Dream House Or Toxic Nightmare?

Andrew Paul and his family will never forget Aug.2,1993. That's the day the Environmental Protection Agency told them the yard of their house in Stratford, Conn., contained asbestos-laced soil that would have to be cleaned up. Paul was relocating to Virginia and already had a buyer lined up. But the sale was canceled, and Paul carried the house for a year until EPA paid to dig up his yard. Worse, EPA's contractor ruined the Pauls' exquisite landscaping. "We're still pretty bitter," says Paul, who sold the house last fall for $35,000 less than it was valued a year earlier.

Paul is among a small but growing number of property owners who have lost money because hazardous materials have been found on or near their property. At least 60 of the 1,300 high-priority U.S. Superfund sites are in residential areas, estimates the EPA. Thousands of additional contamination sites known to state authorities and private owners also exist, some affecting homes.

Luckily, new tools have been developed that can alert you to the presence of toxic materials or polluting businesses in your area. Employing them is part of the environmental due diligence you should complete for any property you buy or inherit.

TAINTED GIFT. An extra level of vigilance is required for business properties. An environmental review by a qualified engineer is now de rigueur for all but the smallest ones. Government officials wield broad power to determine financial responsibility, and seemingly innocent people often get caught in the liability web. For example, Connecticut is trying to force Susan Starr to pay the cleanup bill for removing cyanide that had been dumped on 44 acres of undeveloped land in Enfield she says she inherited from her builder husband in 1987. Starr had no knowledge of the cyanide, says attorney Kathleen Eldergill, or she could have refused to take title to the property.

Purchases of single-family houses present a different challenge. They're much less likely to have pollution problems, so keeping your costs down while assessing risk is important. Always use a qualified home inspector, and hire experts to check for well-water contamination and problems with buried oil tanks. Water tests range from $20 for a do-it-yourself kit to $200 for a full laboratory analysis, and tank testing starts at about $300--in addition to the average $350 basic home inspection. You should also do some detective work on your own. Take a good look around for potentially troublesome neighbors, such as dry cleaners or gas stations. Both are known for dumping wastes. Factories and landfills can also be sources of trouble.

Help is available. Since the late 1980s, vendors have been selling information culled from government databases on the location and status of hazardous materials. Three national companies now sell data in packages ranging from summary to detailed information. Researchers scan for current information about pollution and hazardous waste nearest to the property you are considering, map its location, and provide some data on the prior use of the known toxic sites.

FINE PRINT. Products and prices vary. You can start with a $15 to $20 single-sheet summary and buy a map for an additional $30 or so. If any hazards turn up that are close enough to raise concern, you can buy a more detailed account. Starting at $65, you can get a slim report containing data on the nature of the hazardous material and pollution and the address and name of the business where it occurs. A thorough assessment generally puts the cost at $150 or higher.

The data services have a way to go before their reports can be considered easy reading. Ask for a sample printed study to familiarize yourself with the format and abbreviations such as LUST (Leaking Underground Storage Tank). Also watch for differences in map and address precision among reports. They are especially important if you are trying to decide if those PCBs that were spilled a few blocks away are going to migrate to your yard.

Your contact with one of the national vendors will be through a representative who may or may not be familiar with where you live. A smaller company that operates only in one state or region may have more intimate knowledge of your neighborhood. Call local real estate attorneys and engineers to find out if a data company exists in your area.

One day, environmental evaluations may become as routine as home inspections. But even now, the expense could be worth it just to know you're not about to buy a house on the next Love Canal.

Services That Map Environmental Hazards


Southport, Conn., 800 352-0050

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