pay for the extra cleaning, which doesn't seem worth the expense to me, but it is valid.

Honestly, it just seems everyone is dramatizing the fact of the suicide, but really, I am sure older houses have many, many deaths. I mean, what are they going to do, go outside? Life, birth, death, joy, sadness all happens within homes. Death happens in all shapes and forms in all places, we cannot avoid it, or keep our own places pristine from it.

I can't imagine you could sue for the 'shock' of it. Which room it happened in is really trivial and exacerbates the 'oh my gosh, death' drama.

Again, it does seem as if everyone involved did not handle the disposal correctly (just a guess), and that would seem like you are liable as well.

Really? What I would do is call the coroner and find out what should have been done by all involved, call the real estate agent and request the clean up money, sue if you feel a burning need to, accept that there was a loss in your house, honor it, honor the sadness, his life, maybe create a little ritual or service for closure.
posted by Vaike at 10:28 AM on May 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

It doesn't make sense that someone, no matter how freaked out or irresponsible, would just throw a carpet mat down over a bunch of blood and brains.

Further, the agent / whoever told you the death occurred in a totally different room. Why would he lie? Or why would someone lie to him?

At every level there doesn't seem to be any incentive to a.) lie about where the death occurred and b.) not clean it up properly.

I'm betting someone spilled something on the carpet, was able to clean the top, but not the underlying mat. The liquid then spread out and made a gooey mess.
posted by wfrgms at 10:33 AM on May 21, 2009

I agree with the other posters that this doesn't really add up. Hopefully, there was some other substance under there for all the reasons listed above: no installer would do that, it would smell for months, it seems like an excessive amount of fluid. Another theory to throw out there that won't make you feel better: there was some other crime committed in this house that either did or did not relate to the suicide. In that case, it would have been a much better idea to involve the police.

If you have photos and you still have the carpet pad, call up the police. Explain the whole situation to them and they will tell you whether they have an interest in testing the pad or what you should do. Your floor guys should also sit down and write up their recollection of this event now while it is fresh in their minds.

I don't know what I'd do but I'd start with the police and also notify your realtor that you found some serious issues with the floor under the carpet.
posted by amanda at 10:40 AM on May 21, 2009

Anon: In all earnestness, I think there are three possibilities here. Hopefully it's the first:

1. What you saw wasn't blood and human remains, but something else that you thought were related to the suicide when in fact it was not. Which means you need to find out for sure if what you saw was what you thought you saw.

2. It was not related to the suicide, but to an earlier crime, and now you've got a situation on your hands. You need to get the police involved.

3. It was related to the suicide, in that the cleaners did not do their job properly. If so, you need to get the police involved.

Good luck.
posted by brina at 11:38 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

At the very least, small claims court for the increased costs.

How incredibly disrespectful to the deceased to leave human tissue, possibly illegal, as well.

Maybe I'm more wooo-wooo than I think, but I would get some sweetgrass or other sacred incense and have some sort of cleansing ceremony. The poor deceased guy needs some spiritual good karma.
posted by theora55 at 12:01 PM on May 21, 2009

... "Crunchy tissue which appears to be brains" seems like it would most certainly have been addressed by the cleaners who had to deal with the aftermath of the suicide.

... the cleaners did not do their job properly. If so, you need to get the police involved.

Unfortunately, there's no division of government-funded cleaners, kept on stand-by to clean up after messy home deaths. After a home suicide like this, the aftermath is cleaned up either by the family, or by a specialty crime scene cleaner. That second option is pretty expensive, so if there's no family to pay for it (or do it themselves) then the cleaning doesn't get done.

Having said that, the details of your story do suggest the possibility that your hallway mess might have been something other than human remains. I'm not sure how you'd investigate that further, aside from approaching the police/the anatomy department of your local university/your local chapter of hardwood flooring contractors who have seen absolutely everything with the photos (and a sample of the suspicious matter, if you retained any).
posted by hot soup girl at 12:29 PM on May 21, 2009

That second option is pretty expensive, so if there's no family to pay for it (or do it themselves) then the cleaning doesn't get done.

That's not entirely correct. The cleanup from suicide is covered under many homeowners insurance plans.
posted by Houstonian at 1:33 PM on May 21, 2009

I think that if you posted here anonymously you probably will not want to bring a suit to court as it is likely to attract publicity. Possibly a label for you, and in this internet age certainly one for the house. Talking to the agent sounds sensible.

Talking to yourself is also sensible. Take a walk round the historic part of town. How many sad deaths have happened in those houses? Aren't they still desirable residences? And, rationally, an elderly suicide may not have been a personal tragedy but a brave act of liberation.

A thorough sanding would seem to deal pretty well with any ick. Let's not dwell on what be nastier and still lurking on other people's floors!

Good luck. Enjoy your house, and your part in its continuing history.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:37 PM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can say from first-hand experience that old carpet pad becomes crunchy and brittle, and if it has become wet, can stick to the floor, such that, when you pull it up, bits of it stick to the floor and look like vomit. Carpet padding is often a pale, yellowish, mottled color, which could quite easily resemble bloody brain tissue to the untrained eye. Now, your hardwood contractors should have recognized this without a problem, however....

Regarding the location of the suicide, that seems like something it would be very easy to verify with a simple call to the police department. Any suicide should have a police report listing where the suicide took place, and that should be quite specific as to which bedroom or hallway. The police report should also be a public record.
posted by PigAlien at 3:15 PM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get a lawyer that specializes in real estate. Because you're about to come into some serious money from the realtor, the seller, the home inspector...

I wouldn't count on this. As unpleasant as this discovery is, it's incumbent on anonymous to just hire someone to clean it up properly, and move on with his life. I don't really see a clear cause of action here.
posted by jayder at 3:57 PM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems like the flooring guys would be pretty skilled at recognizing all manner of stain or carpet pad deterioration in their line of work. If they thought what they found was so out of the ordinary as to stop work and call the owner, maybe that points to it really being human remains?

I don't know, but I am pretty grossed out. Good luck and I hope you have really good documentation or kept the carpet pad.
posted by dahliachewswell at 4:37 PM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was wondering if you'd be obliged to put this on your seller's disclosure when you sell the place ... "refinished floors, removed human brains." So maybe you should be careful how you proceed with and resolve this.
posted by carter at 6:59 PM on May 21, 2009

between the new carpet padding and the hardwood is a thick layer of dried, saturated blood and crunchy tissue which appears to be brains. The residue runs the entire length of the hallway, some 15 feet

I would say that before you do anything else you need to find out what that stuff really is. That much dried blood would be likely to still be decomposing with the attendant odors (although not inevitably). Brains do not dry out and become crunchy and they also do not seep through carpets (or is the theory that someone simply carpeted over the mess without cleaning it up-that seems unlikely to me). How long ago did this suicide occur? I get the feeling there are still some facts to be ascertained.

I say all this not as someone suffering from male answer syndrome, but as someone who has tangentially been on the other side. I have been unfortunate enough to have two friends kill themselves in a similar manner and helped with the cleanup of one (I was out of town and the cleanup had been done by the time I got back in the other one). There was a good bit of blood at the one I saw but it clotted quickly (brain tissue is such a good activator of coagulation that it is used in some lab tests) and barely soaked through the carpet, much less the padding. It certainly didn't run the length of the hallway. Even without carpeting it would take at least the entire amount of blood in the human body (2-3 liters) to soak a hallway with a thick layer. Once again, I think there are a lot more facts that need to be found before anyone can know what is going on.
posted by TedW at 8:07 PM on May 21, 2009

You've found what appear to be human remains. Some guy told you that someone committed suicide in that house, but you have no evidence to suggest that these are the remains from that hearsay suicide incident.


(And, first, call a lawyer. You might already have damaged vital evidence and who knows what else)
posted by iffley at 6:59 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

any follow-up on this story? a whole day has gone by, have you spoken to the police or a lawyer? just curious...
posted by PigAlien at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I live in a house in the Bay Area that was the site of a husband-and-wife murder-suicide in the 1970s. We didn't know about it before we bought the house, because disclosure laws only relate to deaths in the house in (I think -- IANAL) the previous five years.

(Of course, once we moved in, the neighbors were more than happy to tell us the whole story. It doesn't bother us at all, and there are no visible marks after all this time, although I like to tell people that a persistent stain on the floorboards near the fireplace may be related. Sorry, I'm a gorehound.)

Do you know when the person killed himself in the house? You may have a claim for nondisclosure from the seller, if it was within the time frame of having to report it. Sounds like it happened fairly recently, from your description of what you found.
posted by vickyverky at 11:32 AM on May 22, 2009

Sorry, just reread the post and realized that you were told about the death, but not the correct location. Yes, go back to your seller/agent.
posted by vickyverky at 11:34 AM on May 22, 2009

update from the original poster:
Thank you, everyone who read and commented on my post. This is a situation that probably won't have a quick resolution, but it's developing.

The latest is that I've entered into correspondence with the seller, and have asked that they provide me with a paper trail including the two-year-old police report, receipts for all work that was supposedly done on the house after the death, and an accounting of who examined and approved the work. It's possible that the crime scene clean up crew that was hired to deal with the immediate aftermath of the death charged the seller for work that wasn't done, resulting in the mess I found, and substandard repairs and litter found elsewhere under the rugs.

My main interest at this stage is understanding what happened in the house: where the death actually occurred and what the police observed when investigating, how long elapsed between the death and when it was cleaned up, the level of professionalism of the clean up crew, and who supervised and signed off on the work. Without this information, I am at the mercy of my vivid imagination, and I'd rather know as much as I can about what happened in the house.

A few more thoughts and replies...

California law requires disclosures of death in a house (but not the cleaning up of icky messes) within three years, a deadline which will soon pass. So at least I won't have disclose when I sell. This law was a factor in my buying the house, as I didn't want to be stuck with a property that other folks wouldn't want to buy when I'm ready to move on.

The carpet pads were brand new, and looked perfect everywhere but in the offending area. The carpets too were brand new, and there was no indication that there was any problem in the hall until they were pulled back.

I asked my agent if the police should be called, and he said he didn't think so, as the case was cold.

I do understand that death is normal and that many places in the developed world have been the site of someone's passing. I think that's kind of neat, in the abstract. My seeing the decaying residue of someone's passing, tucked deceptively under brand new carpet, ought not never to have happened, though, and I'm making it my mission to find out who thought it was okay to put me, or anyone else who bought this home, in this position.
posted by mathowie at 9:27 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

any resolution to this story?
posted by arnicae at 11:43 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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