Even with the various disclosure laws, there’s a fair amount of gray area, especially when it comes to radon, lead, asbestos, contaminated soil and other toxins that can make residents sick.
Luckily, most of them are pretty rare these days, but it’s important to check anyway via a trained home inspector. In many cases, sellers don’t realize they have a problem.
Take radon, for example. Readings for this odorless gas that comes from the ground have traditionally been low in this area, and most sellers likely believe it’s not an issue for their property. But ever since the August 2011 earthquake, radon numbers have spiked — so don’t make any assumptions.
Contaminated soil is a different issue, though, that many real estate agents say isn’t covered by disclosure laws. Sometimes the problem is so well-known that potential buyers can’t miss it — like in Spring Valley, the Northwest Washington neighborhood that was once a munitions dump. But others potentially toxic properties, including brownfields, may be less known and not on a home buyer’s radar.
“As a buyer’s agent, I say to my clients, ‘Research brownfields and see if you want to live there,’ ” said Joe Himali, principal broker for Best Address in the District. “I don’t want to be the next agent who sold in Love Canal.”
Indeed, the best recourse for would-be buyers in this case is research, research, research. Online databases of local environmental reports can be a source of the land’s history. Avery Patillo, owner of the Alexandria-based inspection firm Fusion Services, recommends Environmental Data Resources (www.edrnet.com) and FirstSearch (www.efirstsearch.com), though he says the information they provide may need to be navigated and translated by a professional.
Mold is a toxin of sorts, but many real estate professionals say it belongs in a class of its own, as far as difficult disclosure issues go. First of all, said Stacey Sauter, a Long and Foster agent in Potomac, mold is often smelled but not seen. And it’s possible, she said, that “the seller may have been living with the smell for so long that they don’t notice it.” Therefore, it’s up to the buyer to catch the problem.
Another difficult issue is one of remediation. If a homeowner thinks she has fixed the problem, she may think she doesn’t need to mention it to prospective buyers. But mold can be insidious. “One day you splash it with Clorox so it’s gone — but unless you’ve remediated the moisture issue, it will recur,” said Jay DeBoer, vice president of law and policy for the Virginia Association of Realtors.