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Spy Before You Buy?

Some Southland house hunters hire private detectives to scope out neighborhoods. . .and neighbors

June 23, 1996|HARRIET MODLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Harriet Modler is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Gossip among neighbors on the upscale La Jolla street suggested that a wealthy resident who never worked but drove a Mercedes was a mobster.

"The whole neighborhood thought he was in the Mafia," said private detective R.W. "Pete" Peterson, who was retained in August 1995, to do a thorough background check on the man by a couple interested in buying a home in the neighborhood.

In an investigation that took three weeks and cost $6,000, Peterson and his agents checked out banks on the East Coast, went through the man's trash, and more. "We had to do some fairly surreptitious things," said Peterson, a private detective for 22 years with offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver and Chicago.

The investigation and surveillance revealed that the man they were snooping on got his money not from drugs but trust funds. Peterson's clients bought the house.

While investigations of prospective neighbors and neighborhoods are not common in real estate transactions, several Southland private detective agencies said they are doing more and more of them, mostly for high-end home buyers with security and privacy concerns.

And Los Angeles is not the only place it is happening.

The Sunday Times of London reported recently that the Assn. of British Investigators reports a large increase in the number of neighborhood watch cases requested by worried homeowners.

"We have had triple the requests in the past year with most detectives now getting 15 or 20 a year," said Richard Jacques-Turner, president of the ABI, which represents 460 agencies.

However, nearly a dozen Realtors in Los Angeles and Orange counties interviewed for this story say they have no knowledge of the practice going on here.

Some said neighbor investigations are unnecessary; others were offended by the practice.

"I know everything that goes on," said Elaine Young of Coldwell Banker in Beverly Hills. "All you have to do is call a title company."

Said Gil Foerster, partner in Waterfront Homes in Newport Beach: "I can't think of anything more repugnant."

Added Stephen Shapiro of Stan Herman/Stephen Shapiro & Associates, Beverly Hills: "They [private detectives] want to increase the level of paranoia to increase their level of work."

But Cecelia Waeschle of Prudential Rodeo Realty thinks that employing investigators makes sense.

"I think it's a great idea," she said. "Very often the broker won't know the neighborhood as well as the neighbors. . . . You can never be too sure."

Linda May of Fred Sands Realtors in Beverly Hills said she believes, as do most agents, that the state-mandated Transfer Disclosure Statement should reveal any potential neighborhood problems.

The disclosure law, in effect since the late 1980s, requires home sellers and their agents to tell buyers, by means of a disclosure form, anything that might affect the value of the home. One question asks "yes" or "no" about "neighborhood noise problems or other nuisances" and provides several lines for response.

But Gov Hutchinson, assistant general counsel to the California Assn. of Realtors in Los Angeles, cautioned that not every issue can be addressed with the form.

"The Transfer Disclosure Statement is the minimum mandatory statement, but it doesn't necessarily tell buyers what they want to know, " he said.

Which is why a home buyer might turn to a private detective to help check out a neighborhood. Peterson said the buyer might not necessarily trust the homeowner or his representatives.

A previous bad experience with neighbors or a substantive need for security are two more reasons, said John Nazarian, an investigator with offices in Century City and San Francisco.

Sometimes, a detective's skills at observation can save the home buyer from making a costly mistake. Last year, Nazarian cautioned one client not to purchase a home because the next-door neighbor had an inordinate amount of oil on his driveway.

When Nazarian learned that the neighbor was moonlighting by fixing cars in Pacific Heights, an expensive San Francisco neighborhood, his client opted to purchase instead in suburban Walnut Creek.


Some security firms have also expanded into investigative services. A wealthy couple who had been using Carson-based Gennao Inc. for personal protection services grew weary after a year of fruitless searching for a home in Beverly Hills that combined an unremarkable exterior with plenty of interior amenities that could at the same time provide optimum security.

Gennao's owner, Conrad Poe, sent Richard Welby, an executive protection specialist, along with the husband and wife to inspect properties under their consideration.

Welby checked for multiple evacuation routes from the homes, quality of the security systems and how to enhance window and wall protection. He nixed a hillside house because it would require inordinately expensive security.

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