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How One Man Solves the Complicated Equation of Ruined Real Estate

The Atavist Magazine is a monthly digital publication that produces one blockbuster nonfiction story every month. The following is adapted from August's "The Ghosts of Pickering Trail." To learn how Randall Bell tried to help a family get rid of a haunted house, or to read another epic longform story, visit The Atavist Magazine. And read Curbed's interview with Randall Bell here.

In 1992, a young real estate appraiser named Randall Bell bought a house in Laguna Niguel, California. Shortly after Bell and his family moved in, the house—a spacious four-bedroom Tudor with sweeping views of the San Joaquin Hills—began suffering a series of minor domestic catastrophes. First the soil under Bell's home expanded, fracturing the foundation. Next the slope on the west side of his property began a slow, gravitational creep, pulling down the hillside. Finally, one morning, Bell was awoken by a small earthquake and walked outside to find a large crack in the shallow end of his pool.

Bell was not alone in his distress. Around that time, all of Southern California, in fact, seemed to be under assault. From his front steps, Bell watched wildfires incinerate the El Dorado National Forest and Laguna Beach. Up the coast, in Malibu, heavy rain caused rivers to overrun their banks and flood homes. In the orchards of Bakersfield, a cold snap wiped out the citrus harvest. Earthquakes rattled the San Fernando Valley.

As the damage piled up, Bell, a tall, handsome man with sandy blond hair, tan skin, and an almost pathologically easygoing disposition, began getting calls to appraise some of the properties disfigured by these disasters. He found that he enjoyed the challenge of putting a price on deeply imperfect things. As he traveled around the region, he marveled at the abundant variety of misfortunes that could befall buildings and land. In addition to natural disasters, he inspected properties crippled by subtler threats like groundwater contamination, asbestos, oil spills, landfills, power lines, dam failures, and freeway expansions. He searched for an authoritative book on the evaluation of damaged real estate. When he discovered that the topic lacked a definitive text, he decided that he would write his own.

An obsession took hold. For months, Bell made a routine of tucking his three young children into bed and retiring to his office, where he compiled a long list of every bad thing that could sap a piece of real estate of its financial value. He then organized these hazards, which he termed "detrimental conditions," into categories. Within a year, he had created a rubric that placed each type of mayhem into one of ten classifications. These ranged from Class III Market Conditions (like a recession), to Class VIII Environmental Conditions (like the presence of mold) to Class IX Natural Conditions (like earthquakes). Each bore its own unique methodology for valuation. This way, an appraiser confronted with a damaged property could refer to the chart and find the means to properly assess it. Senseless chaos could now be organized and, more importantly, priced.

In the summer of 1993, Bell unveiled the list at a conference for real estate appraisers at Disneyland. His peers found Bell's innovation immensely useful and dubbed it the Bell Chart. His client roster multiplied, and his name soon became synonymous with the strange field of study that he had effectively created.

A few months later, Bell started his own appraisal firm. Not long after, he received a phone call from a man named Lou Brown, who needed help with a condo in West Los Angeles. His daughter, Nicole, and her friend Ronald had been stabbed to death on the condo's front walk. Nicole's ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, stood accused of the murders. Bell, like the rest of the country, had watched the trial coverage for months. He had seen the condominium on the news so many times that he could picture its facade in his head.

When Bell sat down with Brown, he could see that the condo was a painful reminder of his daughter's death. How, Brown wanted to know, could he get it off his hands? Bell thought about what made a property repellent to buyers. He realized that most people had developed a negative impression after seeing the condo in countless stories about the murders. If he could alter the condo's appearance, thus blurring its picture in the mind's eye, that connection might diminish. So, at Bell's suggestion, Brown replaced the building's much photographed facade, added trees, planted flower beds, even swapped out the street number. All of this changed the look of the place and, just as importantly, the feeling. It was the same location, but the small aesthetic differences rendered it unrecognizable. It took another two years, but the condo eventually found a buyer, though one who paid well below the asking price.

Bell's work on the Brown condo was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times, and the national press, desperate for a fresh angle on the Trial of the Century, pounced. News stations from all over the world contacted him for interviews. Soon he was receiving calls from other people trying to sell houses that had been the site of murders, which in turn led to requests for more interviews.

Over the next 15 years, Bell traveled all over the world and examined such famously stigmatized properties as JonBenét Ramsey's house, the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the nuclear-weapons test sites of the Bikini Atoll, businesses looted and burned in the Rodney King riots, the California estate where actress Sharon Tate was killed by followers of the Manson family, Chernobyl, the Rancho Santa Fe mansion where 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide, the field in Pennsylvania where United flight 93 crashed, and the World Trade Center. For around $400 per hour, Bell would advise sellers on how to price their stigmatized property or make it more attractive to prospective buyers.

Bell, a practicing Mormon, does not believe in ghosts—or, rather, he has never seen one. He does, however, believe in the caprices of human perception and the power of illusion. (He holds one of the world's largest collections of Houdini memorabilia, second only to the magician David Copperfield.) Traces of violent death, Bell knew, frequently linger long after the blood is scrubbed away. Some people, Bell had found, were more susceptible to feeling this than others. Over the years, he had come to see this sensitivity not as an irrational delusion but as a kind of empathy, a deeply felt connection to the dead. "A haunted house is a perception," Bell once explained. "If a property is perceived as haunted, it's haunted." — Will Hunt and Matt Wolfe

Read "The Ghosts of Pickering Trail," the story of one of Bell's most challenging cases, from The Atavist Magazine.