LAS VEGAS — They came to the Las Vegas mansion in waves, chasing tales of ghosts and murder. Some came to stare or snap photos in front of its black metal gate. Others came to worship Satan. Thrill seekers broke in and drew pentagrams and carved upside-down crosses throughout the house.
The vandals came after “Ghost Adventures” featured the mansion on an episode that warned of a “nasty, evil spirit” that lurked inside. The homeowner fumed and sued. He wanted the Travel Channel show to pay damages.
But how do you calculate the effect that demons have on property value?
You ask Randall Bell.
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The 54-year-old Laguna Beach, Calif., resident is a doom-and-gloom real-estate appraiser. He has carved out a singular niche, fielding calls from governments, big businesses, crime victims and international media, all seeking insight into the worth of stigmatized properties.
His caseload is ripped from the headlines: Nicole Brown Simpson’s Los Angeles condo; the California mansion where 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members committed suicide; JonBenét Ramsey’s house in Colorado; the World Trade Center site; properties damaged in the Rodney King riots and by Hurricane Katrina.
Bell recently estimated the financial toll that the mansion’s owner, Keith Resnick, alleges that “Ghost Adventures” inflicted on his house, which is in a posh neighborhood, in sight of the Stratosphere hotel
. He pondered the lost value from the perception that mobsters had carried out executions here.
The fire damage, crumbling stucco and break-ins after the show aired in 2010 meant that his client would lose a lot of money in selling the house he had once planned to live in.
For Bell, it was yet another case in a long, strange career.
“I love a challenge — the biggest, baddest, bring it on,” he says. “Every day of the week, there are new places to go and new disasters.”
Like all appraisers, Bell uses sales of similar properties — comps, in real-estate parlance — to judge value. What sets him apart are the trips he takes worldwide to gauge firsthand the effects of environmental catastrophes, terrorism and other disasters. The job has sent the father of four to all 50 states and seven continents, where he mixes work with a love for adventure.
Oftentimes, Bell’s clients don’t care about property damage — any appraiser could handle that. What they want is some clue about how long their house will remain stigmatized. Should they sell now? Maybe rent it out? Sell later?
Bell leans on 20-plus years of disaster appraisals and research to give clients reports — sometimes 100 pages thick, packed with details on the property’s problematic history, cases studies of similar troubles and, ultimately, his conclusion. His rate: $375 an hour.
Bell regards the market’s aversion to crime scenes as temporary. For a time, the tragedy hammers the property’s value, making it impossible or difficult to sell. Bell recommends occupying the home or renting it out for two to five years.
“The real goal here … is not to sit there and say: ‘Wow, that is a really big problem. You are totally screwed.’ The goal is to say, ‘Hey, we have a problem here, how do we fix it?’ ”
Among his tips for clients: Don’t waste money tearing down a house; the stigma attaches itself to the land, not the building.
Nothing matters more — even the horrors that took place — than perception. That’s especially true in the case of Resnick’s mansion, where Bell says no evidence supports stories of ghosts and mob murders.
To figure out the lost property value, Bell treated the mob murders as if they were real. He scoured public records for other Las Vegas homes that were sold after murders, comparing their value to home sales that had no ghoulish history.
He also compared the property to other high-profile cases, including the mass suicide at the Heaven’s Gate mansion.
In May, Resnick sold the sprawling home for $300,000 — about $40,000 less than he paid to buy it out of foreclosure.
Bell declined to reveal his final estimate of the property value lost, citing a confidentiality agreement with his client. But new owner Dan Ionescu’s real-estate agent, Kelly Jones, estimated that the roughly 5,000-square-foot mansion would have fetched between $450,000 and $500,000 if the ghost show had never aired.
Bell reassured Ionescu on his investment. He brought up the Los Angeles house where Charles Manson’s followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others in 1969. Tate didn’t own the house, Bell explains; she rented it.
The owner moved in after the murders. Two decades later, the house sold at full market value.