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Realities of Real Estate: Is the house you’re buying a death trap?

With computers and other giant leaps forward in technology, our ability to measure things has grown exponentially. Atomic clocks keep track of time down to the last millisecond. Want to know how far away the moon is from your backyard, a brief Internet search can probably tell you that with an error rate of no more than a couple of inches.

Initially, most people would believe that better precision in measuring stuff is a good thing, but there can be a certain degree of downside with respect to the hyper accuracy of how we measure the world around us. So, how does this all relate to buying a house? Well, improvements in technology have also enhanced our ability to evaluate potential dangers associated with where we live. This, along with other factors, has inspired many to be substantially more fastidious about the health and safety aspects of purchasing a home.

The thought came to mind when the inspections for our last two home sales both discovered that the chimneys needed to be relined. It made us wonder how people survived before chimneys even had liners. Back in the old days, the fireplace would run almost continuously to provide for cooking and/or a source of heat. However, before we were able to run video cameras up a flue to check for cracks, there doesn’t seem to have been an epidemic carbon monoxide poisoning. The difference most likely lies in the degree to which homes are now hermetically sealed. The old homestead of the 19th century leaked like a sieve, so a little smoke coming out of the chimney was quickly dissipated, posing little danger. Today, in an effort to save on energy, our homes are essentially shrink-wrapped, allowing carbon monoxide to potentially build-up and create a hazard.

How safe is safe enough?

Nevertheless, when it comes to where we live, the chimney concern presents the question about how safe is safe enough. Our home is our refuge, and it should be as free from potential danger as possible. But, life isn’t a risk-free proposition. There’s a cost-benefit analysis for everything and a declining return on investment as homeowners look to improve the quality of their environment.  Today, home purchase contracts are often filled with contingencies to test for radon, radium, lead paint, mold and any number of other potentially harmful toxins.

When we grew up, none of those things were even a consideration when buying a house. Of course, that was back when we rode around in cars without seat belts, playgrounds had swings and mom told you to go outside and play until dinner was ready. By some miracle, we all survived. So, what’s now driving the growth in health and safety concerns regarding a home purchase? There can be several explanations.

First, the heretofore mentioned advances in technology have allowed us to look for and find problems we previously didn’t know existed or were unable to measure. Now, we have the ability to test for stuff, so we do. Whether what we find really poses a significant threat is another question. For example, mold and radon are both naturally occurring substances. They are everywhere, all the time. With radon, there is an Environmental Protection Agency standard for how much is too much.  But how do we know that the EPA standard is valid or accurate? In other countries, the amount of radon deemed acceptable in a home can be up to 4 times higher than what’s allowed here in the United States. Are those countries taking a risk, or is our EPA guideline overkill. Who knows?

For mold, there isn’t any standard, which frequently makes mold a bone of contention in selling a home. The determination of what constitutes a mold problem is somewhat subjective. Furthermore, some people can have severe health problems from certain amounts and/or types of mold, whereas other people aren’t bothered at all. There are literally tens of thousands of strains of mold and it simply isn’t possible to quantify the impact of each on individual health.

 Ending up in court

Second, the United States is an increasingly litigious society. This has no doubt also contributed to a higher level of awareness over potential health and safety hazards found in the home. With something like mold, where there isn’t any standard, it’s a lawyer’s dream come true.  We’ve all seen the commercials: Call 1-800-BAD-HOME — you might be due compensation because of that musty smell in your basement. We don’t intend to just dump on lawyers. There are many legitimate cases where people have been severely damaged due to mold or lead paint. That being said, competition among lawyers to secure clients has probably heightened public anxiety over these and other possible environmental hazards.

Third, we’re in an era where being green is a high priority. The effort to not pollute the planet is top-of-mind for many, and that attitude obviously extends to the indoor environment, especially our home. Additionally, the desire to maintain the health of mother earth has tangentially fostered a renewed focus on personal health. If you’re the kind of person who will pay 50 percent more for free-range organic eggs, you’re sure as heck going to take a close look at your chimney and take advantage of every possible test and measurement possible for sizing up the health of a house.  Aging baby boomers have also discovered that once you turn 50, your warranty is up. Consequently, a lot of us are trying to turn back the clock, and we’re keenly aware of anything that might contribute to the aging process.

Whether threats like mold and radon are real or perceived, perception has a way of becoming reality, and that’s leading home health and safety issues to a new level of importance when evaluating a property for purchase. When it comes to such things, the old axiom of “better safe than sorry” probably applies. However, although we would never deter someone for taking a good hard look at whatever they’re concerned about, a good dose of simple common sense is also often in order. After all, there are two things found in every home that kill more Americans each year than radon, mold and carbon monoxide combined – that’s the television and the refrigerator.