Is Your Home a Death Trap? What You Need to Know About Radon in Your Home

Diligence is key to protecting your family while still living in the home you love.

U.S. News & World Report

Is Your Home a Death Trap? What You Need to Know About Radon in Your Home

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Real estate is all about location, location, location – and in more ways than one. As scientific research grows more sophisticated about naturally occurring toxins that are harmful to people’s health in large doses, what's in the soil beneath your home becomes an important part of that location concern as well.

Radon is one gas gaining significant attention in real estate transactions, as the National Radon Safety Board estimates nearly 1 in 15 homes in the U.S. have elevated radon levels – above the federally recommended 4 picocuries per liter of air, a unit of measurement for radioactivity.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends all homeowners test their home’s radon level, as radon is now reported as the second leading cause of lung cancer in Americans, after smoking. As awareness of the dangers of radon exposure increases, the EPA also advises testing a home's radon levels before buying or selling it.

The thought of buying a house that could give you lung cancer is terrifying to many, and it's a thought that could easily ruin a deal, says Robert Kanuit, a lawyer and real property specialist for Fryberger, Buchanan, Smith & Frederick, P.A. in Duluth, Minnesota.

“Especially younger people that aren’t well-versed [in homebuying] – maybe it’s their first house, something like that – it could scare them off, particularly if there’s other properties they’re looking at. Why buy yourself a problem?” Kanuit says. “More experienced people aren’t as scared by it. There’s a pretty well-established industry for fixing those issues when they’re discovered. And the fix isn’t mysterious.”

If your home, or the home you’re looking to buy, has a high radon concentration, the EPA recommends installing a radon mitigation system, which creates a vacuum to pull radon gas from the soil beneath your home and up through a pipe to be released into the air outside, where it can dissipate. Without a mitigation system, radon gas can continue to get into your home through cracks in the foundation, a sump pit in the basement or an improperly sealed crawl space.

All homeowners should be wary of radon levels, but it doesn’t have to be something that keeps you from buying the home of your dreams. Here are a few things to know when it comes to radon and your home.

It’s preventable – for the most part. Learning your home has high radon levels isn’t a guaranteed medical diagnosis, and it doesn’t mean your home is uninhabitable, but you should take action to prevent further exposure to yourself and your loved ones.

You can perform a short-term test yourself, which takes about three days to complete and costs about $15, or have a professional perform a short-term or long-term test, the latter of which examines the air in your home over the course of several months. HomeAdvisor reports professional testing costs an average of $604, but it varies depending on the length of the test and size of the home. 

As with many home contractor services, be sure you find an impartial source, says Peter Hendrick, executive director of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians. “Our advice is that the person who tests the home is different than the one who mitigates it,” he says.

For Bob Hoffman, owner of RJH Radon Mitigation in Akron, Pennsylvania, calls for mitigation systems typically come in after a homeowner's test shows levels above 4 pCi/L. The first thing he does is look for the best place to set up the system in the home to make it functional without being an eyesore or a nuisance, since the pipe has to come up from the foundation and have a constantly running fan to create the vacuum.

“Sometimes it involves putting the fan on the exterior of the home, on the back or rear corner. A lot of times it could involve routing the piping up through the structure of the home or the garage, where the fan is in the attic and then just vents out through the attic, where it looks like a plumbing vent,” Hoffman says.

Sealing places where radon could be getting in, such as hollow blocks that make up your foundation or crawl spaces, is important not only to make sure the radon is only taken in through the installed pipe, but Hoffman says it also ensures the home and mitigation system are able to function properly together. “We don’t want to exhaust conditioned air underneath the floor and out through the radon system. That would only increase heating and cooling costs,” he says.

New-build construction is getting its own radon-resistant treatment, which includes a radon mitigation system in the design of the home. Piping is often built into the walls so it flows up through the home and out the attic or roof in the garage, allowing for a more aesthetically pleasing pipe location. Some newer homes are equipped with what is often considered a “passive” system because it doesn’t have a fan. If, after the home is completed, radon levels test high, a fan can be installed easily, costing less than retrofitting a radon mitigation system to the home.

“The thinking behind them is once the home’s built and could be tested, that if the levels are above 4 [pCi/L], it’s very easy to cut a section of the radon pipe in the attic and then install the fan,” Hoffman says.

Hendrick says that while 4 pCi/L is the federally recommended level, 2 pCi/L is a safer concentration for people to be living in. While a mitigation system’s success is dependent upon the soil conditions, “It’s usually possible to mitigate it and get [the concentration] below 2 pCi/L,” he says.

Legislators are taking action. To promote awareness of radon as a potential danger in homes, many states have passed laws requiring knowledge of high radon concentrations to be disclosed prior to the closing of a real estate transaction.

For example: Minnesota passed the Minnesota Radon Awareness Act in 2014, which helps to make radon part of the conversation in real estate deals. “If a test has been done, you’re required to disclose it – the seller is. But the seller is not required to have one done,” Kanuit says.

The law helps to ensure radon is considered a potential home defect. “Under general Minnesota real estate law, if a seller is aware of a condition on real estate and they don’t disclose it, that can be the basis for a misrepresentation claim,” Kanuit says.

A total of 37 states and the District of Columbia have at least some legislation pertaining to radon. Many of those statutes designate high concentrations of radon as hazardous to a person's health, which means knowledge of its levels must be disclosed in a real estate transaction as a potential defect. Illinois, for example, goes even further to require licensing for the sale of radon tests or professional testing, and state law mandates that all newly built residential buildings include a passive radon mitigation system.

It’s on you to do the due diligence. Despite the laws and legislative action to ensure you're aware of your home's radon levels, there’s no requirement for testing in homes. If they haven’t previously tested for it, most sellers aren’t going to go looking for a problem.

When there are no previous test results, the buyer can have the home tested for radon prior to closing. If levels are above the national recommendation, the cost of adding a mitigation system can have an impact on negotiations – either lowering the sale price to incorporate the cost of the system or forcing the seller to install it prior to closing.

“It takes a particular buyer to be concerned about that,” Kanuit says. “Some buyers will insist on a radon test, and that’s when it comes up. The buyer will say, ‘Hey, I want to have it tested before we close this deal.’ Then if they find something, then a fix is usually negotiated or the buyer walks away.”

In Kanuit's experience, so far it seems everyone’s playing fair when it comes to sharing test results: “I’ve never seen a [legal] case involving radon yet. It’s pretty new.”

And even after you’ve bought the home, confident that you’re living among safe radon concentrations, the EPA and professionals recommend you retest every two years, whether you have a mitigation system or not.

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