Ghosts, murders, troublesome owners: How to look up the history of the house in Canada

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Canadian NBA star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is suing the realtor who sold an $8.4-million lakefront home in Burlington, Ont., after learning that it had previously been occupied by disgraced “crypto king” Aiden Pleterski. The basketball player became aware of the house’s history after several people showed up at the door looking for Pleterski, who had once allegedly been kidnapped by defrauded investors looking to recoup their losses.

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The seller has argued that the house only had four unexpected visitors after Pleterski moved out, and that none were threatening. “The visitors did not damage the Property, enter into a verbal or physical altercation with the occupant of the Property, or otherwise disturb the peace in any manner,” the statement of defence reads.

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While it’s incumbent on realtors to disclose “latent” defects — those that might not be easily noticed by a potential buyer — they have no obligation to reveal any “patent” or obvious defects, on the assumption that the buyer would notice them herself. Whether a former occupant qualifies as a “patent” or “latent” defect (or neither) is trickier to determine.

That said, there are several ways that a prospective buyer can look into the history of a home.

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Online search

A standard Google search may be able to turn up information about a notorious event or occupant of a house. (As a test, I Googled a small property which I knew was the site of a murder-suicide in 2002, and got several hits.)

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Housecreep

This is a crowd-sourced site, but entries will often link to primary sources. It’s also something of a rabbit hole. Searching a postal code in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood brought up scores of stories, from the 1919 death of a mother and her four children from gas asphyxiation (ruled accidental) to a renter who experienced paranormal activity in a house in 1991 before moving out five months later. (No further mentions in the 30 years since, so maybe the renter was haunted?)

Neighbours

People love to gossip about things going on in the neighbourhood. Again, take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Municipal records

This can be a source of such information as building permits, assessment roles and even old photographs (a house near me had a foundation collapse during its construction more than 100 years ago). But information can be spotty, and sometimes the site will direct you to visit a city’s physical archives. Here’s Toronto’s portal, which includes a how-to guide.

Guides to historic places

It’s unlikely you’re going to buy a historic property and not know it (hint: If it’s a lighthouse, it’s probably historic) but it never hurts to check.

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Tape measure

If a room seems smaller than it should be, perhaps that’s because a portion of it has been walled off. I know of a renovation that increased the size of the main bedroom by several square feet. There weren’t any gold coins in the walls, but at least there wasn’t a body in there, either.

Beware of ghosts

Realtors will often have stories of spooky goings-on in houses they’re selling. And it’s fine if you don’t believe such tales. But if the knowledge is going to creep you out, maybe best for your own peace of mind to look elsewhere.

Leave no stone unturned

The website moving.com has an extensive list of recommendations, some of them more useful than others. (Head to a nearby battlefield?) Some of the more germane include checking up on previous owners through ancestry.com or a similar genealogical website, or looking into whether a street name has changed over time, since the property might once have been known by a different address.

On the other hand, the notion that “previous owners may have left behind helpful personal items, such as photos, mementos and newspaper articles in the attic, in the basement, or buried in the yard” would seem to be of marginal value, unless you plan a midnight visit to do some exploratory digging before you buy.

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