No one wants to buy a house with a mold problem. Unfortunately, these sneaky little spores aren’t always easy to detect. If you’re looking for a home, learn how to detect mold in homes, get the seller to disclose mold issues, and negotiate around any mold problems that come to light in the course of the sale.
Mold is a fungus that comes in various colors (black, white, green, or gray) and shapes. While some molds are visible and even odorous, mold can also grow between walls, under floors and ceilings, or in less accessible spots, such as basements and attics. Mold does best in water-soaked materials (paneling, wallboard, carpet, paint, ceiling tiles, and the like), but can survive in almost any damp location. Mold can grow in houses situated in the desert, and it can grow in homes in hot and humid climes.
Here are some common places in a home where mold is likely to take hold:
- around leaking pipes, windows, or roofs (the constant supply of water gives mold spores the start they need)
- basements or other places that have flooded and haven’t been thoroughly dried
- tightly sealed buildings (common with new construction), which trap excess moisture inside, and
- homes with poor ventilation, numerous over-watered houseplants, and housekeeping habits that ignore obvious dampness and don’t include airing the place out.
Besides presenting an ugly appearance and, sometimes, an unpleasant odor, mold can cause health problems. In the worst cases, a few types of molds produce mycotoxins, which can cause rashes, seizures, unusual bleeding, respiratory problems, and severe fatigue in some people. Fortunately, most molds are of the non-toxic variety.
You won’t always know if there is mold in a house you’re considering buying, but you can take a few easy steps to try and find out.
When you’re thinking about buying a home, look for the elements above to figure out if there are any obvious signs of mold or the potential for mold. Keep your eyes peeled for standing water in the basement, water marks on walls (particularly recent-looking stains), or musty smells (particularly in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, basements, cabinets with plumbing, or other areas with plumbing).
If you’re looking at a newer home, find out whether it is built with “synthetic stucco,” also called the Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EIFS). This airtight barrier is supposed to improve insulation but, if improperly installed, may allow water penetration and mold growth on the inside of walls.
Ask your home inspector. If you have the home professionally inspected (recommended) before you buy it, your home inspector may see obvious signs of mold or water damage. While it’s not the inspector’s job to look for mold, most home inspectors will mention obvious signs of water damage and the possible presence of mold. And, because the inspector will poke around in spaces you might not, he or she may see things you wouldn’t.
Don’t hesitate to ask whether the inspector saw signs of mold or potential mold dangers, and ask that these results be included in the inspection report. Some inspectors may be wary of this, because they want to avoid liability for any mold-related problems. But a good home inspector will include pictures and guide you to a mold remediation company for further evaluation. The inspector should, at the very least, be comfortable talking to you about whether they saw anything suspicious.
Some states, including California, require sellers to disclose information about mold. Keep in mind that the seller’s duty to disclose only relates to things the seller knows about or reasonably should know about — he or she doesn’t have a duty to go poking around in the walls to see if there’s mold, for example.
In states where mold disclosure is not required, you can still ask for such disclosure. Just don’t ever rely on it. In addition, ask questions about things that could lead to mold growth, such as “Have any pipes ever burst?” or “Have any of the windows ever leaked?”
In some states, real estate agents or brokers have a duty to disclose problems they know about. Likewise, an appraiser should notify you of any obvious sign of a mold problem if it could affect the value of the property.
Add a mold-related contingency to your offer. Assuming you’re interested enough in the house to place an offer on it, making the sale contingent on your satisfaction with the results of specific inspections for mold lets you back out if the inspection finds a mold problem. Indoor Air Quality Testing cost a few hundred dollars and is a good place to start if mold is not visible but other signs of moisture issues are present. You should have an IAQ Certified home inspector do the air testing and the give those results to the remediation company if the results show elevated mold spore counts. Many mold remediation companies will do an evaluation at little or no cost. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), testing for mold isn’t usually necessary when it’s visible on surfaces. Most people will end up relying on the detection methods discussed above.
If you find a house and discover it has mold problems, should you buy it anyway? If you or a family member has asthma or if a baby or an elderly person will live in the house, you’ll want to be especially concerned about limiting exposure to mold. You’ll have to decide whether the cost of removing the mold and fixing the source — both in time and money — is worth the price you’ll pay. Mold remediation, when done correctly, can cost from $1500 to several thousand dollars.
If you have an inspection contingency and the mold is revealed as part of the inspection, or if you have a specific mold contingency, you have a bargaining chip. You can ask the seller to reduce the asking price, to fix the problem, or you can choose to walk away from the deal.