Don't hide your skeletons in the closet

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 04Nov2006

Whether you can't stand the neighbours or the house was the scene of a grisly crime, there's no point concealing the reason for a move, says James Trollope.

Prospective buyers are viewing your home and you feel sure they're going to make an offer. "I simply adore what you've done to the place," the woman gushes, "and what a fabulous location." Then, just as you are wondering whether you can bump the price up, she asks that simple but sometimes deadly question: "Why are you moving?" With luck, you have a satisfactory response - "a better job in another part of the country", or, "downsizing to help the children on to the property ladder" - but the real reason often isn't so appealing. Death, divorce and disease aren't exactly deal-clinchers.

So, how truthful do you have to be about the personal circumstances behind your move? Should you admit, for example, that you've been so miserable in the house that you are splitting up? Can you skate over the fact that your mother dropped dead in the bathroom? Is it OK to keep quiet about the obnoxious people next door? And what about the crime that traumatised the neighbourhood?

The chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, Peter Bolton King, admits that the "why move" question can be tricky.

"A suicide or murder is especially sensitive," he says. "As far as the agent is concerned, there's no obligation to make any comment but we can't lie to a direct question. If I were handling the sale, I would advise the owners that there's no point in trying to hide something like that. In my experience, as long as it's a nice house, it won't put most people off."

Richard Smallman, an estate agent in Hastings, once sold a flat not realising that a man had been murdered there. "We thought he had been abducted, which is what we told the woman who bought it. Some time later we read in the local paper that he had been killed there. Understandably, she was a little distressed."

Also in Hastings, former teacher Sion Jenkins was accused of killing his 13-year-old foster daughter, Billie-Jo in the family home - a crime of which he was acquitted earlier this year, after three trials.

Such was the publicity surrounding the case that potential buyers of the house could hardly have been unaware of its history. Nevertheless, the large Victorian semi, in sought-after Lower Park Road, has been sold at least twice since the murder in 1997.

According to Richard Smallman, the sale prices were more or less in line with the market.

Mr Smallman estimates that about 20 to 30 per cent of buyers might be put off by such an appalling event, but most of us, it seems, will take it in our strides.

Just before signing a contract to buy a Regency basement flat in Hove, Frederick Van der Merwe discovered that five people had died during a fire at the building in 1992. As a relatively recent arrival from South Africa, it is understandable that he hadn't heard about the blaze, which had trapped several partygoers in a flat on the third floor.

They were left with the terrifying choice of jumping 50 feet to the ground or staying inside and trying to survive the flames. Three people died after jumping and the bodies of two others were found inside the flat.

"No one told me about it," says Mr Van der Merwe. "I pieced together what had happened from taxi drivers and references in the local paper. It's very sad but at the end of the day it makes no difference to me. I love living in Hove."

It is only when such tragedies and crimes pass from living memory into history, that they start appearing on estate agent particulars. "Stories about ghosts, and the like, can actually add value to a house," says Mr Bolton-King, "buyers often relish a bit of history."

Obnoxious neighbours, on the other hand, are never welcome. The difficulty is finding out about them. Although the standard property information form asks about disputes and complaints, unless they are documented or well known locally, most sellers are unlikely to mention them.

"As a rule of thumb, it is up to the buyer to find out these sorts of things," says Peter Bolton-King. "In some other countries the seller is forced to divulge much more, but here it's often a question of caveat emptor - buyer beware."

Even if you don't have neighbours from hell, or a murder to cover up, the "why move" question can cause problems. After the birth of our second child, we were desperate to move from our poky terrace house in Brighton to something larger. Our buyers, though, not only had older children but more of them. My dilemma was how to explain to a family of five that our smaller outfit was on the move because the house wasn't big enough. Luckily, they didn't ask.

And perhaps they were wise. As long as your solicitor finds about the really important things, like the tower block about to be built in the adjoining garden, it's probably better not to know about the quarrels and personal tragedies that lurk in a house. After all, moving house is quite painful enough without looking for trouble.