Homes built before 1990 are considered “older” by today’s standards, and those built before 1920 are considered vintage or “heritage.” Owning an older home brings a whole set of challenges not found with newer homes, one of them being the use of environmentally dangerous building materials.
Most environmental issues fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Federal laws require homeowners (and their real estate agents) to disclose asbestos, lead-based paint, radon, mold, formaldehyde and other toxins via specific forms when listing the property for sale. This information must be provided even if the seller believes the hazard has been removed.
Asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was commonly used in insulation up until 1978 and also in some types of tile and flame-resistant wall materials. Asbestos is typically not dangerous unless it is disturbed and becomes airborne. When inhaled by the lungs, asbestos has the potential to cause serious lung diseases, including lung cancer. If there is asbestos insulation inside of a wall, it poses little to no danger since it is encapsulated, but it could become a potential hazard during a renovation. If you suspect the presence of asbestos, contact a certified professional before demolition.
Lead. In housing construction, lead was used primarily in paint until it was banned by the federal government on January 1,1978. Federal law requires sellers of housing built before that date to disclose the presence of lead-based paint to potential buyers. It also must be disclosed as a material fact in “For Sale By Owner” transactions. Lead paint is mostly a hazard when it comes off the adhering surface. Lead paint should always be stripped and scraped to minimize flying chips and dust. Sanding lead paint is the worst way to remove it since it sends clouds of lead dust into the air where it can be inhaled. Inhaled lead is especially dangerous for children, causing serious mental deficiencies and other conditions. Removal should be done by certified professionals.
Lead pipe plumbing was used in homes built through World War II. Removal and replacement of a house full of lead pipes can be $5,000 or more.
Carbon Monoxide. The danger from carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless, deadly gas, comes mostly from old heating systems. This is an issue with heaters that burn gas, coal or oil. Electric heat presents no threat of carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide, formed as a byproduct of burning, is normally vented out of the house, but a damaged heater may not vent properly. Even a relatively new furnace can develop a crack in what is called the heat exchanger, the portion of the furnace that heats up from the flame and which vents the poisonous gases to the outside through a flue. If the exchanger is cracked the gases can pass into the living areas of the house and be deadly. A clogged chimney flue also can cause gas to leak into the house.
In a situation where you are buying an older home with a heater that burns some sort of fuel, a thorough inspection of the heater by a licensed heating and air conditioning company is essential. Purchase combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarms for the house to provide an extra measure of safety.