Of all the paper ghosts that Patrick Burns, a Corcoran agent, found in a Brooklyn townhouse last May, the one hanging in the basement rattled him the most.
The little paper figurine startled Burns partly because he had already removed 60 similar dolls when he prepared the Boerum Hill property for an open house a few weeks earlier. Dozens of the ghosts, made of tissue and wrapped in twine, were hidden all over the four-story building, which had been a rental until its owner vacated it for sale. The dolls were tucked in corners, in closets, on shelves and behind pipes. Now, with the building under contract and the buyer’s inspector en route, Burns found a few stragglers, including the one in the basement.
“It was very creepy,” Burns said. “It reminded me of some sort of voodoo-style curse. It really, really freaked out our client.”
When a home is sold, its many secrets can come out of the closet. Brokers, potential buyers and home inspectors step inside properties that may have been completely private for years. They peer into basements, attics and electrical panels and find a home’s shortcomings. Such moments offer a rare glimpse inside the workings of a place, and can uncover shoddy renovations, failed do-it-yourself projects, neglect and, in the case of Burns, baffling remnants of the lives of the former occupants.
Sometimes, owners hide flaws in the hopes a buyer will miss an expensive problem. Other times, homeowners are caught completely unaware that, say, a family of raccoons has taken up residence in the chimney. The home inspector, whom buyers and some sellers hire to uncover flaws, is often the one who has to explain to a stunned seller that the new insulation in the attic was installed improperly, or not at all. Or perhaps the inspector has to inform an eager buyer that the stylish white shag rug in a luxury Flatiron apartment is hiding serious, and ongoing, water damage. Sometimes it is the broker who discovers that, say, a vagrant has set up residence in a vacant property.
And so begins a delicate dance to inform a buyer that a dream home is not perfect, or let a seller know that it is not OK to sever the main support beam of a house to make room for an entertainment center’s electrical cables, an unfortunate modification that Blaise Ingrisano, a home inspector on Long Island, once uncovered.
For the last two years, John C. Quinn, the owner of Homerite, a Long Island home inspection company, has compiled an annual list of quirky home inspection photos collected from other inspectors in the area. Last year’s winners included an in-ground pool that had been filled with soil and sodded with grass to hide its existence. The rectangular walkway and ladder rail gave it away.
In another photograph, a new addition to a house was built atop a working chimney, enclosing it in the attic. “You could have a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning,” Quinn said. “It was just unbelievable.”
Quinn blames duct tape for many DIY fails. “They use duct tape for everything,” he said. “I’ve seen shower enclosures covered with duct tape. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a large wound.” Other inspectors have seen the tape used to fix plumbing leaks, secure electrical wiring and hold rotted-out windows in place.
An ambitious, but unskilled homeowner can wreak havoc on a house. Watch enough shows on HGTV or spend enough time on YouTube, and it’s hard not to want to take a sledgehammer to the bathroom wall all by yourself. “You look at the ingenuity of some of these guys. It’s like ‘Wow,'” said Frank Lesh, the executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors, an industry trade group. “They see a YouTube video and say, ‘I can do that!’ But it’s more than just monkey see, monkey do.”
But Lesh’s strangest misadventure happened several years ago in Chicago, where he works as an inspector, and had nothing to do with misguided home improvement projects. He was checking the carbon monoxide levels in an apartment when he heard banging from the outside wall. He opened the front door to find a team of officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who promptly swarmed the apartment and arrested the owner. “I look down the hall and say, ‘My check!'” recalled Lesh, who never got paid for the job. As for the carbon monoxide, he said, “It was high. Had this not happened, I would have told my client, ‘You need to get your CO fixed.'”
Sometimes, property owners try to hide flaws. Vincent Fundaro, the owner of Square One Professional Home Inspectors in Levittown, New York, was inspecting a ground floor condominium on West 22nd Street in Manhattan last April. The apartment, which was listed for $1.8 million, had new kitchen cabinets and new floors. As he walked through the garden level, he tripped over a white shag carpet, revealing the floorboards, which were floating in water. The owner had covered the boards with newspaper and plastic to keep the water from seeping through, but the water problem was unmistakable. “It was definitely saturated,” Fundaro said. “You would step on it and float.”
The buyer, who was supposed to put down a large deposit that afternoon, was livid. The seller’s broker tried to assure her that the problem could be easily fixed. But Fundaro spoke up. “I turned around and said it’s not a simple glue and patch fix,” he said. He never found out what effect his findings had on the sale.
In Boerum Hill, the paper ghosts were not the only unwanted visitors to the Bergen Street townhouse. During the final walk-through of the property, Burns noticed that items that had been neatly stored in the basement had been tossed around. The frame of the door to the garden entrance looked damaged. Burns found his own shopping cart, which he had been using to ferry supplies from a nearby paint store to the house, was filled with someone else’s personal items — potato chips, clothes, books and other odds and ends. Then he found luggage.
The police were called, and they put the clues together: A vagrant had taken up refuge in the empty property. The mystery of the little ghosts, however, was never solved. “The buyers weren’t very happy, but they took it in stride,” Burns said. “They were pretty cool about it.” The owner padlocked the building, and the couple moved forward with the sale, buying the building in July for $3.35 million, $100,000 over the asking price.