Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Buyers Concerned About Asbestos Floor Tiles

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just purchased a 1920’s colonial style home that we are renovating. During the basement work, we removed the carpet and discovered tiles that we fear may contain asbestos. A few were cracked, and most were covered with a rough layer of mastic that secured the carpet. If we cover these tiles with new carpet, would that be a health hazard? If not, is there a way to test the air for asbestos particles?  Catherine

Dear Catherine: Vinyl floor tiles may or may not contain asbestos. The only way to confirm asbestos content is to have a small sample tested by an environmental laboratory. The cost of this test is nominal, usually less than $20. If you send a tile sample, be sure to include some of the adhesive mastic that secured the tiles, as well as some of the mastic that secured the carpet. Adhesive mastics often contain asbestos fibers.

On the optimistic side, asbestos tiles and mastic are not regarded as significant health hazards because they are not friable. This means that they do not crumble easily and, therefore, are unlikely to release asbestos fibers into the air. Covering asbestos floor tiles with carpet does not pose a significant health hazard. However, when you eventually sell the home, be sure to disclose that the tiles under the carpet may contain asbestos.

If you want to test the air for asbestos fibers, check for asbestos inspectors in your phone book. Not all asbestos inspectors perform air tests of this kind, so be sure to ask when you call these inspectors.

Should Home Inspectors Disclose Asbestos?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home inspector I hired never mentioned that the floor tiles and air duct insulation contain asbestos. Shouldn’t he have pointed this out?  Robert

Dear Robert: Asbestos is generally regarded as “outside the scope” of a home inspection and is typically not mentioned by most home inspectors. For homebuyers, this leaves a gap in the disclosure process. For home inspectors, the issue is one of legal liability. If any material is disclosed as a potential source of asbestos, the inspector may be held liable for other possible asbestos materials that were not mentioned in the inspection report. For this reason, the home inspection industry has excluded asbestos as a consideration during home inspections.

If asbestos disclosure was included in home inspections, complications could ensue because there are so many common building materials that might contain asbestos. Examples include sheet vinyl flooring, asphalt and vinyl floor tiles, adhesive mastics, acoustic ceiling texture, old heat duct insulation, asphalt composition roofing materials, plaster, stucco, drywall, joint compound, and more. In most cases, these do not contain asbestos, although with some materials, such as acoustic ceilings, asbestos content is common. Those materials that contain asbestos are usually not hazardous if they are undamaged and allowed to remain as-is.

It could be argued, however, that home inspectors should point out potential asbestos in some cases. For example, many homebuyers plan to remodel and renovate the homes they buy. Interior renovations often involve, for example, the removal of acoustic ceiling texture or of sheet vinyl flooring. Unless alerted by their home inspector, the new homeowners could remove the material without consideration of the potential for asbestos exposure. Ceiling texture that is scraped off or vinyl flooring that is torn off could release asbestos fibers into the air of the home if proper removal procedures were not used.

Another example would be old insulation on warm air ducts installed prior to 1973. Duct insulation that appears as gray cardboard, sometimes with a foil veneer, it is certain to contain asbestos. If the material is undamaged, it can be left as-is. But it is common for such material to be torn in places or to be detached from the air ducts. Home inspectors in those instances would do well to recommend further evaluation and repair by a licensed asbestos contractor.

The pros and cons of asbestos disclosure have been debated among home inspectors for many years. On one hand, there is the need to provide vital information to home-buying customers. That argument weighs in favor of measured and limited asbestos disclosure. On the other hand is the fear of liability and lawsuits if asbestos disclosure is not comprehensive and thorough. That consideration favors a total avoidance of asbestos disclosures of any kind. The controversy is an outgrowth of the freewheeling practice of litigation, an ongoing threat to businesses and professions throughout the nation. The proliferation of cases, whether frivolous or justified, has taken its toll on home inspectors everywhere. In the end, each home inspector must decide whether to confront or avoid the practice of asbestos disclosure.

Buying the home I’ve been renting

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My landlord has offered to sell me the house I’ve been renting. But the central heating system has broken down, and I’ve just learned that the air ducts are covered with asbestos. My landlord knows about this but refuses to lower the price of the home. What do you think I should do? Michele

Dear Michele: Unless the laws in your area require a seller to make such repairs, what you have is a negotiable issue. If the landlord remains firm in his position, you should decide if the property — plus the cost of furnace repair and asbestos removal — is acceptable to you. To help with this decision, get some bids from local contractors who service heating equipment and who handle asbestos removal. Be aware, however, that asbestos duct insulation is not necessarily hazardous or problematic. If the material is intact, it can be encapsulated by overlaying it with fiberglass insulation. The cost of encapsulation is far less than for removing asbestos.

If you decide to purchase the home, be sure to hire a qualified home inspector to conduct a thorough evaluation of the property. In all likelihood, there are other issues that should be addressed and that might be negotiated with the seller. If the heating ducts have asbestos, this is probably a very old home and is likely to have other significant issues.

Asbestos Insulation Not Disclosed to Buyers

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We bought our house about 8 months ago and just learned that we have asbestos insulation on the air ducts in our attic. The sellers must have known about it because they purchased a new forced air furnace last year, so their heating contractor must have told them about the asbestos. We hired a home inspector before buying the house, but he also said nothing about asbestos, even though he inspected the heating system and the attic. We know that asbestos removal is very expensive. Besides that, we have two young children and are concerned about the effect this could have on their health. What should we do? Are the sellers and home inspector liable for nondisclosure? Scott and Jody

Dear Scott and Jody: You raise a number of issues, so let’s take them in order:

  1. The sellers may or may not have known about the asbestos duct insulation, depending on whether someone told them about it. It is natural to assume that the contractor who installed the new furnace let them know about the asbestos insulation, but it is possible, as well, that the contractor was negligent and never mentioned it. You should find out who installed the system and ask that person if the sellers were told about asbestos insulation.
  2. If the sellers knew about the asbestos but said nothing, they may have violated the real estate disclosure requirements, depending on the state where you live. If so they could be liable for removal.
  3. Asbestos disclosure is not within the general scope of a home inspection. Therefore, many home inspectors say nothing about it in their reports. However, it is common knowledge among home inspectors that old cardboard duct insulation contains asbestos; so why not share this information with buyers as a common courtesy, as well as to limit inspector liability. One reason for nondisclosure is that some inspectors fear that mentioning one kind of asbestos makes them liable for other types of asbestos not mentioned in their reports. To balance this dilemma, a home inspector can simply state that the duct insulation “may” contain asbestos and that further evaluation by a qualified specialist is recommended.
  4. Asbestos duct insulation is not a friable material (does not crumble on contact) and is therefore not regarded by the EPA as a significant health hazard. It should only be handled by duly licensed professionals when alteration, repair, or removal is necessary, but this material does not pose a health risk to occupants of the home if it is simply left as-is. It does not release particles into the air unless roughly disturbed, and it is installed on the outer surfaces of the air ducts, not in contact with the air stream itself. Therefore, concerns about health risks to children are largely unwarranted.

Although the sellers may be guilty of nondisclosure, and although the home inspector may have been negligent for having said nothing about the asbestos insulation, you should not be unduly alarmed about this material. If it is damaged, removal or repair is advised. Otherwise, it is not a cause for major concern.

Should Inspector Have Disclosed Asbestos Floor

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I purchased a home several months ago and had it inspected. But the home inspector (in my opinion) missed an important defect. One room has old-looking vinyl flooring which (I recently discovered) has asbestos in the backing. I realize that the asbestos is safety contained as long as the flooring is not disturbed, but homeowners tear up flooring all the time. Based on the age, I feel the inspector should have warned me that the flooring was likely to contain asbestos. Had I known, I would have negotiated with the seller to help cover the cost of having the flooring safely removed. Do you believe the inspector bears any liability? William

Dear William: It is not common practice for home inspectors to list all of the building materials likely to contain asbestos. If they did, the list would include asphalt composition roofing materials, roof mastic, drywall joint compound, old air duct insulation, transite flue pipes, acoustic ceiling texture, adhesive mastics for flooring and other applications, interior plaster, some exterior stucco, asphalt floor tiles, vinyl floor tiles, and of course, sheet vinyl flooring. But because environmental hazards are not within the scope of a general visual home inspection, this kind of disclosure is typically not included in a home inspection report, except where asbestos materials are exposed and friable, such as acoustic sprayed ceilings.

If your inspector had disclosed the possibility of asbestos in the vinyl floor backing, this would not have obligated the seller to pay for removal of the material. Homes are generally sold on an as-is basis. Conditions commonly subject to negotiation would include safety hazards, serious physical damage, active leakage, inoperable fixtures, or significant construction defects. The fact that you wanted to replace the flooring after acquiring the property did not obligate the seller to share in the costs of those upgrades. Most sellers would not agree to pay for asbestos removal in that type of situation. For these reasons, the home inspector is not liable for nondisclosure.

Dear Barry: A heating contractor who inspected our furnace said he found a crack in the firebox. He said that he caulked the crack so we could use the furnace temporarily. We had another contractor take a look, but he said there were no signs of any caulking. The cost to replace the furnace is about $2000. Where can we look to see if caulking has been done? Marion

Dear Marion: Whether or not the caulking was done is irrelevant. No sensible heating contractor would caulk a cracked firebox in a furnace. A cracked heat exchanger is extremely dangerous. Those cracks could allow deadly carbon monoxide to enter your home. The standard recommendation in such cases is to abandon use of the system and to replace the heat exchanger or the furnace without delay. The cost in dollars may be high, but compared to the potential risk, it is incidental. Your best course of action is to find a heating contractor who can definitively evaluate your furnace.