Environmental hazards should concern buyers

STARTING OUT

January 30, 1994|By Dian Hymer

What environmental hazards should I be concerned about?

There are horror stories about homeowners who have discovered after they have owned their homes for a while that their housing development was built on highly toxic landfill. Less notorious, but worrisome to many home buyers, are environmental hazards that might affect only a single household.

Recent attention has focused on lead (present in house paint before 1978 and lead solder used in plumbing older homes), asbestos (an insulating and stiffening material used in older homes), radon (a gas emitted from decaying uranium), formaldehyde (used in the manufacturing of many home building products) and leaking underground fuel-storage tanks.

An environmental hazard on a residential property is a material found in the building products, the soil, the water or the air, the exposure to which may cause a health risk. The health risk is a concern because homeowners may occupy their property for years and could experience a high degree of exposure to a contaminant.

But the health issue is not the only concern. The cost of removing or abating a health threat can be enormous. For example, the cost of removing an abandoned home-heating-oil tank that hasn't posed a contamination problem could be in the $25,000 range. But if the surrounding soil is contaminated, the clean-up costs could cost $50,000 or more.

An additional concern is the effect that an environmental hazard might have on the value of the property. The stigma of being on or next to a contaminated waste site could be so great that a home might not be salable at all.

Ideally, sellers should disclose the existence of any hazards on their property before a sale is completed. Sellers who intentionally conceal such defects may face criminal penalties. Many sellers, however, aren't aware of environmental hazards affecting their properties. But this doesn't mean that the property is free from such hazards.

FIRST-TIME TIP: What can first-time home buyers do to minimize the likelihood of buying a property with an environmental hazard? Make sure that the inspection contingency of your purchase agreement allows you to fully inspect the property, including investigating the presence of environmental hazards. Real estate agents and home inspectors who have extensive experience in the area should be able to tell you about the kinds of environmental hazards other homeowners in the area have encountered.

But to find out whether contamination is a problem at a property you are considering buying, you will have to hire an environmental contractor to visit the site and collect samples that will be sent to a laboratory for analysis. Local ordinances may apply to the disclosure and/or abatement of environmental hazards. For more information, contact local waste-management experts.

To find out whether a property is near a hazardous-waste site, contact the Environmental Risk Information and Imaging Services (ERIIS) in Alexandria, Va. ERIIS is an environmental data-base reporting service that reports on known or suspected hazardous sites near the property. A report costs $75 and can be ordered by calling (800) 989-0403.

THE CLOSING: Don't try to abate contaminants yourself without seeking professional advice. In some cases, it's better to encapsulate a contaminant rather than remove it. For more information about environmental hazards, call the EPA Public Information Center: (202) 260-7751.

Dian Hymer's column is syndicated through Inman News Features. Send questions and comments care of Inman News Features, 5335 College Avenue, No. 25, Oakland, Calif. 94618.

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