Problems add up to house renumbering

John Kelly
Columnist August 12, 2012

The house numbers on Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring run as you expect they would: 9343, 9341, 9339 . . .

You’d think that 9337 would come next, but the red-brick house at the end of the row is 9335 Columbia Blvd.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

It is now, anyway. But for decades, it was 9337 Columbia Blvd. That was its address in 2002 when a maniac named Anthony Kelly broke into it, murdered a 9-year-old girl named Erika Smith, then shot and killed her father, Greg Russell.

And that was its address eight years later when Brian Betts, a beloved D.C. school principal, was murdered there by a man he met on a phone chat line.

You learn all this sad history — three murders in one house — if you Google “9337 Columbia Blvd.” Search for “9335 Columbia” and pretty much all you’ll find are real estate listings for the four-bedroom home, which is on the market for $479,900. (Buy it, and you’ll be my neighbor. I live just a few blocks away.)

Could the renumbering be an attempt to obscure the house’s tragic past? (Just check out the comments to that effect on Silver Spring Singular, the blog where I first learned of the renumbering.)

I spoke with a real estate investor involved with buying the house and putting it back on the market, but he wouldn’t allow me to quote him. In any event, there’s nothing illegal about petitioning to renumber a house.

And anyway, in Maryland, sellers are not required to tell prospective buyers if something bad happened in a house. Homicide, suicide, death or felony are not considered “material facts” under section 17-322(b) of the state’s real estate code, according to Debbie Hager of the Maryland Association of Realtors. What are material facts? Things such as the state of the roof, the foundation and whether water pools anywhere.

That doesn’t mean people won’t find out, of course. Silvia Rodriguez has been a real estate agent for 27 years. About 15 years ago, she was trying to sell a Silver Spring townhouse that was the scene of an unsolved murder. She asked the seller if he wanted to disclose that fact to potential buyers. He said no.

Said Silvia: “As soon as the first open house, when people went out to see the deck, a neighbor came out and said, ‘Do you know that the lady of the house was murdered?’ ”

As Silvia put it: “Neighbors will talk.”

The seller finally agreed to disclose the unfortunate events and the house sold. Silvia said he didn’t even have to reduce the price.

It might not just be an attempt to put a building’s history behind it that can lead people to obtain a new address. Folks at the county’s planning department told me some owners come from cultures that find certain numbers inauspicious or unlucky. A building’s number can be changed free of charge as long as it won’t interfere with the existing numbering system. The Columbia Boulevard house was okay because it’s the last residence before Georgia Avenue.

There’s no charge to change an address in Montgomery County. Once the planning commission staff signs off, they notify the proper agencies, including the fire and police departments and the U.S. Postal Service.

Should the fact that someone died in a house give buyers pause? I know one guy who for years has been trying to buy a house in Baltimore that was the scene of a suicide. That fact doesn’t bother him at all. He’s just hoping to get a better price. Perhaps, Silvia said, some buyers may think the Columbia Boulevard house was unlucky because of the old number and a new number will bring it better fortune.

After Brian Betts was murdered in 2010, his sister told The Post that he’d had no idea about the earlier murders when he bought the house. At first it bothered him, she said, but eventually he settled in and came to love the house.

Maybe that’s all the house needs: Someone to love it again, no matter its address.

Reuniting?

Is your local school reuniting? Send me the details ASAP — school, year, date of reunion, contact information — and I will try to list them in my column: kellyj@washpost.com.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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