The place is perfect. Right size, great neighborhood, fair price. It’s spotless. The walls are freshly painted and the carpet’s brand new. Close your eyes and you can imagine the entire family gathered ‘round the spectacular fireplace on cold winter evenings.
Where do we sign? you ask the real estate agent.
Slow down there, partner. You might want to take a deep breath before you commit. Not too deep, though. The Environmental Protection Agency says this abode may be hazardous to your health.
Turns out the air inside most homes is two to five times as polluted as the air outside. Oh, and by the way, we’re currently taking in a couple tablespoons of contaminants every day, thanks to that poor indoor air quality (IAQ).
How is it possible that sleeping in your own bed might be worse for you than inhaling nasty ol’ truck- and factory-polluted air on some big city street corner? Well, take a good look around. Use cleaning products? How ‘bout that carpeting? Then there’s the fireplace, stove and heater. And have you read the fine print on those paint, varnish and grout containers? They all can release vapors and particles that we inhale or absorb through our skin.
Time to deep-six buying a house and invest in a nice yurt on a deserted island? Not necessarily.
Your first look at any dwelling should be done with your nose, says Tom Kavounas, owner of Albemarle Heating & Air and Airflow Diagnostics. “When you walk into a house from outside, take a deep breath. If you smell any kind of damp odor, there’s most likely mold, caused by moisture intrusion.”
Beyond giving a sniff, hire a home inspector to check out crawl spaces and basements—breeding grounds for dampness and mold. Downspouts and gutters are crucial, especially if the house is built in a dip of any sort.
And have the inspector give the HVAC system, and its filters, the once-over. “It seems that we rarely open the windows these days,” says Kavounas, “so most of the air we’re breathing goes through the heating and air conditioning unit.” Pollutants such as pollen, plant and mold spores, pet dander, lint and bacteria must be removed and fresh air circulated.
If a house is improperly ventilated, its vapor barriers poorly installed or the duct work bad, all the dehumidifiers in the world may not solve a dampness problem. Throw in some leaky ducts, and pretty soon “you’re sucking bad air and moisture from a moldy crawlspace, and pumping it into the house,” possibly exposing your family to all manner of contaminants, which can lead to eye irritation, asthma and even cancer. Also make certain that gas furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers and fireplaces are ventilated to the outdoors.
If a standard inspection doesn’t ease your worries, you can hire a company like Airflow Diagnostics to test the air itself; this costs $125, and gives you levels for VOCs (volatile organic compounds), particulates, radon, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity in the house. The company also tests for duct leakage and does thermal imaging to see if there’s moisture hiding in walls, floors or roof.
Finally, make sure air from the garage isn’t invading your castle. “A detached garage is best,” advises Kavounas, because carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and soot are all unhealthy—not to mention other chemicals that are often stored there. If it’s attached, make certain there’s a good seal between house and garage.
What if you’re unhappy with what an inspector or IAQ test reveals? Consider it a bargaining chip. Either get the seller to take care of the problems, or negotiate for a lower selling price so you can fix it yourself.
“We feel like our home is a safe place, but it may not be,” Kavounas says. “People drink bottled water and eat organic food, but they have no idea that they’re breathing bad air inside their own homes.”