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Buy or Rent with IAQ & Mind

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Submitted by MIAQC Member Kris Anderson.  Kris is a professional engineer and president of K.G. Anderson, an engineering and consulting firm from Bath, Maine specializing in hands-on whole building and building-systems problem-solving.  

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and seem to not be connecting? In reality both of you are speaking about the same subject from two different viewpoints, agendas, goals, and understandings. This is what it’s like buying or renting an apartment or house. Perspective buyers and tenants should, of course, be cordial, and understanding, but above all, be an informed consumer when it comes to finding a place to live that won’t make you and your family sick.  After all, inside your home or your apartment is likely where you will be spending most of your time in any 24-hour period. The last thing you want, and the last thing the seller or landlord wants, is to a contentious situation that leads to illness, default, eviction or litigation.  Practice the age-old phrase of “Buyer beware” by doing your own inspection and verification of indoor environmental conditions before you sign on the dotted line.  This is especially critical if you have young children, or if anyone in the family has asthma or other chronic illnesses.

Buying a Home

Prepare to inspect the home yourself, and don’t depend on the bank supplied home inspector to find all the issues for you after you’ve begun the process of negotiating the price. Alternatively, hire the services of an independent home inspector who works for you, not the bank or the seller.  Negotiate price from a position of strength, which comes from knowledge and facts. Legally, the Seller has to disclose certain things by law (Title 33, Ch. 7, Subchapter 1-A, 173), if they have knowledge of the issue, otherwise they can state, “Unknown”. The two categories that could capture water, moisture, or mold issues would be; “4. Hazardous Materials.”, or “5. Known Defects”.

Be aware, however, that the disclosure statement, however detailed, is porous and thin and is not a warranty by law. The seller is not obligated to do any testing or investigative work. As the law states,

“The property disclosure statement and any supplement to the property disclosure statement may not be used as substitutes for any inspections or warranties that the purchaser or seller may obtain. Nothing in this subchapter precludes the obligation of a purchaser to inspect the physical condition of the property.”

If the landlord or seller, as I saw in a recent case, refuses to allow mold testing, red flags should go up and you should be prepared to walk away from the deal.

Renting an Apartment or Home

The same approach as buying a home should be followed here. Assume that you will get no assistance from the landlord on any issues. Insist on history and proof of repairs, inspection reports, and any other information you need be provided before signing a lease agreement. Legally, the Landlord has to disclose information on energy efficiency, bed bugs, radon testing, and smoke detectors, as well as provide the smoking policy. There is no requirement for disclosure of water leakage, mold, lead, rodents, ventilation air, exhaust air, or bugs other than bed bugs. However, Maine has an “implied warranty of habitability”, which would include, for example, drinkable water, adequate and safe heat (68ºF in the winter), an envelope that does not leak water, windows that aren’t broken, and adequate pest control.

How Can a Buyer or Renter Be Vigilant?

Here is a useful list of some things to consider, observe, inspect, or test during your walk-through inspection.

 

OUTSIDE

Observation Concerns
Peeling or blistering paint. Moisture migration from behind the cladding.
New paint in areas. Moisture syptom being covered up.
Warping or loose siding and popped nails. Moisture migration from behind the cladding.
Stone foundation, or cracked concrete or block. Ground water intrusion into basement, rodents.
No soffit vents, look for gable or ridge vents. If roof is not designed as an unvented roof then the roof is not vented properly, ice dams and water leakage, condensation/ice under roof deck, mold growth, structural damage.
Roof shingles are discolored, breaking, warping, or growing moss. Water leakage, structural damage, mold growth.
Gutters bent, separated, vegetation growing in gutters, down spouts missing, or discharge near foundation. Ice dams, water leakage from roof and foundation, poorly maintained.
No vent hoods or fewer vent hoods that exhaust fans. Exhaust fans should discharge out of the house and not in the attic.
Exhaust hood dampers stuck open. Backward flow of air into the bathroom.
Exhaust discharge in face of soffit blowing downward. Warm moist discharge air re-enters the attic through the soffit and moisture condenses on roof deck.
Ground level does not slope away from foundation and soil/mulch is higher than the sill elevation. Water leakage into basement.
No visible footing drain discharge. If the discharge is found does it drain water during a rain event? There may be no footing drain or the opening is buried. Potential ground water leakage into the basement.
Boiler/furnace exhaust discharge is sooty, some may discharge horizontally through the side of the house. Re-entrainment of exhaust fumes, heater not firing efficiently, could cause fouling and CO back-up into the home.

 

 

INSIDE

Observation Concerns
Odors – Musty, stale, rotten eggs, exhaust, cat urine, sickening biological scent, masking scents, open windows. Smell individual electrical outlets for interior wall odors. Mold, moisture, lack of ventilation, malfunctioning heater, open sewer pipe, dead rodent or rodent nest and fecal matter, off-gassing from uncured carpet or furnishings. Masking scents and open windows are efforts to hide these odors and their source. Did the previous owner have pets?
Old stained carpets. Mold, bacteria, insects.
Peeling or blistering paint. Moisture migration from behind the drywall.
New paint in areas. Moisture symptoms being covered up.
Warping or loose trim boards and popped nails. Moisture migration from behind the cladding.
Visible mold on exposed drywall; base of wall behind toilets, upper wall corners and top plates, behind pictures and wall coverings. High moisture content in the air inside during cooler outdoor temperatures.
Water staining on ceiling or walls. Roof water leakage, condensation dripping from roof or pipes, pipe leaks, plumbing vent pipe leaks, exhaust duct run above insulation exposed to outside air temperatures.
Window sills water stained and damaged. Foggy glass between panes. High moisture content in the air inside during cooler outdoor temperatures, poor R-value windows, windows or header/jam/sill flashing leak.
Water damage under the kitchen sink, under the dish washer, under the washer, under bathroom sinks, soft/spongy floors around the toilets. Pipe leakage, condensation on cold pipes and surfaces, toilet seal leakage.
Dehumidifier running in the basement, windows open to vent, professional moisture management system installed. Mold under cardboard boxes on the floor or against the wall, moisture under non-porus surfaces, dirt floor. Basement moisture high enough to warrant management, high potential for mold. Any moisture or mold in the basement will eventually move upward in the house due to stack effect.
Furnace and ductwork located in the basement. The furnace will draw in odors and contaminants from the basement and distribute everywhere in the house.
Insulation installed in basement ceiling between floor trusses. Potential rodent nesting location. Look for discolored areas in the paper backing and burrough holes in the fiberglass.
If accessible, look in the attic from an access point with a flashlight. Observe color of the roof sheathing and rafters, signs of rodent activity, daylight from roof vents, thickness and completeness of the insulation. Dark sheathing and rafters indicate potential mold growth from high moisture levels.

 

Sample Pictures!

 

Dryer vent discharging into an attic, moisture damage:

 

Leaky door seals allow snow to enter:

 

Heat loss into attic on every apartment shown by snow melt pattern

 

Electric snow melt on the roof usually means there are ice dam problems

 

Poorly maintained roof gutter system

 

Poorly designed roof drain system leaking back into the foundation and deteriorating the siding and trim

 

Poorly installed moisture management system

 

Active rodent activity leaving trails as aspergillus mold growing sites

 

Squirrel activity in the attic

Pipe leak water damage and mold growth under a sink.