What is Radon and is it a Deal Breaker?

Still in the midst of newly-wedded bliss, my friends Alyssa and John started pounding the pavement looking for a home they could build their new life together in. It wasn’t easy to find a house they could both agree on. Alyssa is fashion forward and design-oriented, whereas John tends to be more practical and focused on keeping their budget in check.

Finding a house they both loved was no easy feat. But eventually, the couple landed on a house in White Plains, New York. Offer accepted, they began their due diligence period.

Their inspector went over the house with a fine-toothed comb. In addition to the routine inspection, Alyssa and John opted to add on a radon test given rumors that radon was a problem in the area. They weren’t too worried about it; as the inspector pointed out, the sellers had already installed a high-tech radon mitigation system which was reading a level of 1.0 pCi/l (anything below 4.0 is considered safe). The radon test was just a precautionary measure to put the couple at ease, especially given that they were preparing to start a family.

A few days later, just as Alyssa and John were getting ready to sign the contract, the inspector called to tell them the radon sample he had taken came back with levels higher than the system reported. His test registered radon levels at 9.6 pCi/l.

The sellers, who had since moved out of the area, said the turned the system off just before they moved. Just to be on the safe side, the inspector tested the system and found that apparently it wasn’t just turned off, it was no longer working at all. After some initial resistance, the sellers agreed to fix the broken system but until the radon levels registered under a 4.0 pCi/l, the deal was on hold.

Eventually they got there—though it added quite some time to the homebuying process, which added to the couple’s stress. They were under the gun to move out of their apartment in just a few weeks, and with this delay they made it just by the skin of their teeth. But at least it all worked out. Now, Alyssa and John are on to the next stressful stage of homeownership: renovations!

If you’re in the market for a new house, here’s what you need to know about radon.

Radon is an invisible, radioactive gas created from natural deposits of uranium and radium in the soil.  Radon gas can seep into a home through the foundation and accumulate in concentrations that, through prolonged exposure, can increase a person’s risk of getting lung cancer.

Most hardware stores carry DIY radon tests for about $25, or like Alyssa and John, you can hire a professional home inspector to run the test for about $300. Testing methods vary but may include the use of a “passive” device such as an activated charcoal test kit that collects radon gas atoms and is later sent to a lab for the atoms to be counted. Using passive devices is less expensive but takes much longer to get results back. Instead, in real estate transactions where so often time is of the essence, home inspectors will use a continuous radon monitor (CRM), an “active” device that can read results in less than 48 hours.

If radon levels are higher than the 4.0 pCi/l level the EPA deems acceptable, it will require mitigation. A radon mitigation system can cost anywhere from $700 to $3500, depending on the complexity of the system. Most states have a list of approved “Radon Mitigation Contractors” who will be able to install a system in your basement for you. Sometimes homeowners will want to also want to install a CRM to monitor levels over time, as the radon level can fluctuate depending on the time of year, weather, temperature, etc. A CRM can range from $250 to $1000 – again, depending on its technical capacities.

Buying a home with radon shouldn’t be a deal breaker. The thought of breathing in radon and getting lung cancer is scary, but there’s plenty of data to suggest that radon mitigation is sufficient to protect everyone who lives in the house.

Not everyone tests for radon. When I bought my house, I didn’t. But if you know that you’re buying in an area that is predisposed to high radon levels (as your real estate agent), as was the case for Alyssa and John in White Plains, protect yourself by doing the test. Most sellers will cover the cost of the mitigation system, but even if they don’t , if you love the house then the cost of mitigation will be well worth it in the long run!

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