Here’s What Potential Home Buyers Need to Know About Radon
Find out if high levels of this toxic gas are present in a house you hope to buy—and how to mitigate it safely.
Purchasing a new home can be as stressful as it is exciting. In addition to choosing a house that suits your budget and lifestyle, you must ensure that it’s in good structural condition and harbors no hazards—such as high levels of radon gas.
You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it, but radon gas is a leading cause of lung cancer according to the National Cancer Institute. Yet the presence of radon in homes need not be a deal breaker. You may think, why not? Keep reading to learn all about radon gas, how to have a property inspected for it, and what can be done to remove radon gas so it will be safe for your family.
What Is Radon Gas?
Radon gas is a byproduct of the underground decay of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium. As these substances deteriorate, the gas is released and eventually works its way to the surface of the ground and into the air we breathe. Fortunately, radon gas is so diluted in our outdoor environment it doesn’t pose a health risk. In buildings, however, it can become concentrated. Every state in the U.S. has radon gas, but some areas are a higher risk than others. Check out this interactive EPA map to find out if you’re house hunting in a high-risk zone.
Why Should I Be Concerned?
While radon is harmless in the low levels found outdoors, when it seeps into a home it can become concentrated in levels high enough to put residents at risk. Radon gas is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), and the EPA recommends radon mitigation for all homes with radon gas levels of 4 pCi/L or higher. Radon gas is slightly heavier than air, so while it settles in basements and crawl spaces, whole-house HVAC systems have a tendency to distribute the gas throughout the entire home. That means even a second story could potentially contain high levels of radon.
Will a Disclosure Protect Me?
As a part of the selling process, homeowners fill out a disclosure form that lists known material defects, such as foundation problems, termite infestation, and the condition of the HVAC system. What sellers must disclose, however, varies from state to state, and not all states require sellers to reveal the presence of radon gas. If your state doesn’t require disclosure of radon gas (find state disclosure requirements here, compliments of Zillow), you still have the right to request a radon test before buying a house.
How Do I Get a Radon Test?
When making an offer on a house, you have the opportunity to have it tested for various issues, including the presence of radon. Many times, a mortgage lender will require structural and mechanical inspections to ensure the loan is a good financial investment, but radon testing is not always required by a lender. You may specifically have to ask for a radon test, and payment is generally required upfront. A professional radon test typically runs less than $200 and, according to the EPA, all houses should be tested for radon. A local mitigation contractor should perform the test.
What Does a Radon Test Involve?
A radon professional is a technician equipped with a radon sniffer—a tool that detects the presence and concentration of radon in homes. Since radon is heaving than air, the technician may ask the homeowner to turn off the HVAC system an hour or two prior to testing, allowing any radon in the house to settle near the floor. The technician will also leave charcoal-filled canisters in different areas of the house for several days; then the canisters will be retrieved and analyzed for the presence of radon. Homeowner detection devices (discussed below) are also available, but for the purpose of a real estate contract, only professional testing results are usually considered.
What Happens if the Test Reveals Radon?
Depending on the wording of the home buying contract, both buyer and seller may share the cost of mitigating the radon. If the contract doesn’t specify who pays for mitigation, you can certainly ask the sellers to split the cost—and they may be willing to do so to help the sale go through. Professional radon reduction runs $800 to $2,500, with an average cost of about $1,200.
How Does Radon Reduction Work?
The purpose of radon mitigation is to reduce the level of the gas, not to eliminate it, since radon gas is safe in levels lower than 4 pCi/L. Radon reduction seeks to prevent radon from entering a house and remove existing radon from the home. Preventing radon from entering involves sealing the areas where it can seep in, such as cracks in basement floors and walls, as well as gaps around service pipes. In some cases, it may also require installing a collection pipe below the basement to transfer radon gas away from the house. Removing existing radon involves the installation of ventilation fans to circulate radon-heavy basement air to the outdoors.
Should I Buy a House That Tests Positive for Radon?
The EPA states, “Radon is a health hazard with a simple solution.” Once radon reduction measures are in place, home buyers need not worry about the quality of the air in the home. If a house you’re interested in tests positive for high levels of radon, odds are, other houses in the area are likely to have high levels as well. Since removing radon is relatively simple, your family will be safe in a home with a radon reduction system in place.
Are There Future Radon Risks to Consider?
Even if a professional radon test indicates safe levels of radon, if the house settles in the future, a tiny foundation crack could allow the gas to begin seeping in without your knowledge. To be on the safe side, install one or more radon detectors on the lower floors of your home, such as the Corentium Home Radon Detector (available from Amazon). These detectors alert you by beeping if radon levels rise so you can take steps to mitigate the problem.