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Hypothetical quandary of the day: Tell or don’t tell?

by Eric Nuzum May 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm 91 Comments

Run-down house

I love to discuss hypotheticals, ethics, and things that are squishy and hard to navigate. So, whenever I reign as Lord of Petworth, I like to pose questions to see what people would do.

So, here is today’s…

There is a house down the street from mine. About two years ago, things started to fall apart for the family that lived there: three generations of very sick, very obese women. First, the oldest one died. For some reason, that seemed to be the undoing for them.

Shortly after, their house was listed as a foreclosure property (word around the neighborhood was that they had gotten a sub-prime mortgage on the house–previously completely paid off–and couldn’t keep up). Eventually, they lost the place. It went so far as curbing them and all their possessions.

That’s when we started to get a hint of what happened in there.

Shortly afterwards, guys showed up to clean up the house. Mind you, this is after the two women had been curbed. These guys hauled out three dump trucks full of trash from that 1,400 sq ft rowhouse: boxes of stuff, broken appliances, and just…junk.

Then a few days later, another group of people showed up, seriously, in hazmat suits. They hauled out piles of garbage.

It appeared the women, all in bad shape, just threw all their garbage into the basement where it…sat. The couple living next door swears that they have been smelling garbage through the walls for years. They, and a few other neighbors, bought cats after the clean-out fearing that rodents living there would go searching for some new digs.

So, after all this drama, a contractor bought the place and started working on doing a fairly decent rebuild of the place. While there were a few cut corners, by and large, the place is now a complete, yet modest, renovation.

A few months ago, after sitting on the market for awhile, we noticed the “for sale” sign was gone and there were signs of activity there.

A nice young couple bought the place and are very excited to have a home all their own together.

Nice ending, right? Well, here is where the quandary is: Should I tell them about the house’s history?

On one hand, I feel some sense of obligation to tell them–simply in case they experience anything weird and dangerous (mold, rodents, etc) that may have been caused from its previous state. Also, if it were me, I’d kind of want to know.

On the other, the house has been completely renewed since all that happened, so any concerns from the past may be entirely moot. But can I say that for sure?

And just in case you are wondering–there is no way they could read this and figure out I’m talking about them. They barely know my name, let alone what I do, and certainly that I am the Lord of Petworth. So I’m not telling them by posting this.

So, what would you do? Tell or don’t tell?

  • Anonymous

    If they ask you about who lived there you can tell them the details, but I think you will be ruining their experience of owning the home. If the house was renovated and it was a good renovation then they shouldn’t experience any of the old problems. If they do come up with some issue then you can certainly tell them.

    • Agree that this doesn’t need to be *voluntarily* offered. (Although it would be interesting to ask them what was reported on the full disclosure document without raising unnecessary concerns.)

  • Anonymous

    Clearly the foreclosure/sale would show up in a public records search, so if they did their due diligence, they should know that this was a troubled property. Would any of the other stuff show up via internet sleuthing? What would be reported in a disclosure report? At the very least, a home inspector should find mold and signs of neglect.

    I wouldn’t say anything.

    • Sarah


    • Anonymous


  • Mouna

    I think you should tell. We know about old houses, things get into the bgones of the building. Unless the contractors completely gutted the place, down to the bare bones, I promise you, residual problems remain. I think you should let them know in a nice way that the house had a history and that they should be prepared for the unplanned, what ever that may be. I would want to know. Now if ten people were murdered in the house, I wouldn’t want to know. Go forth and do good, oh great Lord of Petworth.

  • Anonymous

    If they asked – by all means – I would tell them. But I probably wouldn’t run over right away to give them the dirt, literally, on their brand new home.

    • Another guy named Chris

      I agree, no need to volunteer all this information right away, they have already purchased and can’t do anything about it. As you become more familiar neighbors, I am sure they will ask about it, then you can disclose.

      Let them enjoy the grace period of home ownership!

      • textdoc

        What he said — tell them, but get to know them a little bit first.

  • Mouna

    I was trying to spell bones, came out bgones. Sorry

  • Native American JD

    Best to tell. If I were the homeowner, I’d want to know so I could look at the necessity of doing any additional cleaning/decontamination.

  • Anonymous

    telling them doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.

  • C Money

    I don’t think you should go out of your way to tell them. It’s their house and it sounds like you’re assuming who ever did the renovation may have cut corners, but do you have any proof of that? I’m sure that the house was fully inspected before the new couple bought it, and any lingering issues should have shown up then.

    And on an unrelated note, are we going to be missing our afternoon animal fix?? I know you’re filling in, but as pathetic as it is, some of us count on seeing those cute critters to brighten our afternoons.

  • victoria

    Why not go over and piss on their birthday cake too? There might be e coli or salmonella in the frosting!!!

    • Nunya

      Awesome. Just what I was thinking… well, not *exactly*, but similar.

      What would be the point except that you’d get to be the guy who runs over saying “guess-what-guess-what-guess-what” while hopping up and down excitedly.

      Then you’d go home and sleep snugly in your little bed while they wonder about every little odd smell, real or imagined, for the rest of their time in (what was) their lovely new home.

      Mind your business.

      • me

        +1 for “mind your business”.

    • Rock Creek Runner

      But if the frosting was five years old, and even if the baker checked it for mold, the eater of the cake might want to know the history of the frosting.

      i say tell them. ignorance is bliss, until you get a lung infection from hidden mold. even if it’s safe, i think most buyers would want to know the history of what they’re living in, even if it’s negative history.

      • Miss Havisham

        Who the F**k has 5 year old frosting?

        • my parents still have a slice of their wedding cake 32 years later

  • Anonymous

    Tell them. I bought a renovated house that apparently had been the neighborhood heroin den for years — literally an open door policy at all hours back in the 1990s and who knows what that meant. Another neighbor had been keeping her “night soil” (Google it) in my backyard for years after the old owner’s eviction. (The neighbor who told me about that also told me that his house had been abandoned, and the upstairs bathroom tub was being used by a bevy of homeless people as an open-air toilet.) But the place was renovated, so as I heard all of this, it just sort of became a funny story.

    Plus, whatever problems these people bought with the house that weren’t fully fixed … well, those problems are now 100% theirs, so they might as well know if any residual from the prior owners might be the cause of something that pops up as a problem down the line.

    All these houses around here have their histories, and most of them ain’t pretty. No point in sugar-coating things. The deed is done; might as well tell them, though I suppose I wouldn’t run over with a plate of cookies tonight just for the thrill of telling the new owners that they might have a toxic waste situation in the basement.

    • Anonymous

      Case in point, in the “unlikely, but possible” category: what if they had a kid with severe allergies to animal droppings and there was a significant amount of rat feces behind the basement walls? Unless they are patients of Dr. House (who always checks the home environment), it’s more likely that they’d put 2+2 together if they knew something about the home’s history.

      • Sherlock Homes

        This one made me sad.

  • anon

    As the owner of a house that suffered from neglect before I bought it, I have to say that I was pleased to hear details, good and bad, from the neighbors.

    You should go over and bring your neighbors a tray of cookies and introduce yourself. That’s both the proper, neighborly thing to do and the ideal moment to gossip about previous owners.

    • Anonymous

      People still do that?

      I purchased three homes in my life, never experiend that.

      • WDC

        Sadly, no, people don’t still do that. I know, because when I tried it, the new neighbors acted like I was some hippy weirdo who was probably going to try to sell them amway, or initiate a threesome.

        • NotHere

          They reacted that way.. because you were a hippy weirdo!

      • saf

        They did when I moved in.

      • Anonymous

        I brought a gift to my new neighbors when they moved in..but I was a few weeks late in bringing it over, and by then we had become friendly already even without the welcome present (so its not necessary but still nice!). I was raised to do things like that, so I do it even though it is kind of outdated and some people might think its weird

    • Beth

      when I moved into my house 9 years ago, one of the neighbors stopped by and brought a basil plant as a welcome to the neighborhood gesture — really thoughtful!

  • CSnDC

    I say tell. If they find a problem before it causes health issues, they’ll be thankful. Or if they solve a peristant problem through quick and drastic measures, that would be better months ineffective efforts.

    Homeowner’s inspections rarely detect hidden mold. And a rodent problems are ussually dealt with preliminarily in the least forceful way. If there is a serious problem, homeowner’s insurance will cover it. And if they have a problem with the home’s history, well, then I think they are a little to sensiive to be living in what is likely to be at least a 100 year old home in City that has a history of rampant poverty. They should consider themselves lucky to have a nice fixed up home all there own when such tragedy befell the previous owners. And a Lord to bestow upon them some useful knowledge for their well-being. Besides the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton is in a former garbage incinerator.

  • Anon

    what exactly do you think would be wrong with the place after its gutted and renovated? The ghosts of dead rats?

    People need to get a grip on dirt and contamination. If you remove the mold, eliminate the garbage, disinfect chemically or physically, you should have no problems.

    its not like small pox was buried in a time capsule and is ready to explode.

    Of course people are bothered by lead paint and whether someone has died in their house, so I guess anything is possible.

    • Lemon Meringue

      I agree.

    • Sherlock Homes

      This one made me happy.

      • Anon

        Sherlock Homes – you are fine. Get your ventilation system checked out (but its probably brand new), I assume all carpet is brand new, and I’m sure the basement has been redone and is now finished. If the dry wall is mostly new, the ceilings dont sag or have water marks, the floors are square and the roof is new… I really wouldnt worry about shit AT ALL.

        Mold is obviously a problem, but Stachybotrys chartarum is probably no worse than other molds and you have to have prolonged exposure for it to be an issue. Once the moisture problem is remedied and the molded area is cleaned and covered, you wont have a problem.

        As for the remnants of garbage, rats, etc – I mean, wash your floors really thoroughly if they were likely there before the reno, maybe paint any places that werent painted during the reno, and if you are REALLY concerned – if you ever do some renovation yourself, wear a good 99.99% mask.

        Dont worry though, in general. The flipper could have cut corners and things will all work out fine. Yes, you might find out a window wasnt caulked well, or they put too much on one circuit, or they didnt put the right sized pipe somewhere – all of these things can be fixed relatively easily. But if you need peace of mind about the health issues, you should feel at ease, the place was pretty well scrubbed, I’m sure.

    • L’Etalon énormes

      Considering the age of most rowhouses in DC, the likelihood of someone having died in it is pretty good.

  • mmm

    How do you know they don’t know already? You said you hardly know them

    Also, how would they benefit from you telling them? They own the place, they will have to deal with the problems that come with it. Telling them won’t change anything and would just (possibly) stress them out.

    I wouldn’t tell them.

  • anon

    By posting the picture you’re putting it out there for them to know, regardless of intent.

    If the house was a gut reno, they had to know it was potentially in bad shape. I slso wouldn’t assume the renovator did not bring in a professional exterminator. The hazmat suits are a standard precaution for such cases, so it was not necessarily like a meth lab or anything.

    I remember reading about the state of Taylor Gourmet when it was purchased — it was a shooting gallery and didn’t sound like a place you’d want to eat in, but now it’s benn featured in Dwell and has a large and loyal customer base.

    • textdoc

      I thought the photo was from the PoP equivalent of Getty Images.

      It’s not actually the house in question, is it?

    • The pic isnt their house The photo is from Flickr and looks nothing like their house.

  • WDC

    My new neighbors don’t seem interested in learning about the neighborhood or the people or the history of their house. And boy howdy, could I tell them some stories. Similar to Eric’s. I think they would rather pretend they bought a new construction townhouse in Woodbridge.

    If I had the kind of neighbors who were in love with history and wanted to get to know the people and places around them, sure, I’d tell.

    • saf

      On my block, some new folks want to hear about who was there before and other such neighborhood history.

      Others want to go inside, shut the door, ignore everything…

  • Anonymous

    my house was a crack house before i bought it from a developer. so what? i am not sitting on the couch the junkies used to shoot up on.

  • CSnDC

    Also, young couple. Might be considereing children soon. I wouldn’t want the guilt of knowing I could have presented some infant from developing serious repiratory problems from a hidden mold problem I knew could possibly exist.

    • Anon

      A hidden mold problem? Seriously? You guys watch too much HGTV.

      If mold is present somewhere, there are only limited instances where it would be a problem. A.) it would need to be exposed, or b.) it would need to be in the ventilation system.

      I imagine that this person got a home inspection. I also imagine that your inferences about possibilities and your sensationalized understanding of mold, dirt, lead paint, asbestos, and all other forms of boogeymen brought to you by the evening news and HGTV, are all trumped by the inspection of the house by a qualified professional.

      Please, folks, dont panic.

      I dont even understand the problem with the meth? So what if someone cooked some meth in there? They’re not doing it now. Would it bother you if that in 1890 it was an opium den??

      • jules

        To be fair, meth leaves dangerous contamination in the walls. See this NYT piece a while back: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/us/14meth.html

        • Anon

          To be fair, these instances require both extremely high production of meth for a long time, a failure to disclose, and no attempts to remediate.

        • Veronika

          they only do meth in the suburbs and nebraska…. this neighborhood? no and no.

      • 14th St Heights

        Mold can cause serious deterioration of any wooden substructure, such as joists. So it’s not just a health issue. It’s a potential safety issue.

  • MichelleRD

    Our house is also rumored to have been a drug den at one point–so many of these old houses have similar stories. I’m always interested, but I just like history in all its forms.

    Tell them if they’re curious but otherwise, leave it alone.

  • Sherlock Homes

    Hello Lord,

    I think you should give your new neighbors some credit on their detective skills.

    I believe I am one half of the “nice couple” who moved down the street from you.

    I have to be honest that my stomach sank a little after reading this thinking that you may be talking about our new home. If this is just a funky coincidence and I am not in fact who you are talking about then that’s fine I’ll ask you flat out next time I see you. We knew the house was foreclosed upon and that it was a flip. We don’t have any issues thus far and I have turned the basement into a pretty nice “man-cave”. I guess to give a very honest answer to your question:

    We would have liked to have known the whole history before we closed, but we did our due diligence and feel we got the house at a steal. Finding out by blog was pretty much a 1 in a million.

    There are always risks with buying a home, whether 80 years old or brand new, and we’re happy to be giving the house a new history and hope that history includes having the neighbors over.

    We both love this blog, but I’m not sure I’m 100% fine with all the readers knowing our house used to be a literal trash heap. Still, we are happy to be in the neighborhood and happy to have Royalty as neighbors.

    • Anonymous

      The Prince has so much more tact than the Lord…..

      My first thought on reading this was that it would take about 3 minutes for the owners to figure out who this was referring to. Especially when the Lord mentioned where he lived earlier today.

      • Sherlock Homes

        Don’t give the Lord too hard of a time. He doesn’t know this but he actually was a reason we moved to Petworth in the first place. We were torn between a 2 bedroom condo (See Taylor Flats) and looking for a house, but didn’t know if moving to Petworth was the right thing to do.

        We happened to bump into the Prince and Lord at looking glass and the Lord said the area had changed and that he loved it. My other half was SO Excited to meet the Prince and it really put our minds at ease that Petworth was the right choice.

        Ironically enough we didn’t put this together until very recently that our neighbor was the same guy.

        • Hmmm…now I’m not sure you are my neighbor. Email me and we’ll clear it up.

          • Anonymous

            Time for some block parties! I live just north of Grant Circle too. Welcome to the beautiful life. It really is nice up here on top of the hill, better breezes and more green space/bigger back yards. Just wait until the new uptown circulator from Grant/Sherman to Woodley park bus route starts up! ;-)

          • BF

            I’m just north of Grant also. If you see my patio furnitur, let me know! Agree its time for a block party.

    • Anon

      hahaha, Lord, they know your name because its posted at the top of all of your blog entries. Busted! If they “barely” know it, they know it. You just made their lives a bit more stressful!

      This is some good internet right here.

      • off topic a bit


        • anon



    • victoria

      Enjoy and thrive blissfully and peacefully in your new home! No reason in the world to let the crabby old gossipy aunties taint your sanctuary!

    • C Squared

      Don’t worry, we haven’t told LoP yet about what his house was like before he moved into the neighborhood…like others have said, old houses have history and hopefully any major issues would have arisen in an inspection or normal buyer due diligence…the house that sold down the block from your’s had a woman die in a house fire a year or so before the sale — would the current owner like to know that? Perhaps, but I would think a simple google search of the address would have brought that up so it is not my place to tell her after the fact that the house might be haunted or there was a major fire in there. Welcome to the neighborhood by the way and if it makes you feel any better, when we bought our place the flipper’s handyman said the building used to look like Swiss cheese.

    • saf

      “but I’m not sure I’m 100% fine with all the readers knowing our house used to be a literal trash heap.’

      Dude, everyone in the immediate neighborhood knew already.

      Nobody else knows exactly which house it is (I certainly don’t. I’m a few blocks away.)

    • If you think it is you. Email me and let me know your address. Well figure out if it is you. Email is Eric (dot) Nuzum (at) gmail (dot) com

  • scarecrows NOW

    Nope. You mind your own business.

    Why? Because you don’t actually have anything to tell them that isn’t based on PURE speculation.

    Based on your note, you know that the house was occupied by people who had some trash in the basement. That’s all you know.

    You don’t know if there is mold.

    You don’t know if there are rodents.

    And you certainly don’t know if there is anything “weird or dangerous.”

    Just let people be…there is no problem here.

  • jules

    Just because there was garbage with (likely) food-borne mold in the basement doesn’t mean there is moisture-related dangerous mold in the house now. As people have said, they could see via records that the house was in foreclosure. An inspection would have caught any latent rodent/structural problems. And they can’t go back on it now.

    If you feel like you HAVE to say something, I would introduce yourselves with a plate of cookies and cheerfully say something along the lines of “I’m so glad to see this place so nicely fixed up – it wasn’t in such good shape a few years ago!” If they ask for details, go ahead and spill your guts. If not, or if they say “so I’ve heard,” just let it go.

  • victoria

    What do I have to do to have someone show up with a plate of cookies?

    • CE

      Move to Fairfax. ;)

      • anonymous

        Ha, right. Unless Fairfax got 100x friendlier since I left 15 years ago that ain’t gonna happen.

        • Lemon Meringue

          I moved out of Fairfax County less than 6 months ago and the people are as rude as ever. Being stuck in gridlock for 3 hours a day has that effect on people. :(

    • saf

      Move to my block?

  • That Ain’t Dog Pee

    I recently learned that my newly renovated apartment building used to be a Raisin Ranch (aka nursing home). I kind of wish I didn’t know that because now when I see the extra long elevator I think, “yep, had to be big enough for the gurnies” and when I’m trying to enjoy a movie in the basement theater room I can’t help but think maybe that’s where they “stored” the residents who died, while they waited for the coroner. And yes, whenever I hear a weird noise I sometimes have to wonder if its the ghost of a former resident who died there.

    • anon

      Could be worse. I’ve owned my house 8 years, and I still get gay porn catalogs addressed to the previous residents.
      Now I know to never open anything that says “or current resident” on it…

  • Anon

    I love the comments from Sherlock Homes. Nice response.

    • Anon


  • Andy(2)

    Would this be the best way to introduce yourself? NO!
    I don’t know what the laws are in the District but let’s say there was a mold issue that didn’t get declared during the sale but returned as a problem later. Having the neighbor’s side of the story could help to demonstrate that the seller knew about the issue and did both an insufficient job remediating the problem and failed to disclose it.

    As Mom always said, it’s not what you say but how. Here tact and timing are key. I suggest after meeting several times and exchanging pleasantries and names start off with something like “Oh boy am I sure your neighbors are glad they are living next to such tidy neighbors like you.” Or the more empathetic route that reflects your shared experience living in a rehabbed house with some “history.” Let them fish for more details – if they don’t want to know or already know it’ll be plainly obvious.

    Both way tact and timing are key.

  • Puchica

    Tell!! We did the renovations ourselves, so we were well aware of the rat infestation, trash piles, shoddy wiring and lack of hot water in our house but it was still informative to hear crazy stories about the former owners from our neighbors. They helped explain things like the graffiti on our bedroom window frames (apparently they liked to party on the front porch roof) process servers showing up at the door (three mortgages, only one of which we paid off), and random gentleman stopping by to ask if we had a room to rent (they rented all the upstairs bedrooms, the attic, and the basement as separate units). Once we started tearing out the old molding and discovered smoke damage we asked around and found out that there had been a pretty serious fire on the back sleeping porch which had been renovated before we moved in. When our contractor started pulling off the drywall back there it turned out that there was no framing at all and the whole thing could have gone down at any moment. Yikes! We love the house and probably still would have bought it, but we might no have put our washer and dryer back there if we had known about the damage….

    Also, for anyone who is thinking of buying a house with this kind of history – or already has – make sure you have title insurance!! It has been lifesaver!

  • anon

    Over/Under — LOP refers to his title at least 10 times this week?

  • Marcus Aurelius

    Is this about you or about the new owners?
    From the relish with which you described this story, I think you really want to tell it to these new owners – not because you care about them or their house, but rather because you want to see how they react. If you were really concerned about the impact the house’s history would have on the next owners, why didn’t you send this question to PoP during the “months” that the home sat on the market? I suspect he would have posted it. Would have made for a much more interesting and useful thread.
    Now it’s like telling someone you don’t know that well that you saw his or her spouse holding hands with someone else in public. It’s not really “I’m telling because I’d want to know.” It’s “I really want to tell this story and see how this person reacts to it.”
    I’m not hating on you. Just be honest about your motivation.

    • Miss Havisham

      Perfectly put. Discussion over.

    • Actually, I’m just a kick ass storyteller. I like telling stories. I do it well. That is my honest motivation.

      And though I haven’t discussed this house here, I often discuss my neibpghborhood in posts.

  • If they ask you, tell them the truth. I bought an old squatted crack house out of foreclosure and, as soon as I moved in, I started introducing myself to all of my neighbors. In that context, I asked them about my new home, the neighborhood, themselves . . . all the normal things I presume one would ask their new neighbors. I learned a lot of interesting things about my place . . . not only about the crackhead squatter who preceded me, but the nice woman who lived in the house for decades before that, and the murder that occurred in the house in the 60s. Who wouldn’t ask their neighbors about the history of their new home?

  • bloom

    If it were me, I would like to know, but you can leave out the “obese” part. Then, I’d like to scrub the place down one more time with my own bare hands. Next, I’d like to invite some Mayan priests to come cleanse the place — like they did after Bush visited the Yucatan, as reported here:


    I’d feel fine after that.

  • bought the house the guy died in….

    I wouldn’t tell them. After I bought my first house, one of the neighbors came over to tell me the gruesome details about how the lady of the house died in my new bedroom, and that her husband died in the living room a few months later.

    The best part? They told me, in detail, about the day they discovered the old man had died several weeks after his demise, and that the stain on my hardwood floors was not from an animal as the listing agent had told me, but instead from the fluid that leaked from his decomposing body over several weeks.

    When I went back into the house, all I could see was a chalk outline around that stain for the rest of the time I lived there. And, I hated the neighbor who ruined my happiness with my new house by telling me, and rarely spoke to them again.

    Don’t be that guy :( Nobody wants to be friends with that guy!! :(

  • Anon

    But Lord asketh. Now what sayeth the Lord?

    • Okay, so hear’s the deal. Sherlock Holmes IS my neighbor. And he did figure that I was talking about his house because he put together who I was because he and his girlfriend ran into us at Looking Glass a long time ago.

      Anyhow, I just got back from visiting them. I took over a six-pack of “liquid apology” (as I called it) and we had a good laugh over the whole thing. Then my dog peed on their carpet. Really.

      It was all good in the end.

      This will teach me to keep my hypotheticals…hypothetical!!

      • Anonymous x2

        “And just in case you are wondering–there is no way they could read this and figure out I’m talking about them.”


        • Anonymous

          That’s so internet.

  • Veronika

    I wouldn’t say anything unless they ask. Some of these houses have been around for over 100 years. I’m sure they ALL have stories, some more gruesome than others. But if the inspectors came through and all was golden, they don’t need to know their brand new top of the line basement den used to be a trashcan. Nor do my new neighbors need to know that their house was burned out due to a fire where people died and had been boarded up until someone came to renovate… right before they moved in. Not something you say right after, “welcome to the block!”

  • cahbf

    is it accurate? is it kind? is it necessary? I ask these 3 questions when deciding whether to say anything.

  • Anonymous

    was it wrong that i told my neighbor that we called his house
    “the mausoleum” before he moved in?

    i hope i didn’t offend you man.


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