To sell a house where a murder occurred, agents face unique challenges: 'Not just economics ... It's emotion.'

Photo of Justin Papp

GREENWICH — It’s an extraordinary estate: A 22,000-square-foot home, tucked away on a wooded 84-acre property on Sterling Road, the remote northwest corner of Greenwich near the border with Armonk, N.Y. It has a gym, a 5,000-bottle wine cellar, full-size bar, lounge and game room. The jaw-dropping list of amenities includes an indoor lap pool and an outdoor pool, tennis courts and basketball courts, a baseball diamond and organic gardens.

It’s a stunning backcountry hideaway, and one that comes with a steep, $35 million price tag.

For any property at that price point, there’s a limited pool of buyers out there. For 100 Sterling Road, in particular, the site of Greenwich’s last murder, in 2009, that pool may be even smaller.

The property was listed for sale in May on Zillow, but was taken off the market this week. It’s unclear why.

An adviser to the property owner, Christine Heenan, founder of Clarendon Group (which works with an impressive list of client, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard University), did not elaborate on the reasons for de-listing the property or the owner’s plans for the estate. She also did not provide information on the owner.

According to the Town Assessor’s office, the property was purchased in 2009 by S. Donald Sussman, a hedge fund executive, and then transferred to 100 Sterling Road LLC., the entity that is connected to another Sussman property, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But for any property where a violent crime has occurred, like 100 Sterling Road, one question lingers when entering the real estate market: How much does the gruesome history of a home impact its market value?

Do memories fade?

Police arrived at 100 Sterling Road, on the night of Dec. 30, 2009, to find Amanda Dobrzanski dead in the an auxiliary building on the estate.

The 20-year-old recent Greenwich High School graduate’s father, Adam Dobrzanski, a live-in caretaker at the estate, was found with self-inflicted injuries, but survived and, ultimately, pleaded guilty to murder. He was sentenced to 40 years for the slaying.

The murder is one of just two occurring in Greenwich in the last dozen years. It got an abundance of local — and some national — press. And it arguably left a stain on an otherwise palatial home and extraordinary property in Greenwich’s backcountry, as similar events do on homes throughout the country.

Randall Bell, a California-based specialist in valuing properties deemed undesirable for reasons not related to the physical condition or features, has told the Los Angeles Times that properties on which a murder has occurred typically sell for a discount of between 10 percent to 15 percent on the low end, and 25 percent on the high end. They also tend to stay on the market longer.

Many variables can potentially affect the price. How long ago was the murder? Did it happen in the living quarters of the property or an auxiliary building?

“I guess it also depends on how the murder was reported,” said John Engel, co-founder of the New Canaan-based real estate group the Engel Team and chair of the New Canaan Town Council. “Was it a particularly graphic story in the papers? Did it make it to national TV?”

In Connecticut, state statute does not require a real estate agent to disclose a homicide that occurred at a property for sale, so media coverage can play a major role in alerting potential buyers.

The Dobrzanski murder did not get the same kind of national attention as, for instance, the disappearance of Jennifer Dulos, a New Canaan resident of whom the husband, Fotis Dulos, was the suspected killer. And the Dobrzanski murder and subsequent trial are both nearly a decade in the past.

“Over time memories do fade for all but the most notorious crimes,” Engel said. “Yes, they should expect a discount because some buyers draw the line and will not consider these houses at any price. It’s a much smaller buyer pool.”

Engel has some experience in this realm.

His Engel Team group, which is a subsidiary of the New York City firm Brown Harris Stevens, was listing a home built by Fotis Dulos. It was not the Welles Lane home in which Jennifer Dulos was living when she disappeared — that home has been on the market since her 2019 disappearance and its owner, Arnold Karp, did not respond to a request for comment — but even its tenuous connection the alleged murder caused problems for Engel and his company ultimately passed the listing to another broker.

According to Craig Oshrin, a Fairfield-based real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, prospective home buyers operate largely on intuition. Any knowledge of the macabre at a property can spur an emotional response.

“I think one of the things people can’t necessarily articulate is when you walk into a property sometimes the energy just does not feel right,” Oshrin said. “People pick up on energy. They may not like the vibe. So when someone’s spending an obscene amount of money on a property it’s not just economics at play. It’s emotion.”

Oshrin, who has not personally listed any such properties, said often a significant amount of investment is required to offset the “bad vibes” of a property where something horrific occurred. He gave the example of Sandy Hook School, which was razed and rebuilt after the 2012 massacre that left 26 people dead.

It’s an extreme example, Oshrin said, but sometimes a property’s grim past endures and a fresh start is required.

“These homes become notorious,” Oshrin said. “They don’t become famous. They become well known, but for all the wrong reasons. So how much renovation will you need?”

Engel noted that homes where violent crimes took place can be good candidates for redevelopment, an option that, especially on a large parcel of land, allows an investor to start fresh and turn a profit by creating multiple homes where there was once one. He said, as an example, that the home on Down River Road in New Canaan where a man allegedly murdered his wife earlier this year may be ripe for redevelopment.

In the case of Sterling Road, Oshrin said, there is already a small pool of buyers for a property listing at $35 million. That pool may only shrink because of what transpired there in 2009 and some may patiently wait for that number to come down.

“There are people on Zillow who like that home, but you know what, not many people are going to touch it,” Oshrin said. “I’m going to wait until that home drops (in price), then I’m going to go in and make an offer.”

A ghostly niche

While some properties that saw violent crimes languish on the market, others are picked up by buyers with unusual needs.

Lance Zaal is one of those buyers.

The Virginia-based entrepreneur and business owner recently purchased the Lizzie Borden House, in Fall River, Mass., the site of one of the most infamous murders in American history, in 1892.

According to legend, the 32-year-old Borden hacked up her father and stepmother with an ax in the home. She was ultimately acquitted, and there is some debate over whether Borden actually perpetrated the crime. Whether Borden is guilty or not, the murder has been etched into the country’s collective memory and the house has been forever stamped as the site of a violent deadly assault.

And, perhaps because enough time has elapsed since the homicide, there is opportunity in the tragedy of the Bordens.

Since the 1990s, the Lizzie Borden House has operated as a museum and bed-and-breakfast, which allows visitors to briefly occupy the former scene of the crime.

In March of this year, Zaal purchased the home and will continue its use as a museum and B&B as part of his U.S. Ghost Adventures brand, which offers haunted tours of more than 40 sites throughout the United States.

For his purposes as a business owner, the Borden House is perfectly haunting. But Zaal acknowledged the mental block many prospective buyers might experience.

“I do think a lot of houses are unfairly stigmatized if something negative happened there,” Zaal said. “I think it’s just human psychology. We’re like, ‘Wow, this is the place where something bad happened and therefore I don’t want to be where something bad happened.’ I think there’s the impression that something bad might happen to them in the future or that there’s some lingering bad luck left over.”

But that potential bad luck doesn’t carry much water for Zaal.

“I think that’s probably unfair to a property,” Zaal said. “Because if you think about it, most properties in most places, people have died in there, whether it was violent or not. It’s just a fact of life. We all live. We all die. But I think a lot of people are extra sensitive to those things. But it depends on the person, it depends on the person’s mind.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586