People usually share the nostalgic view that “they don’t build homes like they used to.” And, when it comes to the nation’s older housing inventory, there is good reason. Older houses were often better built to last longer than contemporary houses. They had “class,” “charm,” “character,” and matured lots. Not to forget something that is not so appealing: old houses often have lead.
While paint manufacturers have not been permitted to add lead to their paints since 1980, before then it was a common additive. Adding lead made paints brighter and increased their durability. Experts believe that in some parts of the country, three out of four homes are likely to have some lead paint. Wall paint and pipe solder are probably the most prevalent sources.
Problems with Lead
While experts generally concur that lead is potentially harmful, unfortunately there is little consensus on how much lead is harmful. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead contamination. Scientists believe that lead may cause serious health problems in children, especially young children. Studies link lead poisoning, which means that a person has a lot of lead in his/her body, with brain damage, nervous system impairment and learning disabilities. It may also cause problems in pregnancy.
Experts believe that children under six are at greatest risk from exposure. Children who live or play with other children that have been lead poisoned are at greater risk. As are also children living in pre-1960s homes and children that do not ingest sufficient levels of iron or calcium.
For good reason, federal health officials recently reminded owners of older homes to ensure that their children are kept away from home improvement projects involving paint scraping or sanding. A recent New York state study of children living in homes where there had been recent removals of lead containing paint revealed that nearly ten percent had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.
Ingestion and inhalation pose an ongoing threat to children in houses with lead containing paint. Parents need not just be concerned during renovation projects, either. Small children haven been known to eat paint chips and to even bite contaminated window sills. Due to the health risk, prudence therefore suggests that all home purchasers determine whether the home they are buying contains lead.
Under recent federal laws, buyers of pre-1978 homes must receive a pamphlet which identifies the risks of lead contamination. The pamphlet states that it is assumed that paint in pre-1978 houses is lead based. Buyers are instructed that they have the right to test for lead in the paint, usually at their own expense.
If lead is found, a buyer has the right to cancel the contract. There are two other options as well: (1) the seller may pay for lead paint removal or (2) the buyer may purchase the house “as is.”
In addition, landlords are now required to advise tenants of the presence of lead paint once it is detected. If lead is found, a landlord must properly remove the lead containing paint. Landlords must also provide their tenants with information pamphlets concerning lead exposure.
Lead As a Contingency In the Sales Contract
It is very common practice for homes to be sold with “contingencies.” The most common contingencies are an acceptable termite inspection and radon inspection (at least on the east coast). But there are few rules in real estate, only customs. Parties are free to adjust their contracts as they deem fit. In the case of an older home purchase, cautious purchasers –especially those with young children, may wish to consider an acceptable lead inspection as one of the purchase contingencies.
In the last ten years, there has been a tremendous amount of litigation nationwide over injuries allegedly attributed to lead contamination. Older paint manufacturers, distributors and retailers have been included in these large, multi-party cases, and plaintiffs’ attorneys have collected a sizable war chest of shared information. Their clients, often people who came into prolonged contact with lead as children, are alleged to be suffering from irreversible brain damage.
Home purchasers never are interested in buying into these kinds of horrifying lawsuits. They might therefore consider confronting this issue before the purchase. If you already own a house with this problem, a professional should be consulted to evaluate your particular situation and define your available options.
As explained above, recently enacted federal laws also cover this issue. Sellers need to ensure that their practices conform with federal law. Some states also have their own laws that must also be considered by buyers, sellers, and tenants.