Day 487: The Ghost Clause Of New York State

originally published May 1, 2013

Shopping for a new home is often about as pleasant as prying one’s fingernails back with a pair of pliers, whilst listening to a man who smells of… is that boiling cabbage and hippo farts?… try to sell you an insurance policy in the back row of a Kanye West concert. At least in my experience – perhaps you’ve been luckier than I, or maybe you actually don’t mind listening to the autotuned warblings of Kanye West.

In choosing the perfect new home, you have to look beyond the square footage, location, adjoining bus routes, neighborhood schools and appliance upgrades. You’ve got to sift through those little things – you know, the items that might appear to be insignificant minutiae, but will actually shape the most important moments of your life inside this abode.

That spot where you’d put your TV – are you going to get a glare off the evening sun? Will it be practical to build a secret bookcase-door in front of the room you want to use as a man-cave? What about the possibility of adding a twirly-slide from the second floor to the basement? If any of these might come up, then they should be deal-breakers for you right from the start.

And what if the house is haunted? Let’s assume we’re not talking about Casper, or the resilient spirit of a slain supermodel who yearns for one more coital dalliance before she departs to the Great Beyond. Does the previous owner of the home have a legal obligation to disclose any paranormal infestation that may or may not be dwelling within (or even actually in) your new walls?

Actually, if you live in the state of New York, that answer is a solid yes.

Ms. Helen Ackley lived in a cozy little home in Nyack, New York (nickname: Broke-back Nyack, at least according to the town’s Wikipedia article). The house was, according to Ms. Ackley, haunted. She reported tales of weirdness to Reader’s Digest, and dropped instances of paranormal mamajama to the local press on multiple occasions between 1977 and 1989. She claimed that her grandchildren received strange ‘gifts’ of baby rings, all of which disappeared shortly afterward. She told tales of ghosts shaking her bed, rousing her from her sleep, and anecdotal incidents of spirits interacting with her family.

Whether or not one actually believes Ms. Ackley’s claims is irrelevant. She believed them, and so did enough people to have landed her on a local walking tour of spooky spots in Nyack. In 1989, she decided it was time to move – whether it was the ghosts or simply a desire to relocate to sunny Florida, I really don’t know. But when Jeffrey Stambovsky plunked $32,500 down as a down-payment on the place, he had no idea what he was buying.

Jeffrey was from New York City. He hadn’t spent a lot of time around Nyack, and knew nothing of the property’s ghoulish reputation. When the rumors of the unsettled dead started to scuttle his way, he changed his mind and tried to back out of the deal.

Jeffrey refused to show up for the closing of the sale, thus forfeiting his down-payment and leaving him free of his obligation to buy the place, though over $30k lighter in his pockets. It was time to head to court.

The first issue was to define whether or not the house was indeed haunted. My suggestion would have been to send in a group of savvy, ghoul-foiling teens and their talking dog to investigate, but I suppose that’s why I’m not currently employed anywhere near the legal system. Actually, the judges – and here we’re talking about a five-member panel on the New York Supreme Court – determined that yes, the house was indeed haunted. The presence of ghosts had been reported in a national publication and numerous times in the local press, and the house’s reputation has most certainly affected its value for resale within the community. So yeah, the place is ‘legally’ a haunted house, whether or not any actual ghosts call the place home.

That said, the court told Jeffrey he was out of luck. New York’s property laws waved the amber flag of caveat emptor, which means ‘let the buyer beware’. This whole thing might have ended up a kooky footnote in New York’s legal history, but for an appeal trip to the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division.

The appeal held up, and Jeffrey got his money back. The reason? Well, the average home-shopper will check the place out, and if they’re smart they’ll hire an inspector to probe the foundation, pick at the shingles on the roof and check to make sure all the parts are operational as reported by the seller. But no home inspector is going to do a sweep for ghosts. Sure, the seller has no obligation to disclose the home’s reputation as a polter-orgy to the prospective buyer, but because such a reputation is so far removed from any logical query a potential purchaser might pose, an exception needed to be made.

After all, who checks a place for ghosts?

The 3-2 decision was peppered with little word-gags too, and as a devotee of the written comedic arts, it makes my day a little brighter to know that there are highly-placed judges with a sense of humor. “The plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance…” is one example. Another is the statement that the notion of caveat emptor “…is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent.” Well done, Justice Milonas.

The resulting publicity from this case couldn’t have hurt Helen Ackley’s efforts to find a buyer for her home. Kreskin, the renowned mentalist and professional (alleged) kook, took an interest in the property. Helen found a fresh buyer in 1991, and took off for Florida. For the record, my first reference to her moving to Florida was a total guess. Maybe some spirit just whispered it in my ear.

Supposed paranormal investigators Bill Merrill and Glenn Johnson hooked up with Ms. Ackley and contacted the spirits, who reported that it wasn’t much fun haunting the house now that Helen had moved out. The new homeowners have not reported any evidence of haunting – it appears the spookiness strangely ceased when Helen packed up.

Almost makes one wonder if she had simply made those stories up. Nah… that’s simply not possible. Makes for a curious legal precedent, however.

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