Rent a ghost - a buy to let nightmare

Creaking floorboards, flickering lights, strange odours and a damp cellar - all problems you would maybe expect a property survey to pick up on. But what if there were a sitting tenant, one you know will never pay on time, a grounded spirit from beyond the grave? Would it put you off a purchase, and how much could you reasonably expect to be told before you made the decision to buy?

Case of the month

Mr and Mrs Thomas were landlords, looking to purchase a buy-to-let property. They wanted a large house, to let in the short term, and eventually move into with their family.

The couple spotted an old manor house online and contacted the vendor’s estate agent to arrange a viewing. During the viewing Mrs Thomas suddenly felt ill, pale and queasy. She turned to the estate agent and asked: “Is this house haunted?” Visibly spooked, the agent curtly replied: “I’ve never been asked that before”.

The viewing continued. Mr Thomas approached the master bedroom across the landing. As he walked down the dimly lit corridor, he felt an icy cold breeze across his face. He reached out to the door handle and, as he slowly turned it and pushed the door ajar, it quickly slammed shut. The door pushed back, with such a force that Mr Thomas felt like someone had shut the door on him from the inside. The estate agent turned to Mrs Thomas and joked: “that must be that ghost of yours” as he opened the door. Mr Thomas nervously laughed it off and they continued the viewing.

Despite their supernatural experience, they loved the house so much that they paid a large non-refundable cash deposit to the vendors. No contracts were exchanged; however the deposit ensured that the vendors took the house off the market. Several weeks passed and the purchase was set to go ahead.

However, one afternoon whilst browsing in a local second hand shop the couple stumbled upon a book about the manor. Keen to find out more about their future home, they bought the book. With each page turned, the couple became more and more uneasy about the house as the book spelt out its sinister history. The manor house was more than 200 years old, and built by its first owner, a cruel and wealthy shipping merchant who is said to haunt the house. Legend had it that his favourite haunt was the master bedroom on the first floor.

As the couple reflected on their experiences during their only viewing, a sinking feeling set in. Their dream purchase quickly turned to a nightmare. Angrily they called the estate agent to ask why he had not disclosed the property’s creepy history.

The agent responded that they were unaware of the house’s history, as was the vendor. The estate agent wasn’t local to the area and, anyhow, they were of the opinion that ghosts do not exist.

The couple withdrew from the sale the day before the exchange. The vendors retained the deposit.

The Thomas’ contacted Ombudsman Services: Property to complain that the estate agent should have answered their question about the haunting during the viewing and they asked for their deposit back.

The ombudsman's final decision

The ombudsman’s final decision was that it was unreasonable to pursue a complaint against an estate agent who had not disclosed the potential presence of a supernatural force. This is because it would not be possible to investigate and prove if there was a supernatural presence at the time of the one and only viewing.

Ombudsman Services: Property rejected the complaint on the grounds that it had no reasonable prospect of success as it was felt the agent had complied with its obligations. We decided that no further action was required of the estate agent. The Ombudsman has absolute discretion to refuse to accept (or to terminate consideration of) a complaint, if he/she considers that the complainant has no reasonable prospect of success, recovery or redress.

If a consumer puts down a deposit to take a property off the market and does not complete the sale, the vendor can retain the deposit. We recommend seeking legal advice, before committing to non refundable monies.

However, we explained that it was unusual for a deposit to be non-returnable, as this is usually only the case once contracts have been exchanged and the buyer fails to complete. As the couple were experienced landlords, we thought it reasonable that they would have understood the risk in handing over a large non-refundable deposit.

Our advice

This was certainly an unusual case of buyer beware! In our case the purchasers based their concerns on a single viewing, and hearsay reported in a historical book. They also, unusually, agreed to a non-refundable deposit, prior to any contract exchange.

When it comes to ghoulish goings on, it’s not as transparent as a ghost: there are grey areas. The vendor’s pre-contract enquiry forms should include the question: "Is there any other information you think the buyer may have a right to know?" If a vendor believes the purchaser doesn't need to know about something, then they won’t disclose it. If following completion a purchaser thought the house was haunted, they would find it difficult to prove.

If you are looking for a dream home and do not want to end up in a house of horrors, here are some tricks to ensure your purchase ends up a treat:

  • If there have been any stories or rumours about ghosts or murders in the house, ask the vendor and agent questions up front, and follow up in writing
  • View a property more than once; don’t let emotion take over what could be a costly mistake
  • Research the property on and off line - the internet is an invaluable tool but visiting a local library or speaking to neighbours in the area about a house can be useful
  • Buy the right type of survey for your purchase - if a house is very old or listed a basic homebuyers survey might not pick up some hidden horrors
  • If you are handing over a deposit for any reason make sure you understand the terms and conditions and specifically whether it will be returned to you if you change your mind
Don’t have nightmares. Remember if you have a complaint about one of our participating companies, we may be able to help.

The Property Misdescriptions Act 1991

The Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 does not refer to haunted houses. There is no general requirement for the estate agent or seller to disclose specific information about a property's history unless asked, but the Property Misdescriptions Act of 1991 makes it an offence for them to make false or misleading statements. The onus is on the buyer to ask about the property's history and the seller to disclose the information accurately.

However The Office of Fair Trading’s view (Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008) is that if an Estate Agent has material information that they omit or hide, then it is a misleading omission and may constitute a criminal offence and/or a civil breach. The question centres on whether it is likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision that he or she would not have taken otherwise.