Independent home inspectors will go over a house from stem to stern, looking for problems from the roof to the basement. But if the inspector doesn't also check for meth, an unsuspecting buyer could be in for a world of hurt.
Meth is short for methamphetamine, a highly dangerous, illegal and addictive synthetic drug that can affect the brain and central nervous system. The drug can be made from easily obtainable household goods, and, as this column pointed out last week, if it has been manufactured in the house you are considering -- or even just smoked there -- the entire place could be contaminated.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to spot a so-called "meth house":
-- Check with law enforcement. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (dea.gov) operates the National Clandestine Laboratory Register, a database of addresses that include properties where meth labs have been found.
Don't stop there, however: As the register points out, the federal list is far from complete. So check with your state and local law enforcement authorities and health departments, too. Many have similar databases that list houses within their borders where illegal drug activities have been found. West Virginia, for example, has a state registry listing the addresses of nearly 1,000 properties with clandestine drug pasts.
In Oklahoma, where lab seizures have increased every year, local law enforcement agencies can confirm that a chemical seizure took place and provide the name of the hazardous material contractor who did the cleanup. The contractor should have a list of what chemicals were present.
If the property isn't on any list, however, "that doesn't mean it doesn't have a problem," according to Joseph Mazzuca of Meth Lab Cleanup of Athol, Idaho. Based on his company's own internal statistics and those from law enforcement agencies he works with throughout the country, Mazzuca estimates that "millions of properties are potentially contaminated."
According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, the number of "lab incidents" peaked in 2000 at 24,000 nationwide, then declined sharply to about 7,000 by 2007. But as of 2010, the number was back up to more than 15,000. Even so, Mazzuca says thousands are not reported, especially in states like Georgia, where there are no regulations on the books.
-- Talk to the neighbors. The folks next door, or even down the block, are likely to know what kind of shenanigans have taken place in the house. About seven in 10 cases Meth Lab Cleanup handles come from tips from neighbors.
Even if they don't know exactly what was going on, neighbors can often tell you about any unusual comings and goings, loud noises late at night, or frequent fights among occupants or visitors -- all pretty good signs that something was amiss. Ask specifically if the police have often been called to the house.
-- Look for telltale signs. Chances are, the house has been cleaned up for resale. According to Mazzuca, though, only 23 states regulate the decontamination of meth houses. And even in some of those that do, "nobody is enforcing the laws." In Arkansas, for example, local police are supposed to put stickers on the door and notify the state authorities, "but that doesn't always happen."
Even if the walls have been painted and the carpet changed, that's not enough to get rid of the contamination. And there are still red flags that should set your antennae to wiggling.
Odors are one warning sign. If the place smells of urine or unusual chemical aromas such as ether, ammonia or acetone, it could be contaminated. Ditto if your eyes or throat burn when you enter the place. Also beware if there is an overwhelming smell of air freshener.
Other indications of contamination include chemical stains on toilets and bathtubs, propane tanks with fittings that have turned blue, and trash with a large amount of household products such as paint thinner, lighter fluid, drain cleaners and cold tablet containers.
-- Beware troubled properties. Foreclosures tend to have a higher incidence of contamination from illicit drugs. Mazzuca says about 70 percent of the 1,500 sites his company handles every year are bank-owned homes.
If the house is being sold "as-is" -- as many foreclosures are -- look for signs of neglect. Users are more likely to put their money into drugs than upkeep, says Garth Haslem, aka "The Home Medic," a Utah-certified meth contamination specialist.
One red flag is heavy staining on the carpet, walls or ceilings. Another is doors and doorframes that have been abused and damaged. "Meth users can gain superhuman strength, and with that comes superhuman anger," according to Haslem. "The meth habit often shows physical clues on the bedroom doors, the front door or the door to the garage."
-- Testing. Haslem also warns that just because the house doesn't exhibit any of these signs doesn't mean it is free of problems. So if any of the above causes concern, or if you simply want to be certain there is no contamination, you can purchase an easy-to-use meth testing kit from your local hardware store for about $50. "When in doubt, do the test," he advises.
The tests provide lab-verified results. If meth is present, either walk away or hire a certified meth decontamination specialist to determine the level of contamination and what it would cost to rectify. You can usually find such professionals under the term "environmental" in the phone book and online, or your state may maintain a list.