Is your house toxic? Poison: Methane gas, asbestos, carbon monoxide, radon and lead paint are just some of the hazards that could ruin a real estate deal.

November 15, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Anyone in the home-buying mode may be a little spooked after hearing about the families that recently moved out of their new Howard County homes because high levels of explosive methane gas were detected in the basements.

Could it happen elsewhere? Who's responsible in this type of situation? How can you protect yourself?

Sure, most buyers know they should have a home inspector check for things such as bad plumbing and faulty wiring, but methane? Are there other environmental hazards lurking in and around a home?

Buyers have many options when it comes to getting information about a home or site's environmental history. They can hire someone to conduct environmental tests or take some time to rummage through planning records to investigate a site's past owners and uses.

"What homebuyers have to keep in mind is that they have zero protection once they buy the house," said Jordan Clark, president of the United Homeowners Association. "The first thing you do is understand there's no place to turn after the settlement that won't cost money and time. Don't assume the county has done a great job of screening the site."

The law does not require environmental tests of land being developed, unless government officials are aware of potential problems.

But most banks require testing as a condition for granting a loan to a developer. Otherwise, the banks could get stuck with a property made worthless by toxic wastes.

Joseph A. Hau, a geologist with Chesapeake Environmental Management Inc. in Bel Air, said there are three phases in dealing with a potential site.

The first involves looking at records to determine past land use; interviewing former owners of the property; reviewing aerial photographs of the site to see if there are signs of disturbed or stained earth that would indicate underground oil tanks; and walking the land to look for anything out of the ordinary.

A first-phase study costs about $500 to $600 for a house or small office complex, Hau said.

If anything suspicious turns up, more people should be interviewed and samples of the land should be tested for chemicals. The third phase is the cleanup of any toxic materials that are found.

"The [buyers] have to undertake some investigation themselves if they're wise. Before buying a piece of property I would recommend doing at least a $500 screening or asking the seller to disclose any knowledge of an environmental impairment," Hau said. "And ask to see a phase-one study of the property."

Others say the chances of serious environmental problems on residential property are so slim that aggressive testing isn't necessary.

"You can drive yourself crazy with that, and half of it wouldn't make sense anyway," said Jim Joyce, president of the Baltimore division of Ryland Homes Inc.

"If you're buying from a reputable company and buying in a county that has had a substantial amount of development, the odds of [methane problems] happening are minuscule," Joyce said.

"The biggest things you worry about are structural, not related to gases. There was a huge scare a while ago about radon, which led to added regulations and added cost. Now we put radon vents in all our houses, even though it's not an issue for 95 percent of them.

"You can spend tons of money on phase-one studies, but I don't think it's worth it."

Jonathan A. Azrael, principal at Azrael, Gann and Franz, a Towson law firm specializing in real estate, agrees. He recommends testing for the usual suspects -- such as termites, lead paint, radon, safe wells and septic tanks -- but says a phase-one test is probably above and beyond what's normally needed.

"I would say don't overreact; a problem such as methane gas is very atypical and [homebuyers] should not be overly concerned about such a problem cropping up," he said.

And even a phase-one study is not a guarantee that problems won't materialize.

Brantly Development Corp., the developer of the Howard County Calvert Ridge site, which was once a gravel pit, said a phase-one study discovered that tree stumps and other material had been buried up to 20 feet deep on the site, although the county has no record of the land being used as a dump. The company dug 14 feet to remove the material, and said it's possible more of it remains under the homes.

Two families in Laurel were also forced from their newly built homes for a week in July because of high methane levels. The gas, which is odorless and colorless, can be caused by decaying material, although the specific source in those two cases has not been determined.

State law does not require a phase-one test, but it does direct that homeowners do one of two things when selling an existing house: Sign a disclosure statement or a disclaimer regarding the condition of the home.

The seller's disclosure statement lists all known problems with the house. It does not require the seller to look for problems or conduct an inspection. With a disclaimer, the seller simply acknowledges the property is being sold as is.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.