How Much Does a Gruesome Murder Affect the Price of a House?
Probably says a lot about London's property bubble that the house where Dennis Nilsen boiled the heads of his murder victims is only a bit below market value.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I once had a barbecue at Dennis Nilsen's house. In case you're not up on your serial murderer lore, Dennis Nilsen is a British serial killer and necrophiliac who strangled or drowned between 12 and 15 men from 1978 to 1983, all of whom died at his apartment. And they stayed there for a bit, too. Looking back on the murder of his first victim, 14-year-old Stephen Holmes, Den-Den said, "I had started down the avenue of death and possession of a new kind of flatmate."
What Nilsen meant by "new kind of flatmate," as he'd later admit, is that he would keep his victims hanging around—often for months—taking them from underneath floorboards, unwrapping them from plastic and curtains, and lying with them to catch up on a bit of telly, listen to a few tunes, or masturbate.
Now, almost 40 years after that first murder, 23D Cranley Gardens (one of two homes Nilsen used to commit his crimes) is finding it near-impossible to find any tenants, never mind roommates—despite it being £300,000 [$460,000] of "prime real estate" in the world's most expensive city, at least £60,000 [$90,000] less than comparable homes. It's now been on the market twice in less than a year.
Why? In short: bad vibes. When he moved to the attic flat in Muswell Hill on October 5, 1981, Dennis Nilsen had already killed between nine to 12 young men, and before his capture 16 months later, he'd lure another three there and murder them. But it's not just the fact that three men were murdered in the home that's putting potential buyers off; it's the method of their disposal. Unlike at his previous place in Melrose Avenue, Cricklewood, Nilsen didn't have floorboards to stash bodies under or access to a garden to burn them in. So, instead, he dismembered his victims, boiling body parts in his kitchen so the flesh would evaporate, shoved smaller body parts down the toilet, and stashed other bits around the apartment.
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Nilsen was discovered when the neighbors and Dennis himself (seriously) complained about the drains, and a Dyno-Rod employee found the remains clogging up the piping. "It looks to me like someone has been flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken," Dennis said, when they called him and his neighbors over to show them the problem. Weird how you never see that quote on their ads.
Fortunately, when I was invited to the basement flat in that Cranley Gardens house around 20 years later, no such nightmarish fate awaited me. It was a sunny day and my friend Caz's boyfriend, John, said we should go to a barbecue at his friend's house. There was going to be food and wine, so I was already sold, but he took obvious glee in informing me a serial killer used to live there.
My memories are vague, because of the aforementioned wine, but I remember walking down into the kitchen of the flat and feeling pretty glad we were heading straight into the garden—but I'd be lying if I said icy chills ran down my spine. The guys who lived there were obviously very bored of talking about the murder-y nature of their home (I later found out that murder fans stopped and gawked at the house, sometimes ghoulishly knocking on their door) and, being in my early 20s, I was keen to show the boys that I totally, really, wasn't bothered either anyway.
Instead, I enjoyed my warm white wine and charred meat on a picnic bench in the lovely but small garden I can only imagine Nilsen must have repeatedly looked down on and longed for. It was much easier, I guess, burning the bodies as he had done in Melrose Avenue—he managed to murder four times as many men without getting caught, after all.
So when, earlier this month, 23D Cranley Gardens went on sale again for the second time in a year, I immediately emailed Caz to talk murder. And, weirdly, just that weekend her brother and her sister-in-law—who'd been searching for a flat in that exact area for months to no avail—had turned down even viewing Dennis's flat because of the connotations. Warren and Monika are both really clever, rational scientists who definitely don't believe in ghosts or spirits hanging around, seeking justice and/or ready to chase them away. So why wouldn't they even view the flat? It's got a balcony, for goodness sake.
"It's not about the ghosts, but the feel of the places," Monika told me. "I instinctively wouldn't want to have anything to do with a murder scene like that... do you know he stored bits of bodies in kitchen cupboards?"
The pair had also happened to see that the house had been at an auction a few months earlier, so were naturally worried about reselling, which made more sense than "instinct." "It's all just a bit gruesome," said Caz when I expressed surprise they wouldn't even view the flat. "Dead people is one thing, but chopped up people in walls and plumbing is another!"
"Dead people is one thing, but chopped up people in walls and plumbing is another!"
That's something Reuben John—of Paul Simon Residential Sales, the company tasked with shifting the flat—is up against. "If it was 'just' a shooting, for want of a better way of putting it, it's not so gruesome," he said. "But it's a fairly gruesome history. If you look at the forensic photos with the pots and pans on the cooker, we've got an angle that's very similar... it was gruesome stuff." Gruesome.
"BUYERS ARE KINDLY ASKED TO RESEARCH THE HISTORY OF THIS PROPERTY OR ENQUIRE WITH THE MARKETING AGENT PRIOR TO VIEWINGS," the Rightmove listing screams in capitals. But it seems some people really can't handle the stress of a quick Google search. In its first week on the market, up to 80 people expressed an interest, then refused a viewing when the poor estate agents had to call and tell them about, you know, "the flushings." Of the 14 viewings booked in, seven cancelled, despite, as Reuben understands it, the place having all new pipes and fittings.
"Personally, I'm sitting on the fence, like any good estate agent," said Reuben. "Would I want to live there? Probably not. But on the other hand how many things have happened in London over thousands of years? Down the road, in Finsbury Park, Henry VIII massacred a load of people, and you see people picnicking there." If you think about it that way, pretty much everyone's house has had a murder in it.
"I suppose time is a healer and, with this one, it's probably quite fresh in people's minds," Reuben added. "We've got a member of staff here who won't even do viewings—he's very religious and believes in jinns [spirits mentioned in the Qur'an] and says he can feel a presence."
Land Registry shows the house has made a profit twice—in November of 2001, increasing in value by 67 percent, and in 2005 by 18 percent. It seems even murder houses didn't escape the Cool Britannia boom. But we're poorer now, and that collective longing to spunk £300,000 [$460,000] on a murder house seems to have dried up. Last year, Reuben told me, the house was on the market for around nine months before eventually being flogged at auction. After a quick refurb, it seems the current seller is looking for a quick buck—and failing. "You would have this under offer normally on the first weekend, particularly at this price," Reuben admitted. It's been on his books for a month and a half.
But what impact does a bad murder have on property prices? Famously, the Cromwell Street home of Fred and Rosemary West was demolished in 1996, and in November last year the parents of five-year-old April Jones said they were glad the "house of evil" where pedophile Mark Bridger murdered their daughter was dismantled. But this is the London property market—demolition of a £300,000 flat doesn't seem likely.
If you're the perpetrator of the crime and also happen to own the property where the crime took place, you're in for a big financial hit. So if you needed a reason not to kill someone in your home, consider this, from Samantha Blackburn, property lawyer at Slater and Gordon. "If [a crime scene] belonged to the person who committed the criminal act then there is a provision that the crime scene, in this case a home, could be confiscated," she said.
However, Steve Lehto, author of American Murder Houses, has better news for Reuben from across the pond. "The Joel Rifken house sold to someone who admittedly did not care prostitutes were murdered and chopped up in the basement," he says. "There have been others. I have not heard of any [murder houses] that did not sell, but there have been some that took longer."
There's even money to be made in selling murder homes. Californian realtor Randall Bell reportedly makes $375 an hour as a self-described "Master of Disaster," having consulted on selling Nicole Brown Simpson's condo, JonBenet Ramsey's home and Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate's mansion. "I love a challenge—the biggest, baddest, bring it on," Mr. Bell told the LA Times. "Every day of the week, there are new places to go and new disasters."
His top tip—should something terrible happen at your home—is to rent it, to "take the stigma away." He also says sellers of "tainted" properties can expect a "15 to 25 percent diminution in value for two to three years after the fact. Over time the discount evaporates, but it takes 10 to 25 years [for the stigma] to go away entirely." Perhaps it's the fact that Nilsen tried to "evaporate" humans on his kitchen stove that means, more than 30 years on, that "diminution" is still in play. It's a pretty special case.
The house where Gianni Versace was murdered in 1997, though, is now a luxury hotel where people pay more than £1,000 [$1,500] for a suite (without breakfast). "People stay there for the opulence of it and not the notoriety of it being the place where Versace was murdered," says Steve. It's probably easier to forget about a murder when there's a 24-carat gold-lined swimming pool to deflect attention.
So do you really have to definitely tell someone what's happened in a home you're trying to sell? Samantha says yes: "If the seller or agent has any information that is likely to have an impact on the value of the property or the buyer's enjoyment of the property, they must disclose it under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (amended by Consumer (Amendment) Regs 2014)."
Waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about people being chopped up and put down your toilet probably falls under impacting the "enjoyment of the property," to be fair. I'm still haunted enough by the thought of running inside from that barbecue to grab a quick glass of water from the pipes Nilsen could have shared, three floors below the kitchen where he stood and decided it was a good idea to stick someone's head in a pan. Living there? Having a shower there? Enjoying an innocent KFC Bargain Bucket to yourself in the living room? Much trickier.
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