Thursday, November 22, 2012
Monday, November 19, 2012
Radon — the odorless, colorless gas found in Ohio soil — isn’t so invisible anymore.
The number of Ohio homes tested for the gas has skyrocketed the past few years after dropping during the recession.
Last year, 23,494 Ohio properties were tested for radon, compared with 1,464 in 2007, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
About half the tests detect radon levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe limit of 4.0 picocuries per liter.
The result: Radon mitigation “stacks” — plastic pipes typically attached to the side of a house to draw the gas away — are appearing throughout the state. During the past two years, almost 11,000 mitigation systems have been installed in Ohio.
Because most radon tests are done for potential buyers when a house is being sold, sellers typically bear the $1,000 cost to install the systems before the deal can go through.
“For the most part, it’s a free radon stack for the buyers,” said Dan Fenters, a Coldwell Banker King Thompson agent in Hilliard.
Radon testing and mitigation have become so common that Fenters and other agents try to brace sellers for the expense.
“When we’re meeting with sellers now during the listing appointment, we’re discussing it with them upfront,” Fenters said. “You can almost guarantee you will put in a radon system.”
To help spread the word, the Ohio Department of Health has started offering radon classes to real-estate agents.
While homeowners and real-estate agents might be frustrated by the cost and appearance of the stacks, health officials are delighted by the increase in testing, which they say could save hundreds or even thousands of lives.
Radon, which derives from the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil, can seep into homes through cracks in the basement.
According to the U.S. surgeon general, the gas is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, behind smoking. The EPA estimates that radon is responsible for 21,000 of the nation’s 160,000 annual lung cancer deaths.
A radon belt stretching from New York to the upper Plains runs through central Ohio, which has some of the state’s highest radon levels.
“In the state of Ohio, more people die of lung cancer than any other cancer,” said Donna Jurden, the Ohio Department of Health’s radon outreach and education coordinator. “We want to focus on what radon is and how it gets in, and ultimately we want to prevent people from dying of lung cancer. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Education, not a rise in radon levels, is driving the huge jump in radon testing, Jurden said.
“There are more people requesting the test in real-estate transactions,” she said. “That’s why it appears to Realtors that levels are increasing. Based on the physics of radon, it can’t increase.”
The percentage of homes testing positive for radon varies from year to year, but for the past 15 years it has stayed between 35 and 58 percent, with no clear trend up or down, according to the Ohio Department of Health, which collects data from testing companies across the state.
Jurden acknowledges, though, that the department has received complaints alleging that testers rig the results to show elevated radon levels, allowing them to then get a contract to install a mitigation system.
She says the department has found no basis for the complaints, but to avoid a conflict of interest, the department strongly recommends that radon tests be performed by a company that does not also install the mitigation systems.
Ken Harrington, owner of Kustom Home Inspection in Delaware, a licensed radon tester, said rigging the test is impossible.“You cannot go in and manipulate those results,” he said. “It is what it is.”
But Harrington and others familiar with radon testing acknowledge that the tests can appear finicky because results can change from room to room and even from hour to hour.
That is why regulators and testers recommend a long-term test of at least 60 days, although they know the two- or three-day test kit is more likely to be used during a real-estate transaction.
“When you do a short-term radon test, you’re taking a snapshot,” said Dan West, owner of Radon Systems in Westerville, one of the state’s oldest radon testers. “Is that indicative of what it will be in a month? No, it has nothing to do with it. It only says what it is during that time frame.”
According to the EPA and a Consumer Reports study in April, the long-term kits are more accurate because radon levels can vary widely from day to day.
After testing 11 kits, the magazine found only two reliable enough to recommend: the AccuStar Alpha Track Test Kit ($28), which requires three to 12 months of testing; and the RTCA 4 Pass Charcoal Canister ($22), which requires two to seven days.
The most common remedy for elevated radon levels is to drill a hole in the basement floor, install a pipe into the ground and run the pipe out of the home along the outside wall. The system is designed to give radon a place to go instead of into the house.
In many cases, a fan is added to the pipe to help draw radon out of the ground.
Such systems typically cost from $800 to $1,200. The cost can escalate dramatically if the homeowner wants to hide the pipe in the home’s walls.
Buyers of new homes in three central Ohio communities don’t need to worry about installing radon mitigation systems. Canal Winchester, Dublin and Pickerington require contractors to install the systems in new homes.
To meet the requirement in new homes, contractors must add a thicker plastic membrane under the basement slab; run a pipe from below the slab through the roof; caulk the seam between the basement floor and basement wall; and install an electrical outlet near the pipe to accommodate a fan if needed. In new homes, the pipes are hidden in the walls.
Jurden, with the state’s health department, would like all new homes to be built with radon mitigation. She would also like to see homes tested more routinely, not simply when a home sells.
“We don’t want that to stop. It’s an excellent time to test. But we want homes tested prior to that, too.”
Fall home sales show no signs of slowing down
Central Ohio homes sales in October were up for the tenth consecutive month. There were 1,964 residential sales during the month of October, a 23.2 percent increase from the 1,594 home sales in October 2011, according to the Columbus Board of REALTORS®.
Homes closed during the month of October sold for an average of $163,925, 10.1 percent higher than just one year ago.
“Even though the inventory isn’t as high as mid-summer, you have more serious buyers and sellers,” said Jim Coridan, President of the Columbus Board of REALTORS®. “Many buyers who had planned to buy before the fall are still out there looking for their dream home.”
The number of new listings on the market is up 12 percent (2,764) from last year and actually increased by 1 percent from the previous month. Total inventory of homes (10,717) stands at 31.5 percent less than 2011.
“2012 has been the best year in real estate in central Ohio since 2007,” said Coridan. “Just because their home didn’t sell in the summer doesn’t mean buyers aren’t still out there; homeowners have recognized the advantages of selling in the fall.”
According to the latest Housing Market Confidence Index (by the Ohio Association of REALTORS®), 84 percent of central Ohio REALTORS® describe the current housing market as moderate to strong and 68 percent expect home prices to remain the same or rise in the next year. They also report that the typical client today is looking for a mid-range home purchase.