Buying a home with hazards

Most homes in the U.S. are safe. Some, however, can be hazardous to your health. The house you have your eye on may have dangerous levels of radon, lead dust or mold. It could be infested with vermin, or pose other environmental or health hazards. If you’re considering the purchase of a home, you’d be wise to take some precautions:

Hire a real estate lawyer

Hiring a lawyer could be the smartest investment you make. For around $500 to $1,500, a lawyer can insert clauses in your purchase agreement requiring a seller to confirm that the house has passed muster with a licensed termite or vermin inspector and is free of dangerous levels of radon, toxic mold, asbestos fibers, lead-based paint or other hazards. Your purchase agreement can also require a seller to provide you with the results of tests that confirm such things as a home’s well water being healthy and its septic system working properly. It can also require a seller to make appropriate repairs. And it can authorize you to hire your own home inspector to confirm that everything meets your requirements for environmental and health safety.

Get pre-approved for a mortgage

Homeowners who disclose their home’s hazards are often highly motivated to sell quickly at a rock-bottom price. By getting pre-approved for a mortgage, you’ll be able to act quickly and take advantage of a potential bargain. Just make sure your purchase price includes the cost of eliminating all the hazards.

Have the home inspected

For around $200 to $400, an insured and licensed home inspector can alert you to environmental or structural and mechanical problems. Armed with this information, you can decide whether or not you want to shoulder the cost of eliminating the hazards. Your inspector will be on the lookout for:
  • Unsafe drinking water. Industrial pollutants can get into a home’s water supply. Old plumbing may contain lead, which can leach into drinking water. An underground fuel storage tank near a home could be leaking. Or a private well may contain harmful bacteria. What to do? If hazardous wastes are entering water that comes from an outside water supplier such as a federal agency, you’ll have to work with that agency to make sure it corrects the problem once you take over the house. If the problem is lead pipes, and you go through with the deal, you’ll have to replace the plumbing yourself. In the case of polluted well water or a nearby leaking storage tank, you may be better off to walk away from the deal -- the financial cost of remedying such problems can be prohibitively high.
  • Radon gas. This invisible, odorless gas, created by the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil, is a carcinogen. To see if a home has unacceptably high levels, ask the homeowners to provide you with test results (make sure they are recent) or ask your home inspector to test the air. If radon is present, it will likely cost $800 to $2,500 to install exhaust fans or a ventilation system or undertake other renovations to reduce this radioactive gas to safe levels.
  • Lead paint. Lead was only banned for use in paint in 1978. As a result, many homes built before then may have walls or ceilings covered in lead-based paint. Left undisturbed, this paint is not a hazard. But it’s a toxin that can cause permanent damage to the nervous system of children who chew on peeling paint chips or to anyone who breathes in the lead dust that can get into the air when walls are sanded or knocked down. A home inspector can test for lead particles in the air. If this test is positive, you will have to hire a company to professionally vacuum up all the lead dust (an ordinary vacuum cleaner won’t do). You may also want to repaint or wallpaper any home built before 1978.
  • Infestation. Termites and carpenter ants can enter a home wherever soil meets wood. Damp wood exposed to wet masonry or brick may also be infested with a fungus called dry rot that eats away at wood. If a home inspector discovers a minor infestation without extensive damage, it may be worth buying the property anyway. Before you move in, you can pay a pest-control company and/or building contractor to eliminate the problem. In the case of an extensive infestation, you may be better off not to buy the home.
  • Out-of-date or aluminum wiring. A home inspector or licensed electrician should be able to check a home’s wiring. Old-fashioned knob and tube wiring (ceramic “knobs” and wiring sheathed in plastic “tubes”) can be a fire hazard and even make a home ineligible for house insurance. So too can aluminum wiring that predates today’s copper wiring and carries the risk of breaking or bursting into sparks or flames. In either case, the remedy is to upgrade the wiring at a cost of up to several thousand dollars.
  • Asbestos. Found in some insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, exterior siding, roofing products, shingles and other building materials, asbestos shouldn’t cause harm if it’s in good condition and located where it won’t be disturbed. But there’s the risk that it can cause lung disease if its fibers break down into particles tiny enough to be inhaled. If you want to renovate the portion of a home that has asbestos, you should hire specialized asbestos removal workers. References are available through local, state, or federal health or consumer-product agencies.
  • Toxic mold. Some species of this microscopic fungus can cause serious illness if allowed to multiply in moist areas of a home such as where there has been flooding, a leaky roof or an improperly serviced air humidifier. The mold’s spores can continue to spread even after the area has dried. While it may be easy to clean up toxic mold that’s in just one small area, the price of getting rid of it once it has affected the structure, furnishings and carpets of a home can run into the thousands of dollars.

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