Buying a home isn’t easy. The bank watches your credit report like jewel thief casing a diamond distributor, the seller can’t make up their minds about leaving the dryer behind, and the realtor is taking forever to draw up the paperwork. Still, your dream home feels just days away, just one more signature to go. Relatives offer advice, tell you to conduct a thorough inspection of the property. “Don’t get caught with a cracked foundation,” they’ll say. You ask all the right questions, get all the detailed reports. Trouble is, those questions don’t yield the right answers. Two months later, you discover dangerous chemicals seeping out from the walls in your new residence or evidence a violent murder took place in your bedroom months prior. Angry at the seller? You should be. Want your money back? Good luck – full disclosure is tough to come by, and in some states, lies by omission are perfectly legal.
My Home was a Meth Lab and No One Told Me
Illegal production of methamphetamine in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates the economic cost to society of meth use in this country between $16.2 billion and $48.3 billion annually. The burden of addiction, coupled with the cost of finding and shutting down meth labs, is a drag on local economies and the nation as a whole. There’s also the issue of what to do with homes used for creating meth once the authorities have removed the criminals. Lethal chemicals seep into the walls of these properties, and can leach out over time, sickening anyone living inside. Meth Lab Cleanup, a national training and abatement company, estimates there are currently 2.5 million meth-contaminated homes in the United States. For every 10 homes used for meth production, experts say, authorities uncover just one.
Would you believe realtors are selling these homes at deep discounts to unsuspecting buyers? The signs that properties were former meth labs, particularly residue on walls and flat surfaces, aren’t always apparent. Sadly, the law may exempt realtors from testing a home for the dangerous compounds that can accumulate after meth production.
Cooking methamphetamine requires corrosive chemicals and toxic substances. The degradation the combination these compounds can cause is extensive.
It happened in Oregon when the Hankins family purchased their dream home for what they thought was a steal at $36,000, according to Yahoo! News. They bought the place “as is,” meaning the home had no safety inspection conducted by a licensed building contractor. Sure, it needed some work, but for a home that cheap who could pass it up?
Symptoms occurred almost immediately with Beth Hankins experiencing breathing problems, Jonathan Hankins suffering migraines and nosebleeds, and the couple’s young son developing mouth sores. Something in the house was making them sick, and it grew worse by the day. A $50 test kit purchased by the family revealed chemical contamination levels more than 80 times those accepted by the Oregon Health Authority. The results confirmed what a neighbor had told them a day prior – the Hankins had unknowingly purchased a former meth lab.
The couple received no warning from their real estate agent or Freddie Mac, the mortgage lender, about drug activity in the home. Many states across the country, including Oregon, requires homeowners to disclose if their homes were used as meth labs, but only if the properties appear on a list verified by the Oregon Health Authority. That means authorities have to uncover the labs and prosecute those responsible for creating them. However, the most recent data suggests the majority of labs go undetected. That loophole is big enough for realtors and mortgage lenders to plow dump trucks full of cash through.
How Do I Avoid a Home that Was a Meth Lab?
If the realtor or homeowner won’t tell you the truth, you have to do the research yourself. Finding out if the home you’re considering for purchase was a former meth lab is a multi-part process. Here are the important steps to remember:
- Visit the Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Clandestine Laboratory Register: This list contains the addresses for all homes discovered by authorities to be meth labs. The searchable database has addresses arranged by state and city.
- Talk to the Neighbors: Families in the neighborhood know what went on in the creepy house at the end of the street. Talk to them, find out if any strange goings on occurred.
- Reach Out to Local Police: Visit local police stations and municipalities and inquire about any arrests or issues involving the property. Arrest records are usually available to the public without a fee.
- Buy a Test Kit for the Property: Meth cleanup can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $150,000. However, the test kit to determine if there are dangerous chemicals from its production runs about $50 – $80 with expedited results. Buy one, and test the property before you buy.
The volatile chemicals involved with meth production can lead to catastrophic fires resulting in total destruction of the property and anything in the immediate vicinity. Buying a home that used to be a meth lab is like living above a toxic waste dump. Chemical residue from production of the drug seeps into the walls and insulation sickening any who come in contact with it. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Violent Crimes in the Home and Full Disclosure
Ever heard the rumor that a house down the street sits on a Native American burial ground? Urban legends on haunted houses provide the basis for no shortage of scary stories and television shows where ‘experts’ hunt ghosts and conduct séances. Should buyers be aware that a potential home for sale has a haunted history, or serves as the location of a violent crime?
While laws concerning meth production disclosure are somewhat vague, there outright absent when it comes to informing potential buyers of violent crimes in homes for sale. In January 2013, a Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that homeowners don’t have to disclose if violent acts, including murders or suicides, have taken place inside the property, according to TribLive News. So-called “psychological defects” of a home are too great a variable from one person to the next to consider them material defects warranting disclosure, the court stated. While one tragic event could give someone pause in buying a given home, another buyer may not care about the circumstances at all.
Janet S. Milliken was just three weeks past the closing date on her $600,000 home when she learned a grisly murder-suicide had taken place there 14 months prior. She sued to get out of the massive mortgage, saying there’s no way she would’ve purchased the home had she known about its history. The court disagreed, and now Milliken is stuck paying the home loan in full. Unless, of course, she chooses to sell the property.
Half of states have laws requiring homeowners to disclose if violent crimes have occurred in a home for sale, according to the National Association of Realtors. The majority of regulations only require disclosure of crimes within three years of the sale date. If Milliken had purchased her home in California, for example, she would have been able to get out from under her six-figure mortgage because of the homeowner’s failure to disclose the murder-suicide.
What Can I Do to Find Out if a Crime Happened in a Home?
Just ask. A real estate agent who lies to you about a home’s history under your direct questioning is probably committing fraud. Have a frank, ‘cards on the table’ type discussion with the seller and ask them to be fair and honest with you. Intentionally giving misleading answers to facilitate the sale of their home could give you legal recourse to void the sale, if it’s later revealed that a violent murder or other crime happened on the property. You can also pull public arrest records for the home, in the same way you would check for a meth lab, by visiting local authorities. You might also ask around the neighborhood, inquiring if the home you want to buy has a particularly bad reputation.
As a general rule: if you’re not 100 percent certain you’ve found the home you want, don’t sign the mortgage.
Homes with a checkered past may deter some buyers while encouraging others. It all depends on personal taste, though it never hurts to ask the realtor about the property’s history. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
What Must a Seller Tell Me About Their Property?
Federal regulations require home sellers to make potential buyers aware of the presence of potentially hazardous materials, including asbestos or lead-based paint, in the property. Some state laws also require sellers to complete home questionnaires that list the potential problems with the home, from structural defects to plumbing issues. Other potential hazards that require disclosure on a seller form:
- Carbon Monoxide – This odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas is toxic to humans. Inhalation of vapors can lead to giddiness, loss of consciousness, and death. A seller may have to disclose any previous problems with carbon monoxide levels, according to MSN Real Estate.
- Formaldehyde – The carcinogenic organic compound is used a preservative agent in some woods, paints, and foam insulation for homes built in 1970s.
- Radon – The radioactive gas seeps up from the ground and can permeate a home for years, resulting in sickness, and cancer growth. If a homeowner has a property tested for radon, they must disclose the results to all potential buyers.
No matter how much you love a home, it’s important to make the buying decision about finances and safety – not emotion. Make sure you have every last drop of information there is about a property: a report from a licensed inspector, disclosure questionnaire from the seller, and a review of any known hazards from the real estate agent. The law may not be on your side with some disclosures, including prior meth labs or violent crimes, but you can reduce the chances of entering into a devil’s agreement for a home that you thought was a dream, but was in reality a nightmare.