Shrine today, hard sell tomorrow

04/27/2003 8:45 AM

11/20/2007 6:24 AM

It was the home where they planned to raise a family. Now the front lawn is a shrine, where people by the thousands have come to mourn the woman who lived there.

It is Scott and Laci Peterson's house at 523 Covena Ave. in Modesto. It is not for sale, but the real estate questions already are flying: Is Scott Peterson allowed to sell it? What is it worth and what could it sell for?

Will anyone be interested, considering that one of the residents is dead and her husband has been accused of killing her and her unborn child? What would real estate agents be required to tell prospective buyers?

Patrick Wallace, a longtime Modesto agent, lived in the same neighborhood, La Loma, for nearly 20 years. Yes, the house would sell, he said. "It's all based on price. I would say you'd have to discount it 20 percent or more."

He added that the house probably could sell in short order.

Randall Bell, a nationally known appraiser who specializes in properties where crimes have occurred, said it might take longer.

"In that kind of situation, it's very tough to sell the house," said Bell, a partner in Bell, Anderson & Anderson in Laguna Beach.

Bell appraised the Los Angeles condominium of O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, who was slain outside the home. And he appraised the Colorado home where 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was killed. In both cases, the slayings cut into the appraised values.

"If the crime was committed inside the house, it tends to stigmatize the house more than if it was committed outside."

The state's disclosure law, Wallace said, covers a three-year period after a death on a property. During that period, prospective buyers must be told about any such death.

In the Peterson case, Wallace said: "Technically, you wouldn't have to disclose anything. Nothing has been proved. They didn't find her in the house. You can only disclose what you know."

The Petersons bought the three-bedroom, two-bath house in October 2000 for $177,000, according to the Stanislaus County recorder's office. They refinanced in February 2002.

The Petersons' house was built in 1949. Wallace said he has been inside, and he called it a very desirable, "attractive" house in an excellent location.

"The previous owner had gone through it. The kitchen had been updated. The garage had been converted into a family room, which is pretty common in that neighborhood."

In Modesto's appreciating real estate market, the house's value has gone up about $100,000 in less than three years, according to Wallace.

"Without the stigma," Wallace said, the listing price would probably be $275,000, plus or minus $5,000. And, he said, lower the price enough and the property will sell. "There's a buyer for everything at some price."

Terri Western, a real estate agent who is a friend of Laci Peterson's family, said in a recent television interview that Scott Peterson asked her about selling the home amid the ongoing search for his then-missing wife. Western said she talked him out of the idea.

After his arrest, Peterson gave his parents power of attorney. That does not mean they can sell the house, however.

The title is in both names: Scott's and Laci's.

Generally speaking, in a joint tenancy, when one of the joint tenants dies, the property is divided up to the surviving tenants, said Dewey Weiford, Stanislaus Division president of Stewart Title of California. "However, the surviving joint tenant cannot be the cause of the deceased's death," he said.

Weiford noted that if a death certificate lists the cause of death as unknown or involving violence, the title and sales process is halted and the situation investigated.

Under the state Probate Code, if a joint tenant feloniously and intentionally kills another joint tenant, "the killer has no rights by survivorship."

Bell said he believes the Peterson house will be hard to sell as long as it remains in the news. "During the trial period, you can count on it being difficult," he said.

Bell said it might be several years after the trial before the house would readily sell and then at less than market value.

"Typically, those properties sell at a discount, but that discount diminishes with time," Bell said. "Generally speaking, crime-scene stigma properties run from 10 to 25 percent (less)."

Wallace told about selling a house where a murder-suicide occurred.

"I actually sold that house several times," he said. "They (the estate) put it on the market at a fairly reasonable price. An investor bought it and for several years rented it, then sold it to a young couple.

"They kind of let the time pass with tenants and let the price recover."

Both Wallace and Bell concurred that the Petersons' neighborhood, which has drawn crowds of media and public, should not suffer from depreciation in housing values.

"Basically, the neighborhood itself tends not to be impacted," Bell said. "In the JonBenet Ramsey case, there's a house just two houses down that sold for full value."

Bee staff writer Jack Doo can be reached at 578-2382 or jdoo@modbee.com.

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