Get A Grip

Every day, I field questions like these: "Will radon gas really kill me?" Or, "If I don't get all these electrical problems fixed, will the house burn down?"

When I hear this kind of stuff, the first thing that runs through my brain is: Get a grip. We're not dealing with an outbreak of ebola virus here. Chances are, things won't be a whole lot worse tomorrow than they are today. Catastrophes are rare, and few people are special enough to be caught up in one.

That's what I think. To myself. I usually say something like, "It's my job to give you adequate warning about all the hazards or potential hazards we discover. We recommend that you correct each and every problem."

Now that's weasel talk, and I hate to hear it come out of my mouth. But I do it because lawyers walk among us. In the world of real-estate dealings, emotions run high. Every now and then, people will get some insane bullshit into their heads, and they'll believe in it so hard that their craziness gets contagious.

For instance: A few years ago, a young professional couple from Manhattan agreed to buy a $650,000 house in Nyack, N.Y. Then they found out that many of the local folk believed the house was haunted. The seller, a 64-year-old widow who had lived in the house for 24 years, was one of the believers. She said she'd seen the ghosts many times over the years, usually in the hall. "They're very good friends," she said. "They're comforting to have around when you are by yourself."

Well, what she saw as an asset, the buyers saw as a liability. They claimed to be victims of "ectoplasmic fraud" and sued for the return of their $32,500 deposit. They argued, among other things, that the owner couldn't deliver a vacant house.

The first court to hear the case threw it out, citing the principle of caveat emptor, or buyer beware. And if you ask me, there ought to be a law that says when a person comes to court talking about ectoplasm, they not only can't appeal, they also have to be fitted with an internal Thorazine pump that'll calm down their fantasies and make 'em too drowsy to find the courthouse.

But this is America, and the Manhattanites not only appealed, they won, making it possible for them to pursue the case to the end. The court ruled that the house's hauntedness made it substantially less valuable, and since the buyers didn't know the local ghost stories, they had been duped into buying a haunted house. The court declared, "As a matter of law, the house is haunted."

It would be easy to talk about how this country is going straight to hell when a court declares a house legally haunted. But we've got it great here, compared to Senegal. According to a Reuters wire report, lynch mobs there have been known to roam the streets and goat paths, hanging "sorcerers." These sorcerer guys are supposed to have the ability to make a man's male parts shrink down to nubbin size, or disappear altogether, just by shaking his hand. The local police say that the sorcerer stories were started by thieves, who profit from the panic that ensues when word gets out that glad-handing penis-shrinkers are coming to town.

Craziness like this builds up a momentum. It's not so much that people start believing it, but they build up enough tolerance so they're willing to listen. Well, maybe the ghosts in the house could hurt the resale; or, that sorcerer stuff sounds like bullcrap to me, but I'm not shaking hands with any strangers today.

Personally, I'm in favor of people being not quite so broadminded-and it ought to start with the lawyers and judges. Lawyers, if somebody walks into your office and asks you to undo a contract on account of some supernatural goings-on, don't sit there and listen. Kick 'em out of the office. If times are tough, brush up on your slip-and-fall practice. Don't sink to arguing apparitions.

Judges, from what I've seen on TV, I'm pretty sure y'all can just order people into jail. I say you ought to do more of it. Start with the frivolous lawsuit-bringers. Sure, they'll make bond within hours, but maybe a few minutes in handcuffs will teach 'em a lesson.