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Asbestos: What You Need to Know When Buying, Selling or Remodeling

Homebuyers have a lot of questions about indoor air quality and for good reason; most Americans will spend at least one-third of their time every day inside their house and if breathing the air could make you sick, that is a big deal.

Unfortunately, many indoor air quality problems are difficult to inspect for or gauge accurately because they lack easily definable metrics; this leaves uncertainty regarding things like mold, formaldehyde, pets, rodents and other peculiar odors. One indoor air quality question that comes up a lot on older homes, which is a bit more precise to measure, is asbestos. Here’s what you need to know about asbestos if you are a home buyer, home owner or remodeler.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral that is mined from the earth. It has natural properties that make it an excellent and inexpensive fire retardant. As such, it was added to many building products to make them perform better with peak use between the 1940s through the 1970s. Common building materials that contain asbestos include but are not limited to:

  • Vermiculite insulation
  • 9”x9” floor tiles
  • Acoustic ceiling tiles
  • White tape on heating ducts
  • Insulation on boiler pipes and boilers
  • Old asbestos cement siding
  • Popcorn ceiling texture
  • Glues used under flooring

Why is Asbestos Bad?

Asbestos is bad for human health when the tiny abrasive fibers are inhaled into the lungs where they can damage the lung tissue. This seems to be exacerbated by cigarette smoking and the resulting diseases are mesothelioma and lung cancer. No good.

How Do I Know If I Have Asbestos in My House?

If you want to know if your house contains asbestos, you can hire an industrial hygienist or an environmental lab to perform an evaluation of the house. These contractors should follow a thorough testing protocol and will often take more than a dozen samples from the building. Once you have the results you should know what materials contain asbestos and most labs will also provide a protocol for remediating (safely removing) these materials. You now have data.

What Should I Do If I Have Asbestos in My House?

It’s important to understand a few basic concepts about asbestos-containing materials in your house.

If the building material in question is not damaged or “friable,” then the asbestos fibers will not be able to “aerosolize” or become air-borne particulate. The asbestos will be encapsulated in the building material and will not pose a health hazard. For this reason, most old houses do not pose an asbestos-related health hazard to the occupants if you just move in and live there. If the asbestos fibers are not likely to become air-borne, then you are safe.

The biggest risk posed by asbestos in buildings is during a remodel or renovation to an old house. This is when the asbestos-containing materials get damaged and aerosolized and people working or living in the house are at risk of exposure.

Laws regarding asbestos will vary by state but many states will require:

  • Home owners to test for asbestos prior to any construction or renovation project.
  • Contractors to obtain a written asbestos report from a building owner prior to work.
  • Asbestos remediation to be done by licensed abatement contractors prior to starting demolition work.

I am not aware of any requirements in my state for home owners to test for asbestos prior to selling their home. There could be a different protocol in other states, so it’s good to find out.

Should I Test My Prospective House for Asbestos Before I Buy?

I find that most home buyers do not test for asbestos as part of their due diligence when buying a house and here is why.

If you are buying a house older than 1980, you can assume it probably contains at least some asbestos.

If you are not planning a renovation, your risks of exposure are generally low, though there are a few exceptions.

If you are planning a renovation, you can assume you need to have a budget for lead and asbestos identification and remediation and just put it in your budget. If you have time to do this evaluation before buying the house, that is great. The more data up front, the better. In hot markets, home buyers often have very limited time to complete their inspections and I think many home buyers proceed with the logical assumption that the building contains asbestos and they will need to tackle it prior to renovation.

So, if your old house is in good condition and you are not planning any renovation work, you probably do not need to test for asbestos. You may want to perform an inspection to look for damaged materials which may contain asbestos and have these remediated or encapsulated – especially if you have some reasons for concern like visibly damaged pipe insulation or old building materials. However, your risks of exposure are much greater if you are remodeling an old house. Then, you should have a thorough evaluation done by an industrial hygienist or environmental lab prior to demolition, but not necessarily prior to purchase.

Is Asbestos Identification Included in a Home Inspection?

No. Some home inspectors may also be certified for asbestos inspections, but where I work, most home inspectors do not do this work and if they did they would charge an additional inspection fee as an add-on service. Many home inspectors will report on the presence of building materials that are likely to contain asbestos. This should not be confused with a complete asbestos identification inspection, which is much more comprehensive.

Understand that a complete asbestos evaluation often involves destructive testing where samples are drilled, scraped or pried from the building. You would need permission from a home owner if you were doing this prior to purchasing a house and such permission may not be granted. Home inspectors are not allowed to damage the buildings they are inspecting, so there is generally no practical way to inspect for asbestos containing materials in a comprehensive way as a part of a pre-purchase home inspection. This is another reason why asbestos evaluation is often not done as a part of pre-purchase due diligence.

Are Some Asbestos-containing Building Materials More Hazardous Than Others?

Yes. Some old building materials do not encapsulate the asbestos fibers as well as others. One such material is vermiculite insulation. This loose insulation, often in your attic, looks like small rocks or bits of mica. Much of this insulation came from a mine in Libby Montana and the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos. This material can aerosolize easily, exposing workers or occupants, and tests to verify the presence of asbestos in vermiculite have proven unreliable. It’s best to assume this product contains asbestos and proceed with caution. I would have this remediated by a professional to reduce risks of exposure.

I hope this brief article about asbestos is helpful. There is always more that can be learned about this topic but this should give you a solid starting place.  Remember, happy home buyers are informed home buyers.


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