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Laws differ on disclosing past murders in houses for sale

FARGO - The small, white house with a crisp green lawn near the quiet curve of a cul-de-sac with a patch of neatly tied-up irises in the front is the very picture of a grandparents' home.

Wayne and Carla Viseth
Wayne and Carla Viseth bought a home in Fargo where a 16-year-old was strangled and then suffocated in 2007 as seen Friday, July 19, 2013, in Fargo. (Dave Wallis / Forum News Service)

FARGO - The small, white house with a crisp green lawn near the quiet curve of a cul-de-sac with a patch of neatly tied-up irises in the front is the very picture of a grandparents' home.

But there's a room in the home of Carla and Wayne Viseth that their granddaughter doesn't like to sleep in.

That is the room where 16-year-old Whitney Carlson was found dead six years ago this month, strangled and smothered by her then-15-year-old brother Sergei Carlson, who was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

It's Carla Viseth's craft room now.

"The Realtor said there's a history in this house, showed us the room, asked if it bothered us," said Wayne Viseth, who bought the house from Whitney and Sergei's mother, Penny Ripplinger, who Viseth said couldn't live there after the death of one of her children and the arrest of another.


So far, he said, the house's history hasn't bothered the Viseths.

But it would bother some.

That possibility - as well as the concern the that potential reluctance may make it difficult for a seller to get a fair shake - has prompted widely varying states laws on disclosing to a potential buyer a past murder at a property.

No disclosure in ND

In North Dakota, Re/Max broker Brenda Martinson said a real estate agent is only required to mention a prior murder at a home if a potential buyer asks. That doesn't happen often.

"I have been in the business a long, long time. I only know of one situation that was very public because it was involving a sheriff," Martinson said.

Martinson wouldn't specify any other details about the one incident she recalls, other than to say it wasn't her listing but was handled by her company.

She said if a North Dakota real estate agent volunteered that a home for sale had been the site of a murder, it could be considered a breach of ethics because it could potentially lower the home's selling price.


On the rare occasion a North Dakota buyer asks about murders in the home, the agent is supposed to ask the seller what they know about the murder - then pass on only whatever the seller tells them, even if the seller claims not to know.

"Some people don't care. Other people, they may care a lot - even if it was their dream home," she said.

Other states acknowledge a home's violent past can "adversely and significantly affect an ordinary purchaser's use or enjoyment of the property, or any intended use of the property of which the licensee is aware," as Minnesota state law puts it.

In Minnesota, that means that if somebody has been murdered in a home, the real estate agent has a duty to disclose it to the buyer, said Chris Galler, CEO of the Minnesota Association of Realtors.

There is no time limit specified on which murders must be disclosed, unlike in California, where the law applies only to deaths within the past three years.

So the law applies in Minnesota even if a murder happened 79 years ago, as it did at 1020 2nd Ave. N. in Moorhead. That's where Michael Hansman was shot by an unknown gunman on his own front porch in 1924.

The home is still there, and if the current owner were to try to sell it without disclosing the murder from nearly 90 years ago, Galler said the buyer could later hold them liable in court - something he doesn't agree with.

"Some religions have concerns about when anyone dies on a property," be it of murder or any other cause, he said, as well as some Asian cultures. "But just because they have concerns doesn't mean it rises to the level of disclosure."


Galler said the state Realtors' association lobbied against requiring any form of death disclosure about a decade ago when the law was last addressed in the state Legislature.

They were successful in keeping suicide disclosures out, on the grounds that such homes are often being sold by grieving parents following their child's suicide in the family home.

"We didn't want to have a situation where the seller had to relive the situation," he said.

State law also includes language that specifies homeowners are not required to disclose paranormal activity in a home. That was prompted by a court case in New York in 1991 in which a man bought a home, then sued its former owner for failing to tell him it was haunted.

He lost when the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court said the real estate agent had no duty to disclose the presence of ghosts. That's how Minnesota law also sees it, Galler said.

"You don't have to disclose aliens, either," he said.

Viseth said he and his wife haven't noticed any strange occurrences on the property, but then again, they haven't been looking for any, either.

"I think it's a tragedy and everything, but it's something that's been and done. People are dying every day. I guess we're not spooky people," he said.

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