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Buy a Home Not a Headache

Author: the Inkslinger

After what could politely be termed a slightly rocky stretch, real estate markets are rebounding. The National Association of Realtors predicts both home prices and interest rates will rise next year. That suggests now is a good time to buy. Just make sure your American dream isn't an environmental nightmare.

They're the stories of which home ownership horrors are made. See the house. Love it. Buy it. Discover it's built from termite-infested balsa wood on somebody's ancient burial ground. It happens all the time to homeowners who leap without a good look.

Buyer's remorse can be especially acute where environmental issues are concerned. You may know to check for lead and asbestos, but these are often the least of the problems, and I'm not talking about the vengeful spirits of ancient warriors. Things like bad water, polluted soil, or hidden mold can also ruin your housewarming party. Even positives like adjacent conservation areas can be problematic if they limit your property usage. Here are some ways to protect yourself:

  • First, add a stipulation to your purchase contract that makes the deal subject to your environmental assessment of the home and environs. Once we saw a sweet log home with a nice view. But rumor had it the neighbors were starting a junkyard next door so we made the deal contingent on their intentions. Turned out rumor was right and that contingency saved us.
  • That's lesson #2: talk to the neighbors and find out what's up. Are fracking fluids pouring from the faucets? Is that vacant lot a Superfund site? Are those guys in hardhats siting a new pipeline? What's the local enviro-buzz?
  • Use your eyes. What's upstream air- and water-wise? Do you see pollution clues like old nearby industrial facilities, abandoned drill sites, or farm remnants? When we bought our current house, we were psyched to find ancient apple trees everywhere. Our realtor wasn't. Why? Unbeknownst to us, old orchards can be hotbeds of long-term pesticide contamination.
  • Visit on different days and times. Clean air on a breezy day may go smoggy when winds die. Rush hour can turn quiet midday streets into I-95. Factories operate smokestacks at night when people won't notice. See how a property's surroundings shift before you buy.
  • Get a home inspection. Pick an inspector who is affiliated with a professional organization like the National Association of Home Inspectors, and licensed if your state requires it. Tell them you're especially concerned about potential environmental health issues like mold, asbestos, and lead, and be there during the inspection.
  • Ask your realtor for property reports. Some states, like California, mandate various hazard disclosure reports that assess everything from potential fire and flood risks to proximity to airports and military activities. Environmental risk reports may also be available.
  • Sniff around local municipal offices. If, for example, the home changes hands every few years, you'll want to know why. Police blotters can reveal nearby trouble spots or a property's prior use for toxic activities like meth cooking.
  • Do a radon test. Radon is a natural, odorless, colorless radioactive gas that seeps into homes from surrounding soil. Tests are simple and worth it because radon can cause lung cancer.
  • Explore your prospective neighborhood on the Scorecard, the GoodGuide's national pollution database. Just enter the zip code for a free report on nearby toxic releases, waste sites, air and water quality, and more.

Last but not least, keep your head. Don't fall in love with a property until it's proven worthy of your affection. There are plenty of dream house fish in every real estate sea, and despite what your heart says, properties with serious environmental issues are rarely worth it. Be vigilant, do your homework, and unpack in a house you won't have to worry about.

Share you house-hunting tips here.

About the Inkslinger
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds.