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Buying & Selling a Home

Must I Disclose the Murder in My House?

Not your average seller's quandary. Plus, what's the right return policy?

Q: My husband and I bought a lovely house 30 years ago that had recently been the scene of a murder after a domestic dispute. We aren't superstitious, so it didn't bother us. It has been a happy home for our family ever since. Now we're planning to sell it and retire elsewhere. Few people around here remember—or ever knew of—the crime. We would answer truthfully if a prospective buyer asked about it, but do we have an obligation to volunteer the information?

I don't think so. It's not as if you're hiding a severe structural defect. Houses have a market value that should be independent of both negative and positive traits of their previous occupants, especially after so long a period of time. Most buyers actually know little—and have no way of finding out—about the private lives of a house's earlier owners, and most probably don't care.

Q: Recently I tried to get a refund on some merchandise for which I no longer had the sales receipt. But I was told that I was out of luck and that I couldn't even get a store credit. I was offended. Do you think this policy is ethical?

Yes. It is reasonable for a merchant to require proof of purchase because attempted returns of shoplifted goods are rampant. Some national retailers do allow you to return an item without a receipt, even when their savvy returns-desk personnel strongly suspect a theft. These chains apparently believe that the risk of offending an honest shopper like you and losing your patronage is more costly than allowing dishonest people to rip them off. But many small merchants think that requiring a receipt for returns is an evenhanded policy that doesn't require a fallible snap judgment about a customer's integrity and also reduces fraud. Either business practice, as long as it is consistent, is ethically defensible.

Have a money-and-ethics question you'd like answered in this column? Write to Editor in Chief Knight Kiplinger at