Strategies for Quickly Assessing a Home for Mold

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

In a previous article, I discussed my experience with real estate and building features to look for when seeking to buy a mold-safe home. I mainly focused on things to avoid in order to decrease the chances of being exposed to high levels of mold in the home’s environment. One issue that I did not cover that prospective homebuyers are facing currently is what to do in a hot real estate market when you are forced to make quick and not as well-vetted decisions. The number of days a listing stays on the market is historically low right now, and many homes are selling above the asking price.  If you are in a situation where you want or need to make a home purchase and are having to do it quickly, then there is a strategy in doing so to remain as safe from mold as possible.

Strategies for “Quickly” Assessing a Home for Mold

If you have found a home that you think meets the basic criteria for your needs, then what must be considered at this point before or during the time that you make the offer?  Here are my suggestions:

1. Ask your realtor to obtain a seller’s property disclosure. Do this FIRST, and review it before even visiting the home.  A seller’s property disclosure is a questionnaire that sellers fill out as they list their home, and there are many items that must be answered.  All are important but ones that I pay particular attention to are items asking if there has ever been moisture or water intrusion. Moisture and water intrusion can have to do with leaky roofs, basements, flooding due to the grade of the house, ruptured pipes, a leaking dishwasher, and others.  If the answer to this question is “yes”, dive deep into what steps were taken to fix the problem. Then, depending on the severity of the issue, you may or may not rule out the home immediately. If the water issue was “minor”, then be sure to look closely at these areas when visiting the home. If signs and smells of water/moisture still exist, mold is definitely there too. Also, do not be afraid to ask to be shown the attic, the basement, and any area where water intrusion is likely to occur, even if those areas are not reported on the disclosure. You would be surprised how many people consider water in a basement “normal” and not necessarily water intrusion. Watermarks or mold itself can at times be quite evident if you are looking for it. It is unlawful for a seller to not disclose if there has been a problem or if there is something ongoing.

2. Is there a basement or crawl space? If so, are they dry?  Have dirt areas been encapsulated with a vapor barrier?  If not, these can be fixed but recognize that there will be expenses on your part before you can move in.  If excessive moisture is below the house, then chances are that it is in the floor joists as well.  Moisture below or downstairs also means humidity and mold spores in the upstairs living space. The laws of physics and the stack effect make this inevitable. You will need to recognize that this must be dealt with. Cleaning, drying, and conditioning below-grade spaces can be costly and not always effective if a high humidity condition has been there for a long period of time.

3. Has there been damage to the roof or siding from a storm, tornado, tree fall? If so, were these repaired, replaced, warrantied?

4. Is there lead paint? This is definitely a consideration with an older home. (By law, this is a disclosure that should be on every listing.)

5. Is there asbestos around the chimney or in the flooring? If so is it still in place or has it been removed? If it has been removed, you need to know when and obtain the documentation to show that it was done correctly by a qualified professional.

(Note: Lead paint and asbestos are not deal breakers but their removal is very specific and can be costly if it falls on you.)

This is not a fully inclusive list of what to ask about or look for, but it gives you some ideas of what you may see on that disclosure statement and how you might more completely question the owner/builder and inspect the house when you go to see it. At this point, you may decide that it is too risky to move forward, or you may decide that whatever issues you have found can be dealt with without spending substantial time and money.

Moving Forward

So, let’s say you have found the home that works for you, and you want to make an offer. Your realtor can help you decide at what price to go in to be competitive in this market.  On your offer, you have a period of time known as “due diligence”.  During the due diligence period, if you decide not to move forward with the purchase for any reason, then the earnest money that you put down with your offer is fully refundable to you.  This time period in the past was typically 14 or more days, but these days on desirable properties, the less time the better to make the offer attractive to the seller.  It may need to be as little as 7-14 days, but I strongly recommend you take a due diligence period.  During this time, you have the right to get as many inspections as you want or need to do to help dig deeper into the health of the house. A typical home inspection by a licensed inspector can find many issues, but in the case of mold, you may need to also ask a reputable mold inspector or industrial hygienist to also come.  These are dollars spent that can save you in the long run if a visually indetectable problem exists.  During these inspections, covers can be removed from HVAC systems to look at coils and ducts, and moisture meters can be used to look at both indoor humidity and water intrusion areas. An inspector’s trained eyes can see things that you and I do not see when it comes to mold growth, water runoff, and other things that can lead to mold problems.

What Mold-Specific Testing Can You Do?

There are a few testing strategies that you can employ for mold. Visit the property with mold plates in hand and place a few around to see if you pick up high spore counts.  You can also do an Environmental Mold and Mycotoxin Assay (EMMA), or an ERMI to learn more about your exposure risk inside the home. I suggest you do this as soon as possible when you have the home under contract, as the 7-14 day period can go by very quickly.  Based on the results of these tests you may elect not to move forward with the purchase, but if you do, you should be well-informed as to what you may need to do to make the home healthy for you.

It may sound from what I am mentioning that I am referring to older homes, but that is not always the case. I have had a few patients who bought new construction only to find that there had been water damage during the building process and there were BIG problems.  Again, please do not underestimate the importance of a home inspection by licensed, knowledgeable people; it is truly money well spent that can save heartache, stress, and finances in the long run!

When Things Need Fixing

Ok, so you have gone through these steps and found a few issues, which may cost some money (sometimes substantial) to fix but they are fixable and the house overall has the ability to be a healthy home.  What next?  Your realtor may be able to advise you as to whether or not you ask the seller to reduce the cost of the house somewhat or to contribute to or do the repairs that are needed.  This is hard to navigate because if there is a lot of competition for the house and other people are not mold literate or concerned, the sellers may elect to do nothing or only do a very cursory job to fix the situation.  It will then be up to you to decide whether to suck up the extra cost yourself or walk away.  However, whatever defects you have found and informed the seller of must then be disclosed to the next potential buyers. If the seller is selling the property “as is”, this means that they are not going to make any adjustments in price or fix anything.  If the home is in a desired location, then they are often able to do this because someone will buy the home no matter what. However, they still must disclose any material facts on the statement.

Is Finding a Mold-Free Home Even Possible?

I do tell patients that they must reconcile to the fact that the likelihood of finding a perfect home to which they need to do nothing is extremely rare and thus costs to make any home “just right” must be considered in the whole home purchase budget.  You cannot go into the home-buying process with a negative mindset. It is important to keep your eyes and mind open to the fact that you can make many homes exactly what you need them to be. There have been a few occasions that I have had patients relocate to a different area entirely after doing the extensive renovations on the home and finding that it still just was not right for their health concerns.  A buyer who is not literate when it comes to mold and healthy air may not appreciate their efforts; checking with your physician as to whether or not they have a patient with a remediated home for sale may be a good starting point for you!