You’ve heard it before: when buying a home or apartment, order a home inspection to detect any leaks, structural issues, and other problems. But these days, that’s just not enough. Here’s why:
Age matters. A big part of the nation’s housing stock is aging, and hazardous materials like lead and asbestos, which were once standard fare in construction, are breaking down, creating toxic and downright dangerous environments.
The median age of an American home is 40 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with 40 million of the nation’s 132 million homes built in the 60s and 70s; 21 million homes built in the 40s and 50s; and 20 million homes constructed before 1939.
But even newer homes can have environmental issues. Poor indoor air quality is very common in newer construction, as structures are built to be airtight to conserve energy, leading to air that contains mold, chemicals, and other toxins that can cause health issues.
Testing makes sense. “I always recommend environmental testing as part of a home inspection checklist,” says Fiona Dogan, a real estate agent with Julia B. Fee Sotheby International Realty in Rye, New York. “You invest in environmental testing services up front to prevent a bigger problem later.” Dogan said she also recommends environmental testing for sellers in order to identify issues before putting a property on the market, which can help you to sell your home faster and avoid costly rush charges to have last-minute issues fixed before the closing.
“If environmental issues are found prior to going to contract, the seller may take care of them,” confirms Leann Ratner of Al Filippone Associates, William Raveis Real Estate in Fairfield, Connecticut. “For example, if a mold test comes back positive, the seller might have to do mold remediation, remove sheetrock, then re-test to ensure the mold was removed properly, reinstall the sheetrock, and repaint. Testing before the house goes on the market can eliminate potential headaches in the negotiation process,” she said.
Because most home inspectors lack the knowledge and certifications necessary to test for potentially toxic substances, homebuyers should schedule an environmental inspection with a certified independent testing company before plunking down a deposit.
So what should you check for? Many realtors suggest these as a starting point:
Homes built before 1978 should be tested for lead paint, inside and out. Lead dust from deteriorating surfaces is the most common cause of lead poisoning.
Lead paint on deteriorating surfaces and friction surfaces creates dust, which is the primary cause of lead poisoning. Pipes, plumbing connections, and especially faucets are a source of lead in water. Soil can also have elevations of lead from deteriorating paint. Exposure to lead can cause irreversible neurological damage. Test for lead.
Exposure to even a few asbestos fibers can cause cancer and respiratory problems. Over the years, asbestos was used in roofing materials, pipe insulation, flooring, ceiling tiles, wallboard, and hundreds of other building supplies. It may never present a problem if it is in good condition, but when it’s disturbed, you risk releasing its fibrous particles into the air. If a homebuyer or home inspector identifies any deteriorating suspect asbestos material or the buyer is planning any renovations, asbestos testing should be more than a mark on the home inspection list. Test for asbestos.
Mold can lurk anywhere in a home—in walls, floors and ceilings, under a sink, and even beneath carpeting among other areas. Mold can be present wherever water or moisture has seeped into a home—around leaky pipes, windows, roofs, or basements that may have flooded and not properly dried. Mold exposure can cause or worsen health issues like allergies, asthma, and more serious respiratory illnesses. Typically, home inspectors will look for visible signs of mold, but unless they see it or smell a musty odor, they won’t know a potential problem exists. Then a prospective homebuyer is unlikely to find out if a house contains mold. Motto of the story? Hire a certified mold inspector to perform an assessment.
The time of year counts, too. If you are purchasing a home during the winter, mold may be dormant. But as soon as heat and humidity come into play, mold becomes active and you could have a full-blown mold infestation. Test for mold.
Most everyone has heard about radon in homes. This dangerous, naturally occurring, radioactive gas is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to the EPA. You can’t see or smell radon; the only way to detect it is with proper sampling techniques. It is very prevalent in the northeast, where it is estimated that one out of every five homes has elevated levels of radon. Test for radon.
A basic home inspection will tell you if your faucets and pump work, but won’t analyze your water quality. A comprehensive analysis of your drinking water is important. Heavy metals in pipes, arsenic that naturally occurs in groundwater, radon that is naturally produced when uranium decays in soil and water, and pesticide contamination are just some of the things that can taint the water you are drinking, bathing in, and using every day. Test your water.
Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality (IAQ) has become a major consideration when buying a home. According to the EPA, our indoor environment is two to five times more toxic than our outdoor environment, and in some cases, the air indoors is 100 times more polluted than outdoors. In new construction, many of the materials used contain alarmingly high levels of toxic formaldehyde and harmful VOCs. Studies have also shown that smoke, fungal spores, and chemicals used in most man-made products including certain paints, varnishes and cleaners are harmful to human health. Be sure to find out what you’ll be breathing with an IAQ test.
Not all environmental hazards are obvious. To detect them requires expertise, licensure, technology, and experience. If you would like more information on what types of environmental inspections may be right for you, please feel free to call us at (800) 392-6468. If you would like to find out more about what a basic home inspection covers, read Why Do I Need A Professional Home Inspection.
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Environmental Home Inspection Checklist, courtesy of RTK Environmental Group