Randall Bell is the man people call when they have a house so tainted or so notorious they don’t know what to do.
The California-based real estate consultant has helped figure out a future for O.J. Simpson’s mansion, JonBenet Ramsey’s house and the site where the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide. Most recently he consulted on the fate of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza’s house in Connecticut.
But even Bell has never seen a case like “The Watcher” house in Westfield.
“I have researched damaged properties for over 25 years and have studied the effects of everything from murder and accidents, to terrorism and mass suicide,” Bell said. “This situation is a new one on me.”
“The Watcher” house made national news last month when a family filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Union County claiming the previous owners failed to disclose there was a mysterious “stalker” attached to the property.
Three days after closing on the house last year, the family received the first of three threatening letters from “The Watcher,” according to the lawsuit.
“My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s,” the letter said. “It is now my time.”
The letters refer to the buyer’s children as “young blood” and warn the family to stop renovating the $1.3 million house.
“You have changed it and made it so fancy,” one of the letters said. “It cries for the past and what used to be in the time when I roamed its halls, when I ran from room to room imaging the life with the rich occupants there.”
The new owners, whose names are being withheld by NJ Advance Media, say the previous owners also received at least one letter from the stalker and they are too scared to move in, according to the lawsuit. The new owners also say they will not be able to resell the property at its full value with a stalker attached.
Real estate experts have a term — “stigmatized properties” — for “The Watcher” house and other real estate marred by murder, tragedy, allegations of haunting or other notoriety.
Bell, the real estate consultant who specializes in stigmatized properties, said most houses can eventually be sold no matter what happened in their past.
“It is very rare for a property to lose all value. It is usually a matter of discounting the property until a buyer is found,” Bell said.
In some cases, a property can be leased or rented. In rare cases, a stigmatized house is torn down and replaced with a new residence, Bell said.
Earlier this year, the house in Newtown, Conn., that was once home to Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza and his mother was bulldozed.
Lanza’s brother inherited the 3,000-square-foot Colonial house, but stopped paying the mortgage. The bank sold the $523,000 property to the town for $1. Local officials voted to demolish the house and keep the property as open space.
But the Lanza case is rare. Most stigmatized houses eventually sell.
The Amityville Horror house in Long Island has sold numerous times, despite claims that the Dutch Colonia is haunted.
The Ocean Avenue house was the site of a 1974 murder. A couple and their four children were shot to death in their beds by their 23-year-old son. The next owners of the Dutch Colonial bought the property for $80,000, but fled after claiming they were haunted by paranormal activity.
The house became the subject of a book and several movies. The property has sold several times, most recently in 2010 for $950,000, and continues to attract fans of the movie and the occult.
In many cases, stigmatized houses are sold to new owners who say they are not bothered by their property’s tragic past. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s house in Ohio and the Colorado house where six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was killed in 1989 were both purchased by new owners who lived happily in them for years.
But both owners have had troubles re-selling the houses when they were ready to move. The Ramsey house has been on and off the market for years without a sale. Its listing was removed last year despite a price drop from $2.39 million to $1.985 million.
Dahmer’s childhood home, where he scattered the remains of his first victim around the property, also lingered on the market last year after it was listed for $295,000.
Realtor Rich Lubinski tells potential buyers the house “this house never killed anyone,” according to an Associated Press story about the property.
Other notorious houses have sold, but been torn down to remove some of the stigma from the property. Some owners have also petitioned to have the addresses changed.
O.J. Simpson’s house in California was sold for $4 million in 1998 to an investment banker, who demolished it and built a new mansion in its place. The Los Angeles mansion where followers of Charles Manson murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others was sold for $1.6 million in 1989 and eventually torn down. The new house on the site has a new address.
Cindi Hagley, a California real estate broker who specializes in stigmatized houses, said the owners of “The Watcher” house in Westfield should not be discouraged. The $1.3 million house can be sold, if marketed properly, she said.
“If I was in the neighborhood, I might pick this up at full price,” said Hagley, a broker with J Rockcliff Realtors and founder of Past Life Homes, a firm that markets “haunted” and other stigmatized properties.