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Environmental hazards of buying a foreclosure

PhotoIn a last gasp, the housing crisis of 2008 is sending thousands of foreclosed homes onto the real estate market.

These are not news cases of homeowners running into trouble. Rather, they’re the last of the old foreclosures that are finally being liquidated.

Very often foreclosures go into the market at a price less than a comparable house would cost, since the bank just wants to get the home off its balance sheet. It can represent a good value for a savvy buyers, but be warned – there could be some hidden hazards.

We’re not talking about financial hazards, but environmental ones. LA Testing, a California laboratory that tests for toxic contaminates, says a foreclosed home can contain hidden risks, especially if it has been vacant for several years, as many of these homes have.

Look for mold

Long-vacant homes can be contaminated by mold, which can start to grow in wet or high humidity environments in as little as 24 to 48 hours. Mold will grow on many common materials used to build and furnish properties.

If it is an older home, built before the 1970s, it might have lead in paint or other products around the house. In an older home, asbestos might also be a problem. It was used widely in the past in a variety of building construction materials due to its fiber strength and heat-resistant properties.

If a home has been standing empty for years, it can suffer damage that isn’t noticed or repaired right away. If the problem involves a sewage backup, it might present the threat of infectious diseases and microbial pathogens, including E. coli.

Vapor intrusion can occur when there is a migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated groundwater or soil into a building above it. If someone has renovated the home and is selling it, it might have high levels of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) due to off-gassing of new materials.

Former meth lab?

And here’s a potential problem you have probably not considered; if the house was ever used as clandestine drug laboratory, as some abandoned homes were, it may contain toxic chemical residues.

“Whether you are an investor or a first-time home buyer, knowing if there are hazards in a property is essential for the health and wellbeing of future building occupants and for its future resale value,” said Michael Chapman, Laboratory Manager at LA Testing’s Garden Grove facility.

Bringing in someone to test for traces of meth in the wallpaper might be required in only the most extreme cases. However, having a qualified home inspector go over the property as a contingency to the sale is even more important in the case of a home that has been sitting empty for some time.

When purchasing a foreclosure that has been vacant for a while, make sure the home inspector you hire is qualified to search for and detect mold and other environmental hazards.

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