ENCANTO, CA—Real estate agent Jake Trammel shakes his head as he points out unsold house after unsold house in this San Diego suburb, where homes once went for half a million dollars or more. He pulls up to a Victorian mansion whose windows and door create the look of a leering skull. As the sun breaks through a storm cloud overhead, the illusion disappears, and Trammel admits that he hasn't had an offer on the haunted residence in 18 months.
"Two years ago, a four-bedroom with a triple homicide would ignite a bidding war among young couples desperate to get into what they naïvely thought would be their dream home," Trammel says. "We were handing out 30-year fixed rate [mortgages] with nothing down to anyone who was willing to ignore the spine-tingling whispers emanating from the basement. But since the market crashed, people don't even want to look inside."
"As soon as a prospective buyer hears a voice saying, 'Get out,' they want to get out," he adds. "It's just a terrifying situation for us."
Stories like Trammel's are common all across the country. With home prices falling at their fastest rate in 20 years, the creepy-mansion market has gone from booming to moribund as realtors head into what should be their most lucrative season, Halloween. Thousands of agents who used to specialize in old homes with a terrible secret in their walls have switched to non-paranormal houses, which, while still difficult to sell, are faring better on average than their green-glowing counterparts.
"It's hard enough right now to move a renovated ranch-style house within walking distance of mass transit," says Cleveland-area agent Maria Reynolds, adding that she has stopped including photos of wraith-infested mansions in her real estate catalogs. "Never mind a place that's got blood running from the faucets, the apparition of a boy in a sailor suit standing at the top of the stairs, and no granite countertops."
As banks and lenders decline financing to people who would once easily qualify, buyers have soured on almost every kind of supernatural home, including transdimensional portal houses, demonic-possession houses, split-levels, and even ramshackle cabins on the edge of town occupied by mysterious hermits who turn out to be kindly old men. Overall sales of cursed and bedamned residences have fallen 45 percent in the past 14 months—more than twice that of non-evil houses. In response, many agents have begun offering incentives, such as waiving half their fee or including the price of an exorcism with the closing costs.
Perhaps most alarming to realtors is the inability to attract first-time buyers.
"Even if you do get that young family who's willing to share the two-car garage with the spectral figure hanging from its rafters, there's no guarantee they can get a mortgage," Morgan Stanley analyst Ben Hodges says. "A first-time buyer with no equity can't even get a severed foot in the door."
Though Congress is debating several bills that would offer tax breaks to wealthy urban couples with no children and an overall lack of humility who purchase creepy mansions in the countryside, industry specialists say the outlook remains dire.
"There's a place on Mockingbird Lane that I must have sold half a dozen times in two years, it was so hot," says Alan Foxman, an independent Realtor in Boston. "I'd tell them about the doorway to hell in the master bedroom, and they'd just think, 'extra storage space.' A month later they'd call, absolutely horrified, and I'd sell it to someone else at a handsome profit. Everyone walked away happy. These days, though, the scavengers are too scared to go in and strip its copper pipes."
Despite it all, Trammel, from San Diego, says there is some evidence things will turn around. He cites a new report from the National Association of Realtors that shows a marked increase in the number of new homes built atop ancients sites of unspeakable evil where the blood of innocents was shed upon an altar of stone.
"It's the one bright spot in otherwise gloomy times," Trammel says. "All hail Tlaloc, the Eater of Souls."