Here at RentConfident we talk about a lot of horrible things that can happen to renters that don't properly screen their landlords. But sometimes it isn't the landlord, the apartment or even that spider-filled laundry room in the basement that's the most frightening thing about your rented home. Sometimes your apartment comes with not only the usual assortment of biological pests but spectral ones as well - I'm talking about ghosts, poltergeists and other spooky residents.
Not everyone believes in ghosts, but for those who've lived in haunted spaces they are a very real thing. No matter what you believe though, you have to agree that some properties get a bad reputation for hosting events that tend to lead to hauntings - mostly murder and death. Buildings that have been the sites of death or tragedy are known as stigmatized property in legal terms. However there's different types of stigma.
A publicly stigmatized property is one that is known by the whole neighborhood as the place where something really bad went down. The most well known Chicago examples of this are 8213 West Summerdale, former home of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The public stigma against this property was so severe that the lot had to be renumbered before anyone would buy it.
There's also property that's been stigmatized by prior use by criminals or those with severe debt. Homes that have been used for manufacturing methamphetamine have recently become well-known examples of such a structure. The residue left behind from this kind of activity is extremely hazardous and almost impossible to remove. New owners in homes formerly occupied by those in deep debt might find themselves harassed by collectors long after the prior owners have moved on.
Hauntings fall in the realm of phenomenon-based stigma. They may cause mental distress or worry for some folks but they will not cause you physical injury.
What can Chicago renters do if they wind up living in a haunted apartment?
Can you sue the landlord? No. Some states require landlords and sellers to disclose prior events that could lead to a haunting, such as murders. Illinois is not one of them. In Illinois you have no right to sue a seller, landlord or their agent for not telling you about the resident ghost in your apartment before you moved in. They only have to tell you about problems that affect the structural integrity of the property. So suing your landlord because of the ghost is not a case you're likely to win.
However, if the ghost is the cause of structural damage that could cause you harm you might have a chance. Bear in mind though that most tenant vs landlord lawsuits are based on the landlord failing to repair damages in a timely manner. Treat any damages caused by your ghost as you would any other broken items in your apartment - report the damage in writing and only pursue legal action if your landlord doesn't respond.
Can you rent it out on AirBNB as a niche vacation spot for ghost hunters? Yes, but it isn't recommended. Publicizing psychological stigma turns it into something that could cause public stigma - it takes a personal matter and makes it a matter of public record. This could negatively impact the value of the landlord's property.
If the landlord chose to promote the property as haunted then you're all good. Put it up on AirBNB as a place for ghost hunters and make some cash, provided that you follow Chicago's laws about using your home as a hotel. If the landlord did not disclose the presence of your otherworldly roommate, you should probably keep quiet about it as well or risk a libel suit.
Can you post pictures of the ghost online? Sure. Just don't include the address along with your photos unless your landlord includes the ghost in their marketing of the apartment.
Can you break the lease? Yes, conditionally. You can always break your lease for any reason. However, doing so without penalty is a different story. Unless your lease specifies that you can break it due to psychological distress (not likely), your best bet is to find someone to take over your lease. Most Chicago landlords cannot forbid you from subletting your place. As for whether or not you should tell to your subletter your real reasons for leaving, that depends again on whether or not your landlord disclosed it to you.
How can Chicago renters avoid living in a haunted apartment?
This one is tougher. RentConfident Signature Reports include a check for any mentions of the property in the news, which could include mention of death, fire or other tragic events. However, most Chicago reporting of such events only specifies the block or neighborhood wherein a murder has occurred in order to avoid creating even more stigmatized property. Although we do search newspaper archives going very far back, street names have changed over time as have street numbers.
There is a site called "Died in House" that will check if anyone has died in a property for a small fee. However, speaking from experience you may be able to find the street address where someone died, but it's very tough to find out the specific apartment number. There's also Housecreep, which maintains a list of stigmatized properties as submitted by users. Much like Yelp, Housecreep claims to patrol submissions and delete reports that cannot be verified. Also much like Yelp you must consider the source of the data as well as the data itself.
However, what the news doesn't report, neighbors will. If you are really concerned about finding an apartment that is not haunted, you need to make a point to ask around the neighborhood before you sign a lease. Ask folks how long they've been in the area, and if they've been there for more than a couple of years, see if they know anything about the property you're looking to rent. You may find out some other important details as well. Of course, bear in mind that anything the neighbors say is hearsay and should be verified.
Getting a rent discount on haunted apartments
Stigmatized property sells for a much lower price than other housing. Houses that are known locations of particularly gruesome homicides have been known to sell for 33 to 50% less than fair market value. However, when it comes to renting the effect is less noticeable. If you're in a weak rental market where landlords have to make concessions to get renters on board, you can certainly use your knowledge of an apartment's haunted status as a bargaining chip. However, in the current fast-paced rental market we've seen since 2011 the chances are that any landlord will just move on to someone who doesn't know about the ghost and is willing to pay the full asking price.
That being said, those who want discounts can do a little ambulance chasing as part of their apartment search. If you're willing to live with an otherworldly roommate and have a high tolerance for squick, keep an eye on the news for addresses where major crimes take place. Chances are that the remaining occupants will probably want to move on and would be happy to have you move in at a below-market rent rate. It isn't necessarily a nice or ethical thing to do, and those who prey on victims of tragedy are often called vultures. However, you can be sure that there are some real estate agents out there that specialize in stigmatized property. If they can do it, so can you.
Have you lived in a haunted apartment before? Share your stories with us in the comments!
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