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What Owners Need to Know About Wiring Dangers

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page F01

David Hannemann and his wife were aware when they bought their Ellicott City home 18 years ago that it had aluminum electrical wiring, a known fire hazard.

But they waited until this February to make the fix that has long been recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

For More Information

Tyco Electronics Corp. of Harrisburg keeps lists by state of electricians that it trains to use its special COPALUM connectors. COPALUM is the only repair system for aluminum wiring approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. To find nearby authorized providers, call 800-522-6752.

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It wasn't the safety consideration that made them act. It was their belief that insurance companies will soon crack down on people who own homes such as theirs, wired in part with aluminum rather than copper.

"My wife worked in insurance, and she suggested we'd better do it," said Hannemann, a federal employee in Washington. The underwriter at his wife's former agency "told her he wouldn't write the line anymore" unless a house had been repaired as the CPSC recommends, Hannemann said.

About 2 million U.S. homes are believed to have been built with aluminum branch-circuit wiring, which for three decades has been a widely publicized fire hazard. The CPSC is more anxious than ever because Americans are loading up on high-tech appliances and products that draw more current. That's exacerbating the basic problem of overloaded circuits, which can result in overheated plugs and outlets that catch fire.

Tens of thousands of houses in the Washington area have such wiring, according to estimates by local home inspectors and real estate agents.

Insurers say they haven't moved industry-wide to limit coverage of aluminum-wired houses or to require the recommended fixes. Some local real estate and insurance agents say, however, that they're seeing signs that insurers are taking a harder look at such houses, especially if other red flags pop up during home inspections and appraisals.

Officials at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., State Farm Insurance Co. and Allstate Insurance Co., for example, say aluminum wiring could trigger a requirement for an electrical inspection before a policy is issued. Two local Nationwide agents last week were blunter, saying they wouldn't write a policy on an aluminum-wired house unless their underwriter cleared it based on additional information.

Those familiar with the issue here say houses with aluminum wiring are concentrated in Bowie, Columbia, Rockville, Reston, Dale City, Woodbridge and Laurel, all communities that were developed during the mid-1960s and early 1970s when aluminum wiring briefly dominated the homebuilding market.

Local real estate agents say they have almost never heard of aluminum wiring being a deal-breaker in a home sale. But they acknowledge that it can cause concern if it comes up on the home inspection report. Some also said they worry that these days, when people are increasingly waiving home inspections because of the competitive real estate market, buyers don't even know about the potential hazard and the need for repairs.

Discovery Kills House Sale

The discovery of aluminum wiring during a recent home inspection played a considerable role in killing one $800,000 sale in Bethesda, said W.C. & A.N. Miller agent Liz Smith.

Her clients were already nervous about spending that much money, she said. When the wiring was found during the home inspection and the would-be buyers learned that replacing it would cost $15,000 to $25,000 while the CPSC-approved repair would cost $5,000, they became more rattled. After phone calls to local insurance agents suggested other possible hurdles, the buyers bolted.

Heather Mayeaux, a first-time buyer in Bowie who learned during a home inspection in October that her dream house had aluminum wiring, also said she was taken aback by the discovery and by the roughly $3,500 cost to make the repairs the CPSC recommends.

The sellers had not disclosed any electrical problems with the 37-year-old, three-bedroom rambler. The inspector indicated that about half of the wiring was aluminum.

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