“I’m not buying a house filled with poisonous gas!”

Take it easy.

One of the things that a home inspector will look for is the excessive presence of radon, a radioactive gas that you can’t see and can’t smell, but may be very dangerous in excess concentrations.  In fact, at very high levels, radon may cause lung cancer.  Radon is released from the breakdown of various elements in the ground, and comes into your house through cracks or holes in your foundation, or even from your sump pit or well water.  Once there is a flow of radon in your home, if you keep your windows and doors closed all the time, the radon will collect, and high concentrations develop.

That being said, it’s time for a few facts.

  • Radon is basically everywhere, in all fifty states.  Indeed, it is exceedingly rare to have a radon test return with a zero concentration.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 1 in 15 homes have radon concentrations that exceed recommended levels.
  • High radon levels can usually be very easily remediated to acceptable levels.
  • Radon is measured in “picocuries per liter,” abbreviated as pCi/l.  A pico curie is 0.000,000,000,001 (one-trillionth) of a Curie, an international measurement unit of radioactivity.
  • Both the EPA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection agree that a concentration of 4.0 pCi/l or less is acceptable.  This is a concentration of 70,000 atoms of radon in each liter of air.

So how do we test for radon?  There are two ways.

By far, the most common method is use of a passive test.  A canister is placed on the lowest level of the home, and is left exposed to the air in the house for a period of three days.  Afterwards, the canister is collected by your inspector, and the test elements inside the canister are examined to determine the level of radon concentration to which the canister was exposed.  Your inspector will charge between $75.00 and $150.00 for this test.

The second method of testing for radon is with an active system, which utilizes a computer to test air drawn into the machine at regular intervals over a period of time.  This test is much more expensive, and for that reason, is used mostly as a re-test when passive systems return high radon readings.

If you are selling your home, it is advisable to air out the lowest level of your home the day before the test by keeping doors and windows open.  This will help reduce the level of stagnant radon in the air, and provide a more accurate reading of radon entering the building.  It is important to note that sellers must not disturb a canister placed by a buyer’s home inspector, or purposefully leave doors and windows open, as doing so could invalidate the results.

So, now you’re a buyer and your inspector calls to tell you that the radon test came back high.  Don’t panic.  Most sellers will ask for a re-test to confirm the high readings.  If your test results are confirmed, that does not, under any circumstance mean that you shouldn’t buy the house.  In fact, most contracts give the seller the opportunity to remediate before you have any right to cancel.

How is radon remediated?  Actually, it’s pretty simple.  Understanding that high radon readings are most often the result of standing air, the idea is to get the air moving.  If the house has a basement, a PVC pipe is run from the basement, through the walls of the house, and out the roof.  If the house does not have a basement, the pipe is installed beneath the slab near the perimeter of the house, and the same pipe is run up the outside of the house, to the roof.  In either event, a small fan is attached to the basement or slab end, which draws in air, and sends it up the pipe.  In larger homes, or in circumstances of very high concentrations, two pipes and fans are installed, one at each end of the home.  After the system is installed, another test is performed, and in the vast majority of cases, this simple method of helping the air to move is sufficient to bring radon levels within acceptable levels.  Of course, if the seller is unable to bring the radon concentration to acceptable levels, the buyer will have the right to cancel, and receive a full refund of all deposit monies.

Now, a couple of notes.

  • Many builders of new homes install “passive radon systems” during construction, consisting of a pipe, but no fan.  While the structure is being built, it is extremely easy to run an extra pipe from the basement through the roof, and frankly, it’s a good selling point- so if you are buying new construction, be sure to ask about this.  While the pipe does not do much on its own, should the need arise later, it is very inexpensive and very easy to simply attach a fan to the lower end.  In fact, installing a fan will usually cost less than $750.00.  To install the pipe and the fan, contractors will charge between $1,500.00 and $2,500.00.
  • Radon is affected by weather.  Remember that radon rises through the ground and into cracks or holes in your foundation.  When there is a lot of rain, or as the ground freezes during winter, added pressure can force more radon into your home.  Therefore, when these conditions exist, it is even more important to air out the lowest level of the home before a radon test is conducted.
  • If you are a seller, New Jersey law requires you to disclose to a buyer the results of any previous radon tests performed upon your premises.
  • If you are completely freaked out by the thought of high radon concentrations, discuss this with your attorney during review.  As stated, most contracts give the seller the right to remediate before the buyer can cancel, but it is not completely unheard of to suggest a clause in the contract giving the buyer the right to cancel due to high radon concentrations without providing the seller any right to remediate.  But again- keep in mind that 1 in 15 homes have high radon concentrations- it’s much more common than you think, and it’s very easily dealt with.

Next Blog: Deposits – “The buyer breached the contract!  What do you mean I can’t keep his deposit!?”

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