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April 20, 2014

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REAL ESTATE:

Selling a Las Vegas mansion with a stigma? Here’s the expert you need

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Isaac Brekken/Los Angeles Times / MCT

Dan Ionescu's Las Vegas, Nevada, home is being remodeled after the home was featured on “Ghost Adventures” and later vandalized.

They came to the Las Vegas mansion in waves, chasing tales of ghosts and murder. Some came to gawk 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.

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; JonBenet 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. During one of his visits last year, Bell went from room to room, surveying the vandalism.

He pondered the lost value from the perception — created by the show — that mobsters had carried out executions here.

The fire damage, crumbling stucco and repeated 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,” Bell says. “Every day of the week, there are new places to go and new disasters.”

Bell grew up in Fullerton, Calif., a blond Orange County boy who thrived on adrenaline.

“We were crazy,” he recalled. “We were always going to Mexico and buying M-80s and dynamite and blowing things up.”

In 1987, Bell became a real estate appraiser, viewing it as a steady job. He soon craved something with “a little more flavor.”

He had relished the job involving a property that lost an ocean view to new development. He enjoyed the challenge in appraising properties after the 1992 Rodney King riots, including a shopping center that burned down.

Shortly after the riots, he decided to focus only on damaged properties, which offered more intrigue than sizing up spotless shopping malls. But he had no idea how much work there would be.

“I took a huge risk,” Bell said.

His timing was impeccable.

Other Southern California disasters followed: fires in Malibu, the Northridge earthquake, a landslide in Laguna Niguel. He started juggling two or three jobs at a time. Soon he was traveling out of state.

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.

He swam with sharks in Guam, where he went to gauge the effect a planned landfill had on a tourist attraction — a replica of the cave where a Japanese soldier hid for decades after World War II. He climbed mountains in Antarctica and plunged into icy waters while on a trip to interview scientists for cases where climate change affects costs, including insurance, for homeowners.

He once traveled to areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site to see current uses of contaminated land. His most dangerous excursion came in 2010 in the Middle East. He was hired to assess whether an Orange County landmark lost market value after the FBI identified it as a terrorist target. (Bell declined to identify the property.)

He traveled to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, searching for comps in places attacked by terrorists. Near the Ibrahim mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron — where an American-born Israeli settler massacred 29 praying Palestinians in 1994 — Bell encountered a man waving a machine gun who threatened to kill him and his guide.

Then came the whine of an air-raid siren, the crackle of machine-gun fire and a bomb blast in the distance.

“I hit my limit with Hebron,” he said.

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 work doesn’t come cheap. His rate: $375 an hour.

Bell regards the market’s aversion to crime scenes as temporary. Whereas disasters often involve physical damage, crime scene valuation usually comes down to stigma. 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 gawk and say: ‘Wow, that is a really big problem. You are totally screwed.’ The goal is to say, ‘Hey, we have a problem here, and 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. For example, in 1984 a gunman murdered 21 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, a neighborhood in San Diego. The company bulldozed the fast-food restaurant, then donated the land to the city. San Diego tried to sell it but got little interest. Nearly four years after the tragedy, the city sold the land at a deep discount to a community college.

In death, celebrities and ordinary people are equal — their murders lower a property’s value by the same percentage, Bell says.

Nothing matters more — even the horrors that took place — than perception. That’s especially true in the case of Resnick’s Las Vegas mansion, where Bell says no evidence supports stories of ghosts and mob murders.

But people believed what they saw on the TV show, which Resnick says was filmed inside the house without his permission. After the show aired, police calls to the house exploded. Some young troublemakers and trespassers even posted on YouTube their own ghost hunts at the house.

Bell visited the house four times before coming to his conclusion.

“The fire was right over here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the floor where he previously saw a pentagram scrawled in ash. “You could see where they did their little ritual thing.”

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 other 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 $300,500 — 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.

An attorney for the show’s host, the production company and others involved with the episode did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Ionescu bought the house to flip and plans to place it on the market this month. He said construction work and overnight security have kept trespassers away.

Bell reassured Ionescu on his investment. He said to pretend, for a moment, that mobsters did in fact spill blood here. The stigma will fade.

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.

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