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things that go bump in the night…

The pumpkins are piled high in the shops, its fright night at the theme parks and the children are getting ready to go 'trick or treating' – it will soon be All Hallows Eve or Halloween, the night when ghouls and ghosts are reputed to walk abroad.

What has this to do with an article about house conveyancing? You might well wonder but even the dry and dusty world of the conveyancer is not untouched by such things. Recently BBC News reported 'Portsmouth's 'haunted' manor house fails to sell' a story about Portsmouth's oldest house Wymering Manor, which featured in the Doomsday Book in 1086 and, more recently, in TV's Most Haunted'. It boasts numerous reports of paranormal activity and security guards who have been known to refuse to work alone. The house may have failed to sell at auction because of this reputation or maybe it was something to do with the £375,000 price tag and the fact that it "…is in need of repairs…."

That's a story about a property that was known to be haunted, but what if you buy a house and then start to be bothered by supernatural beings? You won't be surprised to learn that in this country at least the position is not cut and dried.

The general position is governed by the legal principle of 'caveat emptor' or 'buyer beware' ie it's up to a buyer to make full inspection of the property for defects and make full enquiries of the seller before proceeding with the purchase, which is why I received an enquiry from a buyer's solicitor recently that asked:

"Has the seller or her family experienced any ghosts or other paranormal activity?

If the seller answered 'no' and the buyer, relying on this answer, goes ahead with the purchase and then discovers a) that the house is haunted and b) that the seller knew this and gave a misleading answer to the enquiry, then the buyer would have an actionable case for misrepresentation.

In the US, in the case of Stambovsky –v- Ackley, the New York Supreme Court in 1991 ordered the rescission (cancellation) of a contract for the sale of a house because there was clear evidence that the seller knew the house was haunted, (she had written an article in Readers' Digest with details of how one ghost would wake her each morning by shaking the bed), and the Court held that the fact that the house was haunted would not have been revealed by the buyer's inspection.  

There is no such notable case in English Law but in 1999 Josie and Andrew Smith failed in their attempt to get Derby County Court to reduce the price of the house they had bought in East Staffordshire which, they claimed was haunted, with 'weeping walls, moving objects and apparitions which attacked them'. The Smiths even produced a priest who specialised in the paranormal, who gave evidence that the house was haunted. The Judge was, however, unimpressed and refused to order any price reduction.

Haunted houses are not new to the courts and authorities. In 1998 a council tenant persuaded his Council landlord in County Durham to help pay for an exorcism and in 1969 the High Court accepted that evidence of poltergeists was justification to pay only a nominal rent for a haunted house.

I am somewhat sceptical, but a few years ago I did receive a call from a client for whom I had just completed the purchase of a house he had bought to let as an investment. He told me that on the morning after his tenant moved in he received a call from him in a very distressed state saying that he and his wife had woken in the middle of the night to find a small child sitting at the end of their bed crying, the tenant and his wife were petrified and left the house immediately and spent the rest of the night in a local pub. They refused to move back to the house saying that they were prepared to forfeit their rent deposit rather than live in the house. So who knows?

Although there is no English case law on whether there is a duty on the seller to disclose that a house is haunted, there has been a case where the Court has held that there was no such duty in the case where the seller knew that there had been a horrific murder in the house. It would have been different if the buyer had asked a direct question to which the seller had given an inaccurate answer, which may explain another recent enquiry we received recently:

"Has the seller had occasion to believe that the property is haunted by any ghost, apparition or presence (save for his mother-in-law)?"

Who said solicitors don't have a sense of humour? Happy Halloween!

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