Radon Protection: How Homebuyers can do Their Due Diligence
The process of buying a home requires a good amount of investigation, even in the best of situations. When there are concerns that may be hidden or invisible, that just makes it even more important for those looking to buy a home to perform their due diligence. One very important example of this is determining if a property has (or is prone to having) a radon problem.
Radon is a natural occurring radioactive gas that is a colorless, odorless and tasteless. It is practically undetectable without the use of specialized detection equipment. The presence of radon in a home is concerning because not only can it not be seen, smelled or tasted, the Surgeon General says that radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the United States today. In fact, about 2,900 of the 21,000 reported radon-related lung cancer deaths include people who have never smoked. In addition, the elderly, young children, smokers, and anyone with breathing/lung or other respiratory issues can be at higher risk of severe illness or death when overexposed to radon.
While radon can be found in homes and other buildings across the entire United States, there are certain “radon zones” around the country in which the chances of finding radon in significant levels is higher than average. This is critical information to understand when entering into a transaction to buy a home. In addition to the other inspections to ensure a home is indeed a safe place to live, buyers should perform a dedicated radon inspection in order to determine radon levels so that any previously uncovered issue can be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner.
A home purchase is one of the most significant transactions people go through in their lives. It should stand to reason that most people don't want to be exposed to a significant danger and/or cost right after closing. The way one approaches a deal can greatly reduce their financial and health risks.
This guide will discuss radon's natural presence in a home, acceptable radon levels, what protections are available, ways in which a radon issue may be resolved and how to reduce radon levels in a home. We'll also include some resources and available programs for those currently dealing with a radon issue. Radon can sound scary, and while it certainly should grab your attention, dealing with it may be easier than you think.
Table of Contents
- Radon's Presence in the Home
- Home Buyer Due Diligence
- Testing for Radon
- The Radon Contingency
- Scenario 1: High Levels of Radon, Seller Pays for Remediation
- Scenario 2: High Levels of Radon, Seller Credits and Buyer Pays for Remediation
- Scenario 3: High Levels of Radon, Contract Terminated
- Scenario 4: Safe Levels of Radon, Deal Continues as Normal
- Radon Mitigation
- Helpful Resources and Programs
Radon's Presence in the Home
Radon is generated through the natural process of Uranium decay in the ground. It is found in most soils and well water and can enter the home through cracks and gaps in the floors or walls of a home. Basements and crawl spaces are common high-risk areas in a home, but in reality, risks from radon and its presence will vary from property to property. Radon is even found in the air we breathe everyday but generally is not a problem because it dissipates so quickly in open areas. This makes remediation a relatively simple process.
Like other potentially dangerous contaminants found in our daily lives, there are exposure levels of radon that are considered acceptable and safe. According to the EPA, the level of radon requiring serious action is 4 pCi/L or higher. A pCi/L is a measurement that stands for “pico-Curies per liter” of air. And if that sounds confusing, it gets a little more involved: A “pico Curie” is one-trillionth of a Curie, and Curie is equivalent to 37 billion radioactive disintegrations per second. Therefore, one pico-Curie works out to be 2.2 radioactive disintegrations per minute in a liter of air.
An example of this would be a family whose home has radon levels of 4 pCi/L is considered to be exposed to about 35 times as much radiation as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would allow if that same family were standing next to the fence of a radioactive waste site. In other words, they’re exposed to more radiation everyday in their own home than what’s legally allowed if they were standing right outside a nuclear power plant.
While the average homebuyer may not need to know the minutiae of radon readings and test results, it can be helpful to know the dangers, language and processes of dealing with radon.
Home Buyer Due Diligence
The way buyers go about protecting themselves and their household when buying a home may depend on if they are building a new home or purchasing a pre-owned home. Most home builders are familiar with construction processes that can deter radon from entering a home and perhaps even installing a passive radon ventilation system as a preventative measure while the home is being built.
If buyers are interested in purchasing an existing home, they’ll want to be assured that 1.) radon is not a problem on the property and 2.) if radon levels exceed recommendations, there are processes in place to ensure the issue will be addressed to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
Buyers should inquire about any previous radon testing on the property and if possible, request the report results and dates. Even if this information is disclosed, it is often advised for a buyer to have their own inspection. In an area or "zone" prone to radon, arguably any contract for purchase should include radon testing and how any discovered issues will be mitigated. The good news is that even homes with high levels of radon can often be successfully mitigated relatively easily. This means that high radon levels should not necessarily be a “deal breaker” in a real estate transaction. However, it is still important to determine how the issue will be resolved and who is responsible for resolving it. Both buyer and seller typically seek to find a resolution that is most favorable to them, but high radon test results most often means that the seller is responsible for remediation.
Testing for Radon
As a potential homeowner, it's important to know the significance of radon in the home and the importance of radon testing. It’s recommended that routine radon testing be done twice a year for the best overall picture, as radon levels can fluctuate. However, buyers should never assume that this is being done to a property they are interested in purchasing. They should always ask for past radon reports and inspections as well as have their own tests performed.
There are two types of tests that can be run: a short-term test and a long-term test. Both consist of simply placing a device in the home and slightly changing living habits during the span of the test. Usually this consists of keeping all windows closed and only opening doors to leave or enter the home. Short term tests, provide a snapshot of the current radon levels and are usually used as first-step in determining if more in depth testing is needed. Short term testing can last from 2 days to 2 weeks. And long term testing can last anywhere from 3 months to a full year. The long term test gives a better overall picture of true radon levels in a normally lived-in home, but oftentimes a short term test, or multiple short term tests, is the best course of action due to the time restraints of trying to close the sale. A buyer’s agent can assist with finding a local professional to give advice specific to the unique situation and property.
The Radon Contingency
While buyers and sellers may agree in principle to the basic framework of a sale, many sales hinge on one or more “contingencies” that need to be addressed before closing. A contingency gives a buyer the ability to back out of a contract when certain conditions are met. In the case of radon, a contingency allows the buyer the option to negotiate repairs or fully void a contract based on the findings of certain tests and inspections.
Just like the more commonly-used inspection contingency (used to assess the general condition of the home), a radon contingency is generally included in an offer to protect the buyer from any unknown surprises regarding high levels of radon that they may encounter in the future.
If testing shows that the home has unacceptable levels, it will be between the buyer, their agent and/or real estate attorney to negotiate repairs or remediation with the seller. With this contingency, the buyer may simply void their contract and legally walk away from the agreement if the proper conditions are met (typically radon levels above a previously-specified amount).
Once the buyer and seller have negotiated the critical components of the sale, finding higher levels of radon in the home should not always be a deal-breaker as it’s a relatively easy problem to solve. Even severe issues can be resolved with systems that can be installed for less than $2,000 in some cases. With that said, it’s still crucial to determine how a resolution will be sorted out.
Below are a few scenarios that buyers should prepare to be faced with when the radon inspections are completed:
Scenario 1: High Levels of Radon, Seller Pays for Remediation
One of the most common scenarios after a high test result is that the seller will seek to resolve the issue themselves. This can be the most expedient and least expensive course of action for the seller. There are, after all, relatively-inexpensive solutions available to the seller that may not be chosen by who will ultimately inhabit the home. On the other hand, while a buyer may want to have the seller cover the expenses of remediation, they will likely want to maintain control of how the problem is resolved and by who. This extra diligence by the buyer can help to ensure that the quality and type of resolution that is put into place is a satisfactory and permanent solution.
Scenario 2: High Levels of Radon, Seller Credits and Buyer Pays for Remediation
Another scenario (after high radon levels have been discovered) is that all parties agree that the anticipated costs of resolving the radon issue will be given to the buyer in the form of a seller credit. Although “payment” for the repairs is in the form of a credit that lowers the final cost of purchasing the home, this assures that the seller ultimately pays the costs of resolving a high radon problem while allowing the new home owner to choose the time and method for resolution in a manner they find best.
Scenario 3: High Levels of Radon, Contract Terminated
It is possible that an impasse exists between the seller and buyer and the deal is not made. Because radon is a resolvable problem and is relatively inexpensive to fix, this is a somewhat rare scenario. This may be more likely in areas where the real estate market favors sellers. If a seller believes another buyer can pay full price for their home and deal with the radon issue on their own, they may choose to go this route. When it does occur, it arguably puts the seller at an additional disadvantage moving forward. Because the seller is now aware of the problem, they must legally disclose this information to any future interested buyers or fully remediate the issue themselves. This is why sellers often decide they are better off simply resolving the issue and moving forward with the original sale offer.
Scenario 4: Safe Levels of Radon, Deal Continues as Normal
In a scenario where radon levels are low enough to be determined to be safe, and where other aspects of the sale seem to be satisfactory, the buyer and seller may simply decide to move forward with completing the sale “as is”. In this scenario, the seller has no obligation to fix any issues related to radon or bear any further financial responsibilities for repairs. The buyer acknowledges the radon presence as minor and agrees that if it were to get worse in the future they are now responsible, as the new homeowner, for any remediation costs. Note that other contingencies can still be at play in a scenario with acceptable levels of radon. For example, the inspection contingency may come into effect if something like mold is found.
Many experts agree that, before investing in a proper radon mitigation system, a home should be tested a second time to confirm the high levels as dangerous. It is not unusual, after all, for radon levels to vary over the course of time and even from season to season. Once levels have been confirmed as dangerously high by a second opinion, there are several steps that can be taken.
Where the problem may be relatively minor, radon may be reduced by making small repairs that any seasoned DIYer can handle. These include actions such as sealing any cracks in the floors and walls to installing your own mitigation system. If the home has a basement, the main living space above can be better ventilated naturally or fans can be used to create more pressurized space. If this doesn't reduce radon to satisfactory levels, a professional will need to be contacted for more in-depth actions to be performed.
A radon mitigation system most often consists of a vent pipe and a fan. The vent pipe goes down through the foundation, and the fan draws up the radon and ventilates it outside the home. In some cases, a passive mitigation system can be installed without the use of a fan.
Home mitigation systems can vary on whether a home has a full or half-basement, crawlspace or concrete slab. They are usually always made more effective when any cracks are properly sealed. Regular radon testing should continue after mitigation has been completed.
Keep in mind that radon occurs naturally. It is generally not a problem in the open air because it dissipates so quickly. Because radon comes out of the soil it becomes trapped under the concrete foundation, it is an issue in some homes when it seeps through the flooring and gets trapped in an otherwise well-sealed home. By sealing the concrete this can reduce radon from entering a home and having a mitigation system can draw this dangerous gas right from the ground to the outside open air.
Fortunately for home buyers, radon mitigation is often relatively simple and inexpensive—even in severe cases.
Helpful Resources and Programs
If you are currently dealing with a radon issue, there are plenty of resources available, including programs to assist with the potential financial burden of testing and mitigation.
- Basic Radon Facts: A Radon Fact Sheet from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Radon Basics from the Kansas State University Nation Radon Program Services
- A National Association for Radon Professionals: The American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST)
- Information about radon, test kits and healthy air from the American Lung Association (ALA)
- A wide range of downloadable radon and radiation-related documents from the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD)
- Find professionally recognized National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) certified companies
- Learn more about the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB) and additional links to valuable resources.
- Radon and real estate guidance and potential financial assistance from the EPA
- Information about the Federal Radiation Action Plan (FRAP)
- About radon as presented by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Prospective homeowners should know that high levels of radon, although easily remedied, can cause serious health problems if ignored. It is, after all, a radioactive gaseous chemical that is odorless, tasteless, and virtually undetectable except by professionals and their specialized tools. Without question, it is an issue that buyers will want to address before the transfer of any property. That being said, it is a problem that can be resolved and shouldn’t be the end of any home buying contract. A home will not need to be demolished because of a high radon test result.
Buyers do not have to be an expert on radon gas, but they should be aware of its existence and the fact that they are in a good position to negotiate a resolution through a contingency. By making an offer contingent on a property's ability to pass a radon test, it keeps the buyer protected and in control of their situation. Remember, it’s often in the seller’s best interest to make the current deal work.
Should you have any questions about the process or your options, talk with a real estate professional or attorney. Radon is a serious issue but is not necessarily a serious roadblock to a real estate transaction.