"I'm sick, my kids are sick and my dog died." -- typical homeowner's complaint
Evelyn Johnson felt something was off from the get-go. For starters, the Elkhart, Indiana, real estate agent tried to schedule an appointment three times before she and her clients were actually able to get inside the house listed for sale.
But that wasn't all. The place "had a big handmade sign in the yard listing five or six people's names, saying to stay off the property or they would be prosecuted," Johnson recalls. Turns out, they were the names of the ex-wife and children, who "had repeatedly broken in and taken things that did not belong to them."
Still, her buyers loved the place and wrote an offer that was above the asking price. But the seller refused to respond. So a few weeks later, Johnson and the listing agent went to the owners' divorce proceedings, where the judge ordered the sale as part of the couple's breakup.
There were other clues that something wasn't right. At the hearing, Johnson says, the husband was visibly shaking. "There was no part of him that was still. His head, his arms, his voice. Everything." Then there was a conversation with a neighbor, who reported that the wife and her kids were into drugs. "They were very bad children," Johnson was told. The neighbor said they were "always in trouble" and had been to "kid-prison."
Johnson recommended that her clients test the house for methamphetamine, or meth: an illegal, highly addictive synthetic stimulant that affects the brain and central nervous system. If it is present in a house, it can leach into practically everything. The contaminants found in meth can result in numerous health problems, including respiratory irritation, skin and eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness, according to authorities in Oklahoma. The state's Department of Environmental Quality says that "high exposures, even for a short time, can cause death or severe lung damage."
When the test on the Indiana house came back positive, the offer was withdrawn.
It's a good thing the deal failed to go through, too, because cleaning up a meth-tainted house can cost thousands. Even though the drug wasn't manufactured in the house, "just" smoked in both the boys' bedrooms, the next owners will face a monumental task.
Though the preponderance of houses where meth has been manufactured or smoked are in the Midwest, they can be found everywhere. Worse, some law enforcement agents believe they only find about one in 10 labs. And even though a house may have been continually cleaned, that doesn't get rid of the contamination, which will affect every corner of the property.
Under some circumstances, the house may have to be stripped to its bones. Walls will have to be removed down to the studs, flooring will have to come up, ceilings will have to come down, the HVAC system and its vents must be cleaned, and insulation and light fixtures must go. There's also a chance that at least part of the plumbing will have to be replaced, because waste products poured down the drain or into toilets can collect in the traps and give off fumes.
Despite the devastating impact of meth contamination, only about half the states require owners and their agents to disclose known meth exposure in homes for sale.
Law or not, though, agents have a duty to disclose this information, according to Lesley Walker, an associate counsel with the National Association of Realtors. "If (agents) are aware that a property has been used for a meth lab or that marijuana has been grown in the house," Walker says, "that would be considered a material fact and they would need to disclose."
Once disclosed, moreover, it would have to be disclosed every time the house is resold. So if you buy a meth house, clean it and live in it for a few years, then go to re-sell, the presence of meth would have to be revealed to your potential buyers -- even though it had been removed and you had no problems.
But not all agents play by the rules. Nick Ratliff of the Cypress Residential Group in Lexington, Kentucky, ran into that problem recently. He represented an investor who wanted to purchase a rental property where a previous tenant had been busted for selling meth. Even though his state has rules requiring disclosure, the listing agent felt no such duty because the unit had been cleaned and the seller had never lived in the property.
Sometimes, though, the seller is the one who refuses to disclose. In that case, it's up to realty professionals to step up. Prabhjit Singh with NAAAM Real Estate in Rockville, Maryland, did just that recently, by refusing to list a meth house because the seller balked at disclosing -- even though the cops had raided the place and the seller's teenage son was arrested.
"It was very clear to me that this was a material fact, as there would be health issues for whomever would own the home," the Maryland agent says.
Next week: How to find out if the house you are considering is contaminated with methamphetamine.