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Second Homes

Learn from one family's mistakes, and steer clear of buying a meth-addled country house

By Lucy Cohen Blatter | July 8, 2015 - 12:40PM

We were horrified to hear this story on NPR about an Indiana family that discovered their sudden health problems could be traced back to chemical residue from methamphetamine left on the walls and in the floors of their new country home. The woman in the story bought a $50 methamphetamine residue testing kit, and found meth levels three times the legal limit, according to NPR.

So, for those of us considering buying houses outside the city, how common is it to find meth residue in a house? "I wouldn't say it's incredibly common, but we're certainly seeing more and more meth remediation," says Richard Tarnowski of Enviro Testing in Binghamton.  (According to the news station WSYR, Cortland County, near Syracuse, apparently had the highest number of meth incidents in New York state in 2014).

Tarnowski's company does baseline samplings to see how contaminated a space might be from meth (the making of which involves the use of dangerous chemicals and materials like lithium batteries and kerosene), crafts a remediation plan, and does clearance inspections. That process, he says, typically costs around $3,500. The entire meth residue removal process — done by an outside company — can easily cost "in the tens of thousands of dollars," he says.

Unlike inspections of water quality and pests, lenders don't currently require meth inspections. "At least not yet," Tarnowski says.

And don't forget radon tests

Another big environmental hazard to consider when buying a home is radon contamination. Radon is a cancer-causing odorless, colorless radioactive gas.  (It's not as big of an issue in New York City buildings, since levels decrease the further you get from ground-level). It costs about $250 to test a home for radon, and is fairly easy to repair, says Tarknowski.

"If radon levels are found to be elevated in a home you're trying to buy," he says, "you go back to the negotiating table." Nine times out of 10, he says, sellers will take care of it (the cost is usually around $1,200-$1,500), or at least knock that much off the price of the home. "There are disclosure laws in effect, so if they don't fix the problem, they'll have to disclose the issue to future buyers anyway."

NYC vs. the country

Interestingly, the banes of our NYC existences — bed bugs , mice and roaches — are not big concerns when buying country properties, says Tarknowski. The bigger pest headaches are ones that could potentially destroy wood, like termites, carpenter ants and powderpost beetles. "You see those in a lot of rural properties, especially in farmhouses," Tarnowski says.

In NYC, some of the larger environmental issues include mold (inspectors need to find the source of moisture and mold remediation companies can come in and remove the problem), lead pipes, and carbon monoxide leaks. "Faulty heating system or a fireplace with a cracked flue could lead to carbon monoxide leaks," says Ken Carr of NYC-based Precision Inspections. That can happen in the city or the country.

In fact, Tarnowski explains that his company performs carbon monoxide testing when they do full structure inspections on houses. "Cracked heat exchangers on a furnace/boiler is the culprit," he says. "Improper venting of hot water heaters is also a problem with carbon monoxide.

One thing you probably shouldn't worry about too much in the city or the country: lead. Even though you likely have some in your paint. "If you're in a pre-1978 home you probably have lead paint (that's been painted over many times). If you're planning to buy an apartment and do renovations, your contractor should be lead-certified. But it's all over New York, and is really only dangerous in powder form and when it can be ingested," Carr says.


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