Houses have become more than just structures to protect us from the elements. Houses have become luxurious, comfortable, expansive, and trendy places to enjoy our lives. While technology has made electrical, heating, and the structure safer, there are still dangers associated with living in a home. Fires are a common occurrence in houses, carbon monoxide can kill people in homes, and radon gasses can cause cancer. There are also ways a home that has been misused or neglected can harm people, with mold, drug use, or other factors. When you buy a house make sure you do everything you can to protect yourself and your family. Many states have laws in place to protect people, but those laws do not cover every danger, and not every law is followed. The more you know what to look out for, the safer you can be.
What are the biggest dangers to homeowners?
Fire is a concern when you live in a home. It can cause massive amounts of damage and kill people. However, there are other dangers in homes as well, that can kill you or do serious bodily harm.
- Fire: Fire can destroy a home very easily, even if it is contained quickly. Smoke from the fire can cause more damage than the fire itself. Smoke from a fire also kills more people than fires themselves. Every house should have working smoke detectors.
- Carbon Monoxide: Colorado enacted a lot a few years ago requiring all houses to have carbon monoxide detectors. They enacted the law because a family of five died from carbon monoxide poisoning while renting a home. Carbon monoxide can come from faulty furnaces and is odorless. Not all states require Carbon Monoxide detectors but you should have them in your home!
- Natural gas: Natural gas is odorless as well, but the gas company makes it smell so that people realize they are in danger. Most homes use natural gas for furnaces, hot water heaters, and stoves. Some homes may use propane if they are located outside of town, which can be just as dangerous. Natural gas will not kill you, but it is extremely flammable and if enough builds up it will explode with any spark.
- Drug use: Some types of drugs will not only seriously hurt the person using the drug, but people around them as well. Meth can be smoked and in some cases manufactured in houses. A meth house can be extremely dangerous because of the chemicals used. A meth house usually smells strongly of smoke and chemicals, and can cause brain damage. To get rid of the meth you may have to gut the entire home, including the walls, flooring, heating system, insulation and even studs.
- Mold: Mold is present everywhere. There is mold outside, mold inside, and mold in the air. Some mold will not hurt you, but too much mold or the wrong type of mold can be dangerous. Most dangerous mold is visible on drywall in houses. It looks like black splotches and can make people very sick. Mold is caused by too much moisture in a home.
- Radon: Radon is a gas that is also colorless and odorless. Many people have never heard of radon and many people never test for radon. It can cause lung cancer and is very common in Colorado. Radon is typically found in higher amounts in the northern states and lower amounts in the southern states. Home inspectors can test for radon if asked.
- Flooding/water damage: Water causes the most damage in homes, although it is not always dangerous. Broken pipes, leaking roofs, floods, can all cause a lot of damage to a home. If a house is in a flood zone you will most likely have to get flood insurance, which is much more expensive than regular homeowner’s insurance. Flash flooding can also kill people and you should be aware of how to escape your home if you are in a flood zone.
How can homeowners protect themselves from fires?
Fires can be devastating and extremely dangerous. All houses should have smoke detectors, which alert the occupants to a possible fire. Some smoke detectors are wired into the electrical system of a home, and others are operated by batteries. If your smoke alarms start beeping, they need new batteries. Please do not disable the smoke detector, put new batteries in! In most states, houses must have smoke detectors by law.
Another common cause of fires is the electrical system of a house. Electric is awesome, but it can also be dangerous especially in old houses. Old wiring, aluminum wiring, not installing wiring correctly can all cause a fire. Homeowners do not need to know how to wire a house to be safe, but a home inspector can give you an idea of any possibly problems with an electrical system. There are no guarantees a system is safe since many wires are hidden behind walls, but many problems can be spotted during an inspection. If an inspector sees a possible problem, have a licensed electrician inspect the house to see if it is a safety issue.
There are many other causes of fires in a home:
- Candles: Do not leave candles unattended!
- Cooking: We have all forgotten about a meal on the stove, but if you forget about it too long it could cause a fire. Grease fires can spread quickly and dumping water on them will only make it worse.
- Garages: Many fires are started in the garage. A car could catch fire if it is not maintained well, or tools could catch something on fire. There should be fire barriers between a garage and the house, but large fires can still spread to the home.
- Forrest fires: In Colorado and many other states, forest fires are common. If you live in an area with many trees, you could be prone to a forest fire. Building houses out of non-flammable materials and clearing trees away from your home can help prevent your house from burning if a fire gets too close.
- Fireplaces: Fireplaces need to be cleaned and maintained often. A clogged chimney can cause a fire or smoke damage in your home.
Along with having smoke detectors to help alert people to a fire, you should also have fire extinguishers. If you have a small fire from cooking or in the garage, a fire extinguisher could easily put it out, but if you only have water, you may spread the fire causing even more damage.
Make sure your family has a plan in case of a fire. If you have 2nd or 3rd story rooms that are too high to jump from, you might want to invest in safety ladders that occupants could use to get out. If people live in a basement, make sure they can get out of their windows. Make sure your young children know where to go and what to do in case of a fire. They may try to look for mommy or daddy, or a pet instead of getting out.
How can homeowner protect themselves from carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide does not smell like natural gas, but it can be just as dangerous. Furnaces are the most common cause of a buildup of carbon monoxide due to cracked heater cores or other problems. A home inspector should spot indications of damage and a furnace can be tested for carbon monoxide leaks. Because carbon monoxide is so dangerous, you need to have carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Not every state requires CO detectors!
- CO Detectors in Homes
- 26 states require carbon monoxide detectors in private dwellings via state statute: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia (via adoption of the International Residential Code), Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Certain states limit the installation to buildings with fossil-fuel burning devices, others only require the device be installed upon sale of the property or unit.
- Another 11 states require carbon monoxide detectors in private dwellings regulated through the adoption of the International Residential Code or via an amendment to their state’s building code: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wyoming.
- CO Detectors in Schools
- California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine and Maryland require carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in school buildings.
- CO Detectors in Hotels and Motels
- Twelve states require installation of carbon monoxide detectors in hotels and motels under statute.
- Three of those states (New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin) have complementary administrative regulations.
- Two states (Kansas and Washington) have requirements through administrative regulations alone.
Thank you to http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/carbon-monoxide-detectors-state-statutes.aspx for this information.
You need to have CO detectors in your home, even if your state does not require it. They are cheap, easy to install and you will never notice they are there unless there is a problem. In Colorado, the law states you must have on CO detector within 15 feet of every bedroom.
How can homeowners protect themselves from natural gas?
Natural gas is very flammable since it is used as a fuel for furnaces, stoves or hot water heaters. Natural gas companies make it smell like sulfur to alert people to problems. If you smell sulfur (a little like rotten eggs) you know there is a problem. Your house could literally explode if there is too much natural gas or propane built up. As soon as you smell natural gas you should leave the house and call 911 so they can see what the problem is. I have had to call 911 a couple of times for houses I had listed that smelled like gas. I felt a little silly having fire trucks pull up, and make a big scene, but I would much rather feel silly than have a house explode.
How can homeowners protect themselves from drug houses?
I have dealt with a few meth houses as well. I have spent time in meth houses, when it was not the healthiest thing I could have done. However, I did not know they were meth houses or how dangerous meth is when I was in those homes. Meth is a drug that is manufactured from extremely harmful chemicals. If someone smokes meth in a house, the meth residue can seep into the walls and cause health problems. If someone makes meth in a house, it can cause severe health problems and destroy a home.
You won’t know for sure if someone smoked or cooked meth in a house until you complete a meth test. Most home inspectors or homeowners will not complete a meth test, because it can take weeks to get the results back. In Colorado, if someone finds out they are buying a meth house, they can cancel the contract at any time and get their earnest money back. Every state law is different and there are some things that should make you suspicious of meth or that a house was used for illegal activity.
- Security cameras: A lot of people install a security system, but some people install them because they are paranoid of the police. If you see cameras all over the house, it is one sign that the property may have been used for illegal activities.
- Use your nose: When I was in meth houses, they have a very distinct smell. It smells like a mix of cigarette smoke and chemicals. It also hurts my eyes, but I have a lot of allergies and I am sensitive to that sort of thing. If a house smells really weird it may be worth checking into more.
- Use your eyes: Houses that are used for illegal activities are usually not taken care of well. Houses that have had a lot of meth use, may actually have stains on the walls. The chemical smoke can cause marks towards the ceiling or on the ceiling.
- Ask the neighbors: The neighbors usually know when something is going on in a house, or the neighbors are up to no good. It is not a bad idea to talk to as many neighbors as you can before you buy a house. They can tell you the history of the home, any problems they know about, or if the police came once a week!
- Check with the police: If you suspect a house may be a drug house, the police may have record of arrests or complaints at the home. In Colorado every house that is busted for a meth lab is listed here: http://www.forensic-applications.com/meth/Properties.html
In Colorado you can also sell a meth house that has been properly cleaned by a company licensed to clean meth houses, without disclosing it was a meth house.
How can homeowners protect themselves from mold?
A lot of people are very scared of mold, but mold is everywhere. It is in the dirt, in the air, and in every house. There are some types of mold that are more dangerous than others. A lot of mold remediation companies will recommend a mold test to see if your house has mold, and if any mold shows up, they will recommend that you spend a lot of money to remove it. However, you can never remove all mold. If there is mold in a home at dangerous levels you can usually smell it or see it, although in some cases it may be hiding in the walls or have been covered up.
The common places for bad mold to appear are on the walls, carpet, or any organic material like wood. Mold is also common in showers and bathrooms. If you see mold in the bathroom, you can most likely clean it without any health risks. If you have mold on the walls, you have a problem. Black mold is the most dangerous and some people are allergic to mold, which makes it even worse. A home inspector can warn you about possible dangerous mold and the cause of the mold. You do not want to spend thousands of dollars getting rid of mold, only to have it come back again because you never fixed the leaking pipe causing the mold.
Do not be afraid to get multiple opinions about any mold problems. Some companies will charge ten times what other companies charge for the same work, because people get scared about environmental issues. A professional company can tell you how to treat the mold, or if the mold infected areas need to be removed and repaired.
How can homeowners protect themselves from radon?
Radon gas can cause cancer, it is not one of those urban myths. High levels of radon gas can be very dangerous and houses with too much radon should have a mitigation system put in. Most home inspectors will not test for radon gas unless they are asked too. The test can be expensive, but I suggest everyone have a test done. The test can take a couple of days to complete, and I suggest you have a professional complete the test. A professional will use a test that measures the radon for an extended period of time. The test can usually detect if someone is trying to tamper with the results. There are do it yourself tests, but they are not nearly as accurate and can be tampered with much more easily.
If you get a radon test done and it shows the radon is high, you need to have a radon mitigation system installed. The radon mitigation system consists of pipes, vents and fans that help circulate the air around the house. The cost of a system is usually $1,000 to $2,000. If you have never had your house tested for radon, you should have it tested to make sure you are not slowly poisoning yourself.
To learn how to get the best deal and make the most money, check out my book: How to Buy a House: What Everyone Should Know Before They Buy or Sell a Home. It is on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle.
How can homeowners protect themselves from flooding and water damage?
If you buy a house in a flood zone, be prepared for floods! FEMA routinely changes and monitors flood zones. If you are in a flood zone, there is a good chance your house will flood at some point. When you live in a flood zone, you will be required to get flood insurance if you have a mortgage. Flood zones can add thousands of dollars per year to the cost of insurance. Floods can do incredible damage to a home. It may seem like everything would be okay once the waters recede, but flood waters are not clean. A flood carries debris, sewage, and diseases with it. When a house is flooded, they often have to be gutted down to the studs and rebuilt before being habitable again. If you live in an area that is prone to floods and for some reason you do not have flood insurance, your regular homeowner’s insurance will not cover loss due to floods.
Non flooding water damage is also a huge concern for homeowners. Water damage can occur for many reasons:
- Frozen or broken pipes. When water freezes it expands, and if it freezes in pipes it will break the pipes causing them to leak. Never turn your heat off when there is the possibly of it freezing. If a house has had the water off for a number of months or years, be very careful when turning the water back on. You can make a huge mess if the pipes are broken. If you are worried that the pipes are broken, you might be able to test them with pressurized air before turning the water on.
- Roof leaks. Roofs should last about 30 years, but they get damaged easily by hail, wind, or neglect. A roof leak can cause mold and serious damage to your attic even before you notice anything in your home. If you suspect your roof is damaged by hail or wind, ask your insurance company to check it out, they might replace it for you.
- Sewage backup. One of the most disgusting things is a sewer backup. The sewage line gets clogged or blocked, and the line backs up into your home. Yuck. If your sink or toilet drains slowly you may have a sewage problem. When you buy a house, you can get the sewer line scoped for any potential disasters. A broken sewer line can also cost $10,000 or more to replace.
- Poor drainage. One of the most common causes of a foundation problem is poor drainage. All houses should have rain gutters on the roof that direct water to downspouts away from the home. Some houses have negative grade or no gutters, which causes water to back up against the foundation. The water seeps down into the foundation weakening it, and could also seep into the crawl space or basement. Foundation repairs are very expensive and most can be avoided with proper drainage, and grading away from the house.
There are many dangers when owning a home, and I am sure I missed a few things. However, it is not terribly difficult taking care of a house just as a car needs to be taken care of. The older a house is, the more care and attention it will need, but you also have to take care of newer homes. Before buying a house a home inspection can warn you of many problems and even give you some tips on how to take care of your home.