EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.
When Mark Frankel's parents left their New York home for Florida more than 25 years ago, they kept one small piece of real estate near their former residence: two unused plots at the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, N.Y. It became clear that the couple wouldn't use the plots after Frankel's father died and was buried in Florida.
Frankel's mother enlisted her son, now 56, to help sell the burial rights in 2006. The cemetery wouldn't buy back the double plot, which was worth about $4,500. For $90, he listed the property online with Final Arrangements Network (www.finalarrangementsnetwork.com; 989-893-6321), a company that helps connect burial-plot buyers and sellers.
Although it took more than a year, Frankel eventually sold the two plots for $2,000. "People buy everything online these days," he says. "I don’t think I got more than two or three inquiries, but it did work."
People who buy burial plots may think they're reserving a place for eternity. But moves, divorces and other life changes may force owners to decide they no longer need the plots. Often, adult children inherit spaces in family plots that they don't intend to use.
Finding a buyer is often tricky, because most potential buyers don't realize that burial rights can be resold. "It's not like trying to sell a car, a boat or a house," says Robert Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. "There's not really an established resale market."
If you no longer want the property, first talk to someone at the cemetery to make sure you have the legal right to sell. If you bought with someone else, each owner must agree to a sale. In the case of several adult children inheriting cemetery property, a sibling who wants to sell his or her plot needs permission of all the joint owners. Otherwise, the transfer cannot be made.
You can ask if the cemetery will buy back the burial plot, although many won't. Independent cemeteries are unlikely to buy back a plot, says Gail Rubin, who writes a funeral-planning blog, "The Family Plot." "Church- or synagogue-owned cemeteries may have more lenient policies regarding selling back burial rights," she says. Rubin says that her own synagogue's cemetery in Albuquerque, N.M., will refund the original purchase price of a plot minus a 10% service fee.
Find a Buyer Online
If a cemetery won't buy back the plot, you have other options, including free online-listing sites such as Craigslist.org, newspaper classified ads, and cemetery registries and brokers such as Grave Solutions (www.gravesolutions.com; 888-742-8046) and American Cemetery Property (www.americancemeteryproperty.com; 866-979-6750). You can even sell the plot on eBay.com.
The listing should include the name of the cemetery, a description of the property, the number of lots and the price, says Bob Ward, a cemetery-property specialist at Final Arrangements Network. Some Web sites allow photos. "In some ways, you list it the same way you'd list a house," he says.
Fells warns against any service that requires large upfront fees. Sellers can expect to wait months or years before the plot sells, if it sells at all, so don't go with a service that has monthly or annual costs.
Although the challenges are significant for sellers, they can present opportunities for buyers. Buyers can snap up plots for less than 50% of a cemetery's current plot price. "There are so many more sellers than buyers right now in the secondary market," says Fells.
Buyers should ask the cemetery if there will be any additional costs that could arise, such as perpetual-care costs. Also, contact the cemetery to be sure that the seller has the legal right to sell.
The cemetery will provide legal documents that the buyer and seller will sign. The cemetery will then issue burial rights to the new owner and charge a fee -- ranging from $15 to well over $100. Ask about these fees upfront.