The process of buying a home wouldn’t be the same without the home inspection. Unfortunately, a regular home inspection can only tell the buyer so much. “A regular home inspector, they’re going to look at the roof … they’re going to let you know if the boiler has a couple of years left on it … If it’s a good inspector they should let you know if your electrical system’s OK,” says President of Exclusive Testing Labs, Inc., Anthony Spina. “Those aren’t the big-ticket items. The big-ticket items are mold, asbestos and lead paint. Those are the hidden costs that a regular home inspector can’t identify.” As a caveat, Spina also warns against using a home inspector who has been referred to you by a realtor, as it may create a conflict of interest. “Go on your own and get a third-party home inspector,” he says.
The list of potential environmental hazards is long. It includes mold, asbestos, lead and other heavy metals, radon, allergens, and many other chemicals or volatile organic compounds. “A lot of clients really want to know what they’re getting before they purchase a home. If there’s a problem, the current owner owns the problem verses that buyer buying the house and then owning the problem themselves,” says Robert Weitz, owner and principal of RTK Environmental Group, LLC, which has offices up and down the Northeast Corridor, including one in White Plains.
Running all these tests on your potential new home is a daunting – and potentially expensive – proposition. Luckily, odds are you don’t need to test everything. “Sometimes you’ve got to be a little more specific,” explains Jeffrey Molloy, a licensed and certified Master Home Inspector working in Westchester County. “You have to narrow things down.” Unless you or a member of your family has a specific medical condition with which to contend, there are really four main areas of environmental hazards of which you should be aware.
“Virtually all houses prior to 1978 have lead paint in them,” says Molloy. “If people come up to me and ask ‘I have a house built in 1910, do you think I have lead paint?’ The answer is yes, you have lead paint.”
“Even if you’re buying a house that was already renovated by the previous homeowner, if it was built before 1978 it could be contaminated by lead dust because we don’t know what procedures were done and what precautions were taken,” says Spina. “It could look spotless … but it is contaminated with lead dust all over the place.”
This is particularly true because for many years, one of the ways to deal with lead paint was to simply paint over it. Not anymore. “The EPA does not consider painting over a lead service to be an effective long term solution,” says Molloy. “As time has gone on they’ve gotten more and more stringent.”
Explains Weitz, “You may not have any immediate problem now, but once you want to hang a picture on the wall, you’re disturbing the lead paint inside. You only need a very small amount of lead paint [to be a health hazard]. The EPA states that one nail in the wall to hang a picture is enough to contaminate your apartment.”
It is important to remember that when you test a home for lead, you are testing for lead dust, not lead paint. “Lead paint is one of the things you can be pretty sure you have in your house,” explains Molloy. But lead paint, by itself, is not dangerous. It is the dust generated by the paint, which is a hazard. If lead dust is found, the professionals go to work. “Getting rid of lead dust, that consists of Hepa Vac-ing,” explains Spina. “Then we treat all the areas with Ledizolv – a special solution to break down and clean up lead dust.” Spina’s company repeats this process three times to ensure they’ve gotten rid of all lead dust in a home.
According to Weitz, the most common environmental test he does is for mold. “There may be water damage in the attic or basement. There could be a pipe break. This past winter there were a lot of pipe breaks, a lot of ice dams that can actually create mold.”
Mold likes to grow in moist areas with poor ventilation. “Normally, you’re going to look in the basement because that’s the area where there’s no circulation, that’s the area that’s highest in moisture. Ninety percent of mold problems are due to gutters cluttered by leaves,” says Spina. “Additionally, you need to look in the attic, because the attic may have poor ventilation,”
he continues. “Sometimes the vents are blocked by items people put in the attic, so the intake of air is disrupted and you’ll have mold growth because of improper air flow. You also want to have automatic ventilation in the bathroom. It’s best to have the ventilation system come on automatically when you turn on the bathroom light.”
“One of the things people always, always neglect are their air conditioning ducts,” says Molloy. “It’s very difficult to see during an inspection. If it’s not draining properly, working with very poor air filters or no air filters, the coil gets dirty with dust and dirt that acts as food for the mold. Very often we see huge amounts of mold on these things, and then they turn their air conditioners on and they’re blowing this stuff all over the house.”
Any areas of mold should be treated, cleaned and dried. Spina’s company uses containment areas, setting up negative air pressure to contain the mold and protect the rest of the house during treatment.
“A tell-tale sign for asbestos – 9 inch by 9 inch vinyl floor tiles,” says Spina. “Those are almost always asbestos material. Also look for pipe wrapping in the basement on heating pipes. Asbestos insulation on heating pipes in the basement looks like corrugated cardboard insulation. And on the elbows where the pipes bend, it will look like plaster around those elbows. That’s asbestos.”
The removal of asbestos requires the installation of a clean room, along with a shower, all within a containment area set off from the rest of the house by six millimeter-thick plastic sheeting. It’s a serious endeavor, and it’s important that you hire a reputable firm to handle the job.
“The thing you automatically test for is radon,” says Molloy. “Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer … you cannot be sure you have radon unless you test. Period. It doesn’t matter if the neighbor’s house tests fine, even the condo next to you may test fine. It doesn’t mean your unit is going to breathe the same way, have the same conditions, or the same test results.”
The possibility of radon in your home varies significantly based on where you are. The State has been collecting the results of radon testing for more than 20 years (sorted by ZIP code, not the actual address) to identify radon hotspots. “Here in Westchester it varies from a low of about a 10 percent chance up to a high of 29 to 30 percent,” says Molloy.
There are, of course, many other environmental hazards for which one can test. The amount of environmental testing required varies with each homebuyer almost as much as it does with each home, because at the end of the day your family is going to live in this house. You want to make sure there are no microscopic dangers threatening those you love.
“Knowing what I know after 20 years in business,” says Weitz, “I would test everything.”
David Neilsen is a Westchester resident and frequent contributor to Westchester Family.