When 3 Moorhouse Street in the Perth suburb of Willagee went up for rent late last year, the online listing practically sparkled. The three bedroom, two bathroom home had been recently renovated and fitted out with Venetian blinds, French doors, high gloss bathrooms and a shiny, white kitchen. In photos, it looked brand new.
What the listing didn’t mention is that 3 Moorhouse Street was the former home of serial killer couple David and Catherine Birnie, who murdered four women in 1986. The pair raped and tortured their victims in the master bedroom, burying their bodies in the nearby state forest. In a nod to the suburban street where they took place, the killings became known as the “Moorhouse Murders”.
Homes where murders have taken place are known as “stigmatised properties” and in Australia, real estate agents are legally obliged to tell prospective buyers about their history. But it wasn’t always this way.
Things changed in 2004, when a couple unwittingly bought the Sydney home where Sef Gonzales had killed his family three years prior. They learnt about the triple murder in a newspaper article before the settlement date and, concerned about bad feng shui, refused to proceed with the sale. After a PR shitstorm, L.J. Hooker were forced to refund their deposit and the branch responsible received a $20,900 slap on the wrist from the Office of Fair Trading for failing to inform the purchasers of the home’s history. The case set a legal precedent and now, agents can be fined if they don’t tell buyers what lies underneath that new coat of paint.
So the law is looking out for homeowners—but is anyone bothering to tell the people who rent murder homes? It’s a question I, resigned member of the generation of Australians locked out of the property market, had been thinking about ever since I saw the Birnie house go up for rent.
An agent from Yard Property, the agency who rented out the Moorhouse home, declined to comment but confirmed to VICE that the tenants were informed of the home’s history before they moved in. Likewise, agents from Ray White Petersham last year assured the public that prospective tenants looking to live in the Sydney terrace where a man tried to cut out his lover’s heart in the 1930s had been made aware of the historic murder.
Officially, at least, renters are meant to be told if they’re moving into a home with a bloody history. Each state in Australia has its own Real Estate Institute, which sets guidelines for what tenants need to know before they sign on the dotted line. The exact wording may differ, but all agree that tenants should be informed about violent deaths at a property.
In Western Australia, home of the Birnies, a murder at a property is considered a “material fact” that should be disclosed—at least, if the event was recent.
“An agent can use their judgement. For example a murder that took place a few months ago is most definitely a material fact, whereas a murder that took place 80 years ago is far less likely to impact a buyer or tenant’s decision,” Real Estate Institute of Western Australia President Damian Collins told VICE. “As a rule, if in doubt an agent should always disclose.”
In NSW, only murders in the preceding five years are strictly considered a material fact (though an agent may deem notorious older cases worth a mention). In the ACT, murder is always considered a stigmatising event, as are a large number of natural deaths on the property or suicides with “gruesome circumstances”. Landlords in Canberra will even tell you if someone jumped off the top of an apartment building and landed on your balcony, provided this caused “bodily fluids to be released”.
Which is all well and good—but anyone who’s rented before knows things aren’t always done by the book, especially given the agents in charge of rental properties are often junior, inexperienced, and prone to oversights. In 2008—years after the landmark Gonzales case—Erin O’Neill says she moved into a home in the Melbourne suburb of Seddon where a murder had taken place. She found out her bedroom was a former crime scene during an inspection.
“So there was this bungalow out the back that we technically weren’t supposed to occupy. It was advertised as an ‘artist studio’," Erin told VICE. "During one of the very infrequent inspections the agent poked her head into the bungalow while my housemate and I were hanging out. She said hello and looked around, then just made this face and said ‘I can’t believe you live in here. You know someone died in here right?’"
When Erin pressed the agent for details “she just gave us a vague answer of ‘I think it was a meth deal gone wrong or something, but a guy was definitely stabbed in here and died. That’s why you’re not supposed to be living in here I guess, but you guys are okay. You pay the rent.’”
Rocco Dimarti, the licensee at Endeavour Property Group Sydney, says “everyone knows about” the legal duty to disclose violent deaths to renters but concedes there’s still cowboy agents and private landlords who don’t play by the rules.
So renters could still wind up living in a murder house without knowing? “I think it happens all the time,” he says. “People just don’t really care. I think a lot of the time [the information] would be withheld by the licensee or the listing agent who’ll have the junior property manager go and show the property, and they’ll try to pin the blame on them if anything happens.”
Other agents are less sure of the guidelines. Bill Di Donna, a Senior Property Manager with Gorman Kelly in Melbourne, tells VICE that he is “not aware of any duty to disclose [to renters] by law” but that “it would be imprudent to omit representation of a heinous crime if you are aware of it.”
“Better that your tenant is aware and make an informed choice than they are not aware which then creates headaches later,” he says.
But renting in Australia is a notoriously shit gig, especially if you’re young, a low-income earner, or any kind of minority. We don’t have Europe’s ten-year leases, no-grounds evictions are common, and a 2018 report by Choice found that 68 percent of Australian renters are afraid to even ask for a repair. So when it’s hard enough to get a call back about a leaky tap, would any tenant in today’s market really go up against a real estate agent over a little thing like murder?
In Erin’s case, the answer was no. “I think we were all a bit afraid of talking to the agent much at all as we were over occupation and they were obviously turning a blind eye to our debauchery,” she says.
Erin is adamant the real estate agent didn’t pass on the info about her home’s meth murder, but she wasn’t particularly fazed by it anyway.
“I wasn’t privy to the lease signing as I technically was a sub-letter, but my housemates absolutely would have told us if they had been advised it was a murder house,” Erin says. “We were all weird art school faux goths and would have been very into it.”
Here’s hoping whoever rented the Birnie house feels the same way.
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