Radon….To test or not to test

If you are buying a home in Virginia your realtor will let you know that you have the option of asking for a Radon test as part of the the contract. Here are some things you may want to know before deciding what to do.

According to the EPA Radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year. Radon Gas comes from the naturally occurring breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. It can enter a home through cracks in solid floors or walls, construction joints, gaps around pipes and other ways. Although it is more prevalent in some areas than others it can occur anywhere. And yes…it does occur in Arlington and Northern Virginia. I’ve had multiple instances on the buyer and seller side where radon came in over acceptable EPA guidelines.

I pulled this excellent summary of the Myths and Facts about Radon from the EPA website:

MYTH: Scientists aren’t sure radon really is a problem.

FACT: Although some scientists dispute the precise number of deaths due to radon, all the major health organizations (like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association) agree with estimates that radon causes thousands of preventable lung cancer deaths every year. This is especially true among smokers, since the risk to smokers is much greater than to non-smokers.

MYTH: Radon testing is difficult, time consuming and expensive.

FACT: Radon testing is easy. You can test your home yourself or hire a qualified radon company. Either approach takes only a small amount of time and effort.

MYTH: Homes with radon problems can’t be fixed.

FACT: There are simple solutions to radon problems in homes. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners have already fixed radon problems in their homes. Most homes can be fixed for about the same cost as other common home repairs; check with one or more qualified mitigators. Call your state radon office for help in identifying qualified mitigation contractors.

MYTH: Radon affects only certain kinds of homes.

FACT: House construction can affect radon levels. However, radon can be a problem in homes of all types: old homes, new homes, drafty homes, insulated homes, homes with basements, homes without basements. Local geology, construction materials, and how the home was built are among the factors that can affect radon levels in homes.

MYTH: Radon is only a problem in certain parts of the country.

FACT: High radon levels have been found in every state. Radon problems do vary from area to area, but the only way to know your radon level is to test.

MYTH: A neighbor’s test result is a good indication of whether your home has a problem.

FACT: It’s not. Radon levels can vary greatly from home to home. The only way to know if your home has a radon problem is to test it.

MYTH: Everyone should test their water for radon.

FACT: Although radon gets into some homes through water, it is important to first test the air in the home for radon. If your water comes from a public water supply that uses ground water, call your water supplier. If high radon levels are found and the home has a private well, call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1 800-426-4791 for information on testing your water.

MYTH: It’s difficult to sell homes where radon problems have been discovered.

FACT: Where radon problems have been fixed, home sales have not been blocked or frustrated. The added protection is some times a good selling point.

MYTH: I’ve lived in my home for so long, it doesn’t make sense to take action now.

FACT: You will reduce your risk of lung cancer when you reduce radon levels, even if you’ve lived with a radon problem for a long time.

MYTH: Short-term tests can’t be used for making a decision about whether to fix your home.

FACT: A short-term test, followed by a second short-term test* can be used to decide whether to fix your home. However, the closer the average of your two short-term tests is to 4 pCi/L, the less certain you can be about whether your year-round average is above or below that level. Keep in mind that radon levels below 4 pCi/L still pose some risk. Radon levels can be reduced in most homes to 2 pCi/L or below.

So, should you ask for a radon test contingency when writing a contract?

The first answer is “yes” you should test for Radon. A radon test above the EPA guidelines of 4 pCi/L will allow you to ask the seller to remediate the radon levels or allow you to void the contract if you wish. In the 10 years I have bought and sold real estate in this area, no one has ever voided a contract because of radon levels. “Why is that” you ask. Two reasons. The first is that the seller really has to remediate the radon levels. If the seller refuses to remediate and the buyer voids the contract, the seller would have to disclose the high levels of radon in the home and that will make it harder to attract a buyer. Of course there are exceptions and if the seller refuses but you really, really, really want the home then you’ll have to do it yourself once you’re in the house. Second, remediation is relatively inexpensive. The most common method is a vent pipe system and fan, which pulls radon from beneath the house and vents it to the outside. They are very effective and will range in price from $500-$2000. 

The second answer may be “no“.  If you know you are going to be in a competitive situation (this does happen in this area) and you want to make your offer look more appealing, with one less contingency for the seller to worry about, you may make a personal judgement call to not ask for a radon contingency. Then, if you win the house, you will do a radon test as soon as you close and remediate at your own expense if radon levels are worrisome.

Virginia residents have access to inexpensive radon testing kits and information on that can be found here:

Radon Program:
Virginia Department of Health, Office of Epidemiology
Division of Radiological Health
Website: www.vdh.virginia.gov/epidemiology/radiologicalhealth/Radon

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