How to Sell a House of Horrors

If you're finding it hard to sell your property, then imagine trying to sell a home stigmatized by shocking crimes and catastrophies.

Take Bundy Drive in Brentwood, Calif., where Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were stabbed to death, allegedly by her husband O.J. Simpson.

Denise Brown said her sister Nicole loved her home. "It was perfect for her. It wasn't too much garden work. It was light, it was bright, it was airy," said Brown.

After Nicole was murdered, the Browns found themselves in the midst of a practical predicament -- what to do with her property.

Brown said the house looked empty even though nothing from it was gone. "I mean, it wasn't, it wasn't as if the furniture or anything was gone. But it was just an empty, lonely feeling. You know, something was missing and it was my sister," she said.

Many people are ambivalent about selling a house where something terrible has happened, because it is difficult to let their loved one's memories go. But the reality is, there are bills to pay.

Under those circumstances, there's only one person to call, Randall Bell, also known as the master of disaster. He's not a realtor; he's an appraiser and economist, and is considered the country's foremost expert on damaged real estate.

Bell got a call from Nicole's father, Lou Brown.

"Lou asked me to appraise the property and also give him some advice on how to handle the situation," Bell said. "The family, of course, was dealing with a horrible emotional problem and still is. But on the other hand, they had this condo and they had practical issues and they needed to sell it."

The Brown family put the condo up for sale shortly after the murders. But it was too early, and the stigma too deep. It sat on the market for two-and-a-half years and finally sold for $200,000 less than Nicole had paid for it.

"Crime scene stigma has two effects on property values," Bell said. "One is the most obvious, and that's the discounting effect. And the second is that it takes longer to sell these properties."

Cleaning Up the Stigma

Three years ago, Ron Austen and his girlfriend, Cathy Nazarian, bought a home in Ventura, Calif., with an ugly history. And they knew terrible things had occurred there.

"I knew that rapes had occurred here, druggings," Austen said.

Andrew Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics millionaire Max Factor and heir to a fortune, lived discreetly in the house for 20 years.

In 2003 he was convicted of drugging and raping women, and police discovered he'd recorded his crimes on video. He's currently serving a 124-year prison sentence.

Austen and Nazarian said the history of the house definitely gave them pause.

"It had a little bit of effect on me," said Austen. "I figured it was the ultimate fixer-upper in that they say to buy a place in the nicest possible location that's in the worst possible shape and this was both."

And the price was right -- 20 percent below market value.

Nazarian said she tried to sleep in the bedroom where Luster committed the crimes, but just couldn't do it. "Just walking into this room I'm in a bad place," she said.

The property needed more than just time to remove this stigma -- it needed a makeover. Ron says he has spent almost $100,000 renovating the property and it has been worth it.

"It's some of what Randall Bell talks about, which is once you start to clean up, it takes away some of the stigma. ... It kinda reminds people there's somebody new here," Austen said.

Timing Is Everything

Bell said he has never seen a crime scene property not sell, but that it's all a matter of timing.

In August 1969, followers of Charles Manson rampaged through a house on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, where they shot and stabbed five people, including the stunning actress Sharon Tate, the wife of famed movie director Roman Polanski, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their child.

Rudy Altobelli, now 77, was the owner then. He rented the guest house to Sharon Tate. Altobelli bought the property in the early 1960s for $86,000.

He loved the house, calling it "magical." A talent manager, Altobelli was overseas when the murders occurred. But, surprisingly, the crimes didn't affect his love for the house.

"I moved right back into the house three weeks after the murders happened," Altobelli said. "When I came back to that property, I felt safe, secure, loved and beauty."

He enjoyed this stunning location for the next 20 years, and then put it on the market. "Everybody said I'd never sell it. And two weeks later, I sold it," he said.

Altobelli sold the house for $1.6 million -- 18 times what he'd paid for it.

And in another twist for the Brown family, the condo on Bundy, which sold for just $590,000, is back on the market, with an asking price of $1.8 million.

"I guess real-estate-wise, I mean thinking now, oh my gosh the property's worth so much we probably should have hung on to it," said Denise Brown.

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