A decade ago, the watchword in real estate was mold. Today, it’s “meth,” which is short for methamphetamine.
On the March 8, 2013 telecast of ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, reporter Jim Avala said experts estimate there are 2.5 million homes contaminated by methamphetamine in the U.S.
If you’re an unwitting buyer of one of these homes, you could become both sick and bankrupt.
In the same ABC news segment, a young married couple purchased an “as is” foreclosure for $35,000 in Bend, Ore. It was their “dream” home until they started developing headaches, nosebleeds, mouth sores and other health issues, which they subsequently learned were caused by the methamphetamine residues and chemicals that had saturated the walls, carpets, drapes and floorboards of their “new” home.
Making or even smoking meth leaves behind a nasty stew of sickening chemicals, including mercury, lead, iodine, lithium and other poisonous solvents that saturates walls, ceilings, floors and carpets. For each pound of drug produced, meth “cookers” dump, flush or leave behind 5 to 6 pounds of poisonous waste.
Exposure to even small traces of these poisons can damage humans’ nervous systems, liver and blood production mechanisms, with small children suffering most.
What financial recourse did the family have once they learned the truth about their home’s secret past? Very little, if any.
Unlike lead paint or asbestos, there are no federal rules that require sellers or their agents to disclose a home’s meth history. Instead, disclosure regulations are made by the individual states and can vary dramatically.
Realtors, of course, are expected to abide by an industry code of ethics, which requires them to disclose all known material factors, according to the National Association of Realtors. “Known,” however, is the operative word in this code. Agents can’t be held responsible if the home is later to be contaminated.
In the ABC news story, the seller of the home was Freddie Mac, a corporation authorized by Congress that purchases and securitizes loans sold to them by lenders. With a Freddie Mac loan, the lender provides the homebuyer financing, following Freddie Mac guidelines. When the homeowner defaulted on the home loan on the Bend, Ore., property, Freddie Mac repossessed the collateral, then put it up for sale at a discount.
Notwithstanding the discounted price of the home, the unsuspecting Bend, Ore., family felt that Freddie Mac should have known about the home’s condition. But most home inspections don’t test for methamphetamine.
In its defense, Freddie Mac said, “We empathize with [the family] but neither we nor the listing agent had prior information about the home’s history.”
No one, of course, wants to be on the hook for cleaning up a contaminated home because the cost of the clean-up often exceeds the home’s purchase price.
To keep from being by victimized by a similar situation, homebuyers need to better educate themselves on how to identify and steer clear of these ghost homes.
Check the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) National Clandestine Laboratory website: http://www.justice.gov/dea/clan-lab/clan-lab.shtml. Clicking on your state will reveal a list of known contaminated properties and addresses.
Be present for the home inspection; don’t just read the report. If there are old cans, bottles or packages of substances like acetone, muriatic acid, brake cleaner, drain cleaner, iodine, paint thinner, phosphorus or ether lying around, that’s a big red flag. So are rubber gloves or tubing, dust masks, propane tanks, coolers and camp stoves. Also keep a lookout for unusual problems such as yellow staining on carpets and walls, and corroded plumbing and electrical wiring.
Don’t assume that meth labs are found in only run-down neighborhoods. Plenty of labs have been discovered in expensive homes owned by dentists, accountants, and bankers with six-and seven-figure incomes.
Conduct a home test for meth residues. A kit can run about $50. A negative reading, however, doesn’t mean the home is clean. Amateur testers can easily miss “dirty” areas. Increase your chances by using seven or eight kits in a home you’re serious about, collecting samples at many different locations – counters, ceilings, floors and walls in different rooms. Tests can be purchased over the Internet but vary in quality. SKC Methchek (http://www.skcinc.com/prod/560-002.asp) uses a method developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that lets you see results instantly.
Hire a professional. The only way to guarantee the home you’re buying isn’t contaminated is testing by an industrial hygienist specializing in drug-residue detection. A cursory evaluation can cost around $450; exhaustive testing starts at $2,000 or more.
Don’t trust your nose. An old, out-of-use method of meth manufacturing produced a nasty odor that’s reminiscent of cat urine. Even current methods – at certain stages – produce various odors. But none of these is a reliable tip-off. In fact, most meth-contaminated homes have no odor or visual clues.
Don’t trust television forensics. In a “CSI” episode, an investigator tested for meth contamination by using spray starch. This trick can work, but it’s not reliable or sensitive, so if you don’t see purple (the color the meth residue, if present, is supposed to turn into), you can’t conclude that a house is clean.
Chat up the neighbors. Introduce yourself and tell them you’re considering buying the house down the block and that you’re researching its history. Find longtime residents whose memory stretches back awhile. Phone or visit the police department’s community-service office and ask them to check the address of the home you’re considering for arrests, drug busts and other problems. Call the health department to determine if the address you’re considering is listed in connection with any health department reports.
Know the M.O. A disproportionate number of labs show up in single-family homes compared with apartments and condominiums.
Execute your game plan with an experienced Realtor. Ask your Realtor about any rules and regulations and consumer protections laws that apply in your state. Also make you’re your agent is as knowledgeable and as vigilant as you, if not more so, about uncovering the truth about these homes with hidden drug histories.
As the highly addictive drug methamphetamine grows in popularity, your attention to this menace needs to rise accordingly.
By asking the right questions, you shouldn’t be the victim of any unwanted surprises.
by Colleen Bennett