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

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.

Homebuyer in Panic Over Asbestos Ceiling

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: According to my home inspector, the popcorn ceilings in the home I’m buying have about 3% asbestos. He said this is not a problem, but I’m very concerned. Now I realize that I’ve been exposed to asbestos in many of the homes in which I’ve lived. So I’m trying to absorb this news without letting it depress me. How do I reassure myself that these ceilings are ok? I have 2 young sons who are active! What if they throw balls and things against the ceilings? What if they stand on their bunk bed and scrape the ceiling? How can I live with the knowledge that all this asbestos is hanging over our heads? Kim

Dear Kim: Don’t be overly alarmed about asbestos ceilings. High anxiety over residential asbestos is very common, given the many scary articles that have been published over the past 30 years. Asbestos panic is inconsistent with the actual level of risk posed by asbestos-containing materials such as acoustic “popcorn” ceilings.

All of the studies that connect asbestos exposure with lung disease involve people who have worked with asbestos in a full-time professional capacity, either manufacturing or installing asbestos products. It has never been proven that low-level exposures in a home cause health problems. Fear and worry over asbestos- containing materials in a home are therefore unwarranted.

Levels of 1% to 3% of asbestos are often found in acoustic ceilings installed prior to 1980 and in some homes built through the mid-1980s. Fortunately, the asbestos fibers in popcorn ceilings are not released unless the material is disturbed. One way to decrease the likelihood of fiber release is to have the ceilings thoroughly spray-painted. Paint seals the particles that comprise the textured surface, fusing them into a unified crust that is much less likely to crumble when touched, scraped, or impacted by indoor ball playing or by romping on the upper bunk.

Additionally, there are many acoustic ceilings that do not contain asbestos, and home inspectors should not make quantitative statements about asbestos content unless a written report from an asbestos test lab is available. To specify that a ceiling may contain a particular amount of asbestos, without a report to substantiate that disclosure, is professionally inappropriate for a home inspector.

Before assuming that the ceilings in a particular home contain asbestos, send three random samples of the material to an EPA certified lab for testing. If the results are positive and you decide to remove the ceiling texture, contact a licensed asbestos abatement contractor for a bid.

In recent years, many homeowners have removed acoustic ceilings for purposes of cosmetic renovation, not because of concern over asbestos. But when confronted with the high cost of asbestos removal, some have opted to cover the ceilings with a second layer of drywall. However, those who take this approach should be aware that disclosure will be necessary when the home is eventually sold. Otherwise, an unsuspecting future owner could contaminate the interior of the home when demolishing a ceiling that contains concealed asbestos.

For further information regarding residential asbestos, check the website of the Consumer Products Safety Commission.