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Here’s some advice before you ghost hunt in an apparently deserted or empty building.
What can you do when an empty home or building seems haunted?
Ghost hunters should never trespass. But, not everyone knows how to get permission to visit an empty site, and what to ask for.
If a home is empty, it may be owned by a ‘snowbird’. That’s slang for people who spend chilly winter months in warm locations, and return north when summer heat becomes unbearable at their second homes.
Or, the home may be for sale. If it’s been on the market for a long time, it may be neglected by the owner. Often, those owners live out of state and don’t realize how dilapidated their former home is. Or, it might be a repossessed home, owned by a bank that just hasn’t listed the property yet. Look for a realtor’s sign somewhere around the property. If you don’t see one, call any local realtor and see if the house is listed by anyone.
The house may be owned by someone elderly living in a retirement community, who is unable to maintain the home but doesn’t want to let it go, either. That’s not uncommon, especially if the house had been in the family for generations.
So, how you you get permission to investigate an empty house that seems haunted?
1. Ask the neighbors. They probably know who owns the house. A neighbor may even have contact information and a key to the house, to check on it regularly.
2. Ask the homeowners’ association. If the home is in a subdivision, there is probably a homeowners’ association. They almost always have a list of the houses, who owns each one, and complete contact information for every homeowner.
3. Ask the police. Many ghost hunters feel intimidated by the police. This is generally a needless worry. In fact, many of my favorite haunted locations were recommended by police who’d been called to those sites repeatedly… and couldn’t figure out what caused the noises, lights, or other signs of ghosts.
If a home has been empty for awhile, the police probably know about it… and its history. They may be able to tell you who owns it, or point you in the direction of someone with that info.
4. Ask the reference librarian at the nearest public library. He or she may know all about it. Reference librarians are wonderful resources.
EMPTY BUSINESSES AND COMMERCIAL BUILDINGS
If a store or commercial building looks empty, look for a realtor’s sign. Do an Internet search on the exact street address; it may reveal who was there last. Check for their current address and phone number, and they may provide contact information about the landlord or the new owner of their old building.
If that doesn’t work, the research process is about the same as for an empty house.
1. Ask nearby businesses. In some cases, landlords are waiting for all of the tenants’ leases to expire, so that they can tear down the building and replace it with something better or larger.
2. Ask the Chamber of Commerce, or Convention & Visitors’ Bureau. They often know every neighborhood in commercial districts, and who owns which blocks.
3. Ask the police. Empty storefronts can be targets of vandals, and homeless people can try to use them as temporary shelters. So, the police may have information about the owners.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
Sometimes, no one has a clue. I’ve never encountered that kind of problem, in over 30 years of research.
If a site is that difficult to research, find somewhere else to ghost hunt. Trespassing is never an acceptable alternative.
But, if you’re absolutely fascinated with an empty home or business, start with old, published “reverse” directories. They will probably turn up someone who was in the building in the past, and they may have information for you.
You can also go to the courthouse and research civil records, including tax histories, liens, and probate records. (In some areas, recent records are closed to the public unless you can prove a specific and compelling reason to access that information.)
Some courthouses charge a fee for this, some have indexed records, and some require you to contact them by mail (not email) and wait for a reply. Call ahead. You’ll probably reach a recording telling you how to access their records.
WHAT TO ASK FOR
In most cases, you’ll want the homeowner or landlord to let you into the building and remain there while you do your research. That prevents lawsuits, especially if the site has been vandalized while it was empty. Never risk being blamed for damage that you didn’t do.
If the owner simply hands you the key, have them sign a brief permission form, along with the date and time.
The permission form should list the address being investigated, the names of the researchers who are allowed into the premises, and the date and exact hours that you are allowed to be there. The owner should sign and date this form, and you should carry it with you.
When you return the key to the owner, have him or her sign the permission form again, noting that the key was returned, and when. It’s just a receipt, in case questions are asked, later.
Never make a copy of the key. Never let another team member borrow it. Use the key for your investigation, and — if possible — return it that same day, in person. Don’t just drop it into the mailbox at the owner’s home. (If the owner isn’t available when you want to leave the key, take the key to the nearest police station and ask if they’ll hold it for the owner. Do not mention ghost hunting. Say you were “interested in the building.” They’ll assume you were looking at renting or buying it.)
There are many liabilities connected with researching in empty buildings. Generally, I advise against that kind of research. There are plenty of other, more accessible sites for investigations.
But, I have never run into a stone wall when researching an empty home or building. Usually, the neighbors are the best resource. If you knock on enough doors and talk to enough people, you’ll generally get the answers that you need.