Anyone in the home-buying mode may be a little spooked after hearing about the families that recently moved out of their new Howard County homes because high levels of explosive methane gas were detected in the basements.
Could it happen elsewhere? Who's responsible in this type of situation? How can you protect yourself?
Sure, most buyers know they should have a home inspector check for things such as bad plumbing and faulty wiring, but methane? Are there other environmental hazards lurking in and around a home?
Buyers have many options when it comes to getting information about a home or site's environmental history. They can hire someone to conduct environmental tests or take some time to rummage through planning records to investigate a site's past owners and uses.
"What homebuyers have to keep in mind is that they have zero protection once they buy the house," said Jordan Clark, president of the United Homeowners Association. "The first thing you do is understand there's no place to turn after the settlement that won't cost money and time. Don't assume the county has done a great job of screening the site."
The law does not require environmental tests of land being developed, unless government officials are aware of potential problems.
But most banks require testing as a condition for granting a loan to a developer. Otherwise, the banks could get stuck with a property made worthless by toxic wastes.
Joseph A. Hau, a geologist with Chesapeake Environmental Management Inc. in Bel Air, said there are three phases in dealing with a potential site.
The first involves looking at records to determine past land use; interviewing former owners of the property; reviewing aerial photographs of the site to see if there are signs of disturbed or stained earth that would indicate underground oil tanks; and walking the land to look for anything out of the ordinary.
A first-phase study costs about $500 to $600 for a house or small office complex, Hau said.
If anything suspicious turns up, more people should be interviewed and samples of the land should be tested for chemicals. The third phase is the cleanup of any toxic materials that are found.
"The [buyers] have to undertake some investigation themselves if they're wise. Before buying a piece of property I would recommend doing at least a $500 screening or asking the seller to disclose any knowledge of an environmental impairment," Hau said. "And ask to see a phase-one study of the property."
Others say the chances of serious environmental problems on residential property are so slim that aggressive testing isn't necessary.
"You can drive yourself crazy with that, and half of it wouldn't make sense anyway," said Jim Joyce, president of the Baltimore division of Ryland Homes Inc.
"If you're buying from a reputable company and buying in a county that has had a substantial amount of development, the odds of [methane problems] happening are minuscule," Joyce said.
"The biggest things you worry about are structural, not related to gases. There was a huge scare a while ago about radon, which led to added regulations and added cost. Now we put radon vents in all our houses, even though it's not an issue for 95 percent of them.
"You can spend tons of money on phase-one studies, but I don't think it's worth it."
Jonathan A. Azrael, principal at Azrael, Gann and Franz, a Towson law firm specializing in real estate, agrees. He recommends testing for the usual suspects -- such as termites, lead paint, radon, safe wells and septic tanks -- but says a phase-one test is probably above and beyond what's normally needed.
"I would say don't overreact; a problem such as methane gas is very atypical and [homebuyers] should not be overly concerned about such a problem cropping up," he said.
And even a phase-one study is not a guarantee that problems won't materialize.
Brantly Development Corp., the developer of the Howard County Calvert Ridge site, which was once a gravel pit, said a phase-one study discovered that tree stumps and other material had been buried up to 20 feet deep on the site, although the county has no record of the land being used as a dump. The company dug 14 feet to remove the material, and said it's possible more of it remains under the homes.
Two families in Laurel were also forced from their newly built homes for a week in July because of high methane levels. The gas, which is odorless and colorless, can be caused by decaying material, although the specific source in those two cases has not been determined.
State law does not require a phase-one test, but it does direct that homeowners do one of two things when selling an existing house: Sign a disclosure statement or a disclaimer regarding the condition of the home.
The seller's disclosure statement lists all known problems with the house. It does not require the seller to look for problems or conduct an inspection. With a disclaimer, the seller simply acknowledges the property is being sold as is.
State law also requires real estate agents to disclose any relevant information they have about a home, even if the seller signed a disclaimer.
Experts recommend that a buyer add a clause to the sales contract saying that the purchase is contingent on a satisfactory home inspection.
Tony Mazzuca, president of the Heyn home-inspection company, recommends testing for asbestos, carbon monoxide and radon. In houses built before 1978, tests for lead paint should also be conducted. Eating chips of lead paint or inhaling lead-paint dust affects the central nervous system, and in children it can cause ++ learning disabilities, lower IQs, mental retardation and death.
Most environmental experts agree that homes should be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, similar to smoke detectors, and that radon levels should be rechecked every few years.
Mazzuca said underground oil tanks should also be inspected for leakage. Some people also request tests for formaldehyde and airborne molds, although that is not common.
Patrick Connor, president of Connor Environmental Services & Engineering Assessments in Baltimore County, said no one has asked about methane in all the environmental home inspections his company has conducted.
"Methane-gas testing is valid when there's a reason to suspect it, such as if the home was built on marshy land or if it was built on or adjacent to a landfill," he said. "But to just go out and rampantly test for methane is probably unjustified."
Environmental home assessments are most frequently requested by people buying high-end homes, Connor said.
"You have professionals who have lived in Federal Hill for 10 years who are possibly having their first child and moving to Roland Park or Guilford with a $325,000 home -- they are very in tune to asbestos, lead paint, underground tanks, and will spend $325 to evaluate prospective environmental problems," he said.
"They wouldn't buy a house without it. A person who is purchasing a $42,000 row home in Hampden is probably going to have their best friend who is a carpenter do a home inspection for them," Connor said.
But for those who choose to go with a professional, finding the right one is a task in itself.
Mazzuca advised buyers to be careful when selecting a home inspection firm, as Maryland does not regulate inspectors or require that they have any training.
"You could put up a sign tomorrow and be a home inspector, it's ridiculous -- here we're talking about the American dream," he said. "[Buying a home] could turn into a money pit, a nightmare."
Clark, of the United Homeowners Association, recommends avoiding inspectors who are recommended by the builder or the real estate agent in the deal.
"Like the plague. If he's a friend of the builder, he's not going to give a bad report because then he won't be recommended again," Clark said. "This is the good-old-boy network beyond belief. You have to be really cautious."
He said buyers should ask questions of the inspector's background and whether he or she is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).
"If an inspector belongs to ASHI it means they're for real but it doesn't mean anything beyond that," Clark said. "Get references. Ask what the person did before. Were they a piano tuner or in construction?
"Make sure you know what they're going to do in the inspection. You should worry if they show up with just a pad and a pencil. If they show up with a loose-leaf binder that goes through exactly what they're going to do, that's good."
Even after an inspection, the rule of thumb in home buying is caveat emptor -- buyer beware -- said Alan Betten of Tabor, Betten and Berman PA, a law firm specializing in real estate.
"The key thing is that the buyer get as much information as possible and obtain the right to have these inspections made by some expert, then have some sort of remedy clause whereby the parties agree to rectify the problems," he said.
In the instance of environmental problems such as the methane case, it's difficult to "say definitely who's liable. Potentially the builder of the house, or the developer of the lot, or there might be a question with the brokers -- what did they know?" Betten said. "It's not completely buyer beware, it's buyer beware to be as safe as possible. It may be that nobody's liable, frankly."
Usually, the question of responsibility in a situation like the methane case is a gray area, Azrael said.
"The homeowners may have rights against the developer, if he was going to take care of the problem and didn't, that could lead to liability. It depends on what the developer knew and what he did and what he should have done," Azrael said. "If they can prove fault, they ought to have recourse."
To get help
For more information about indoor-air quality, you can speak with an information specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency calling 1-800-438-4318 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
You can also visit the EPA's Web site at www.epa.gov/iaq or visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Healthy Homes site at www.hud.gov/health.html
Pub Date: 11/15/98