Foreclosure sale tips: Avoid buying with unwanted surprises

Auctioneer Shane Ratliff fields bids on a Los Auctioneer Shane Ratliff fields bids on a Los Angeles County home during a home foreclosure auction hosted by Auction.com at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport in Los Angeles, Calif. (Oct. 23, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. - A house sold in a foreclosure auction last year proved too macabre for one buyer.

Bill Thoman decided not to bid on a house in a subdivision north of Vero Beach, Fla., when he learned tenant Albert Cuillo III died inside and his body wasn't found for several weeks.

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    State laws vary on whether a seller is required to disclose deaths that happen within a dwelling -- including murders and suicides -- nor bodies that decomposed at the site.

    But Thoman thinks sellers should disclose that a corpse decayed in a home for a prolonged period, even if the law doesn't compel them to do so, because it could pose a health hazard. Bacteria and toxin-borne flies could contaminate the home's central-air ducts, which might need to be replaced, he said, adding he had no idea how well the house was cleaned.

    "It's absolutely outrageous," Thoman said. "It's beyond unethical."

    Thoman said he learned of the corpse in the house by talking to neighbors.

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    Court records show Mark G. Astor of Boca Raton owned the rental property, which fell into foreclosure and was auctioned in September.

    With a regular sale, a buyer could detect a bad smell while walking through the place, industry experts said. In contrast, foreclosure auctions done on the courthouse steps are like blind dates.

    Neither buyers nor home inspectors are allowed to set foot in the house before the sale, increasing the chance a buyer will get a home where no one properly cleaned up after a decayed corpse -- which is unusual -- or where flagrant flaws such as a leaky roof exist, said Barry Segal, a Vero Beach attorney who handles real estate cases.

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    A buyer pays the clerk of court in cash and takes the home and the accompanying defects -- the drawback to receiving what's often a hefty markdown in price, he said.

    "That's about as buyer-beware as it gets," Segal said. "There's a lot of risk. You're completely on your own."

    Deborah Lyon, who was managing the property, discovered Cuillo's body April 18, according to a sheriff's office incident report.

    Lyon checked on Cuillo, 55, when she was unable to reach him by phone. She saw his car in the driveway, opened the front door and smelled a foul odor, the report says. Believing he was dead, she called 911.

    Paramedics went inside and found Cuillo lying in the bathtub in an advanced state of decomposition, the report states. Authorities later found a cellphone in the house that indicated Cuillo hadn't made a call in more than a month.

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    An autopsy revealed Cuillo died closer to the time he'd last used the phone than when his body was found, said Dr. Linda O'Neil, associate medical examiner.

    There was no sign of trauma or foul play, the report states. Because of the body's physical deterioration, technicians were unable to determine a cause of death -- though they suspect heavy drinking contributed.

    The house was sold in September to Bay Living Inc., a Lutz real estate company that buys and resells homes in foreclosure.

    Bay Living owner Ed Thornburg said he didn't know a dead person was ever in the house. From what he'd heard, no cleaning was done before the sale, he said.

    A real estate agent told him the bathroom had a nasty stench and the bathtub contained a reddish residue, and she figured an animal was to blame, Thornburg said.

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    After learning from the Press Journal that Cuillo died there, he hired Illinois-based Aftermath Inc. to do a post-death cleanup of the house. Thornburg said he sold the house on Dec. 7 to a buyer who wasn't bothered about a previous occupant dying on the premises.

    "I've had hundreds of houses over the years, and I've had maybe five houses where someone dies in it," Thornburg said.

    WHAT CAN A BUYER DO?

    If you're buying a home sight-unseen or don't have access to inspect it, here are some things you can do:

    -- Ask neighbors if they know of anything that could have contaminated the dwelling, such as a violent crime, a death or a meth lab.

    -- Check with police to see if they responded to any incidents at this address in the past year.

    -- Do a home inspection after the sale to ferret out potential unseen problems such as faulty plumbing and contamination.

    -- Hire a professional cleaning company. If the crew finds evidence someone died there, hire a company that specializes in post-mortem cleanups.

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