What to Look for When House Hunting



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Moving can be a pain, but finding a house that’s safe and healthy to call home can be even trickier. There’s more to finding the best house than the number of bedrooms and kitchen size. Just like toxins in personal care products, toxins can hide in homes. Here are the questions to ask before buying or building a new home to make sure it’s a safe option for your family!

How to Find the Best House

Let’s be clear about something first… there is no such thing as a perfect house. There are so many factors to consider when moving. There’s the neighborhood, school district (if you don’t homeschool), square footage, etc. We’ll never find the perfect house, but we can focus on what matters most for us.

Personally, having a home that’s free of as many health hazards as possible is important to me. This includes toxins like mold, lead, formaldehyde, and (most) EMF exposure. Read on to see what to watch out for, why to avoid it, and workarounds to fix it if needed.

EMF Waves

This is a big one to unpack since there are so many sources of radiation exposure in our modern world. You may be surprised to hear I don’t try to avoid this one altogether. That said, EMF exposure may cause issues like insomnia, anxiety, and childhood leukemia. Some of the biggest sources of harmful EMF waves include:

  • high voltage power lines
  • street power lines
  • WiFi devices in the home
  • cell phone towers, especially 5G

Big power lines emit radiation that can reach about 656-984 feet away, or a little less than a quarter-mile. Street power lines have a radiation range of about 82 feet. While street power lines often pose less risk, houses close to transformers are at a higher risk.

You can use a meter like this one or this meter to test the EMF waves in different rooms of the house. The best way is to turn off all the electronics and lights when testing. Some EMF waves can come from appliances and lightbulbs which can interfere with the meter reading.

Practical Solutions to Avoid EMFs

With the ever-increasing spread of technology it’s more difficult to avoid outside EMF waves. And unless we live completely off-grid, we’re going to be somewhat close to power lines. However, here are some practical tips for avoiding EMFs when it comes to home buying. Avoid a home that’s:

  • within ¼ mile of high voltage power lines
  • close to a cell phone tower or a 5G antenna
  • close to street power lines, especially poles with transformers.

If that’s not entirely possible, there are still ways to avoid EMF exposure in the home. You can even find non-toxic, EMF-blocking paint for indoor walls. These are on the pricy side but can be a good option for those who need them. Painting the bedroom area (where we spend a third of our time!) at least is a good start.

Mold and Mycotoxins in the Home

That musty basement smell is more than unpleasant. Mold, and the mycotoxins they release, can be detrimental to human health. Even if there’s no clear mold, water damage in buildings can hide in the walls, floors, or ceiling. Formerly water-damaged homes that weren’t properly remediated can also cause issues.

Both new and older homes may have past or current water damage, though the older the home the higher the risk. Here are a few things to watch out for when looking for a mold-free home.

  • Test for mold and moisture. It’s not as simple as buying a test from the local hardware store. Not every test will detect every kind of mold.
  • Be sure the foundation is solid without cracks, leaks, or moisture seeping in from the outside.
  • Avoid homes that are in a valley or downhill. When it rains the water will travel downhill to the foundation.
  • Check the basement and/or crawlspace for signs of water damage and moisture.
  • Check for roof leaks and damaged gutters. These cause rainwater to collect at the foundation instead of taking it away from the house.

There’s so much misinformation about mold’s health effects. Many home inspectors aren’t informed how to properly test for it. And many remediation companies don’t take the best precautions when removing it. Here are some solid mold remediation guidelines and mold testing guidelines if you’re ever in that situation.

Bad Neighbors

Mold in the home is bad enough, but we also need to pay attention to who (and what) surrounds the property. Is the home close to a large factory or windmill farm? Are there smelly CAFOs or a landfill nearby? Is it by a polluted body of water or an old toxic waste dump?

Chemical runoff from conventional farm fields and golf courses is another serious issue. These seep into groundwater and travel into the surrounding soil. In certain areas, there are a lot of farm chemical sprays floating around in the air three seasons out of the year. One way to find out is to enter the property address into an online map, zoom out, and see what’s there.

There are a plethora of toxins out there and we can’t avoid them all. If your dream house is a little too close for comfort to land with a lot of chemicals, there are solutions.

  • Try to pick a property that’s not downhill from an area that uses a lot of pesticides.
  • Encourage next door neighbors to embrace the dandelions and not spray plants. It’s good for bees and butterflies too!
  • If you’re concerned about the soil in the yard, use vertical garden beds and/or containers instead of planting directly in the soil.

Now that we’ve covered the neighbors, let’s look a little closer inside the house. Lead, asbestos, and formaldehyde are some of the most common household toxins. We can find these toxins in paint, flooring, wallpaper, furniture, and cabinets to name a few.

Asbestos

While asbestos is no longer used in home construction, it is still present in some older houses. This is something a good home inspector should be able to find. Common sources of household asbestos include:

  • pipe and furnace insulation
  • insulation in the walls
  • drywall
  • paint
  • siding
  • flooring
  • popcorn ceilings installed from the 1950s to the 1970s
  • vermiculite attic insulation

It’s important to remediate asbestos before moving in. Many sellers will fix the problem before putting the home on the market. At the very least it must be legally disclosed to the buyer.

Lead

We all know lead is bad, but what does it really do in the body? The CDC outlines the dangers of lead exposure. This heavy metal can:

  • damage the brain and nervous system
  • memory loss
  • slow growth and development
  • contribute to learning and behavior disorders
  • affect hearing
  • cause speech problems

The good news is even mainstream sources are on board with reducing lead exposure.

According to the CDC, lead is most often found in homes built before 1978. Here are sources of lead to look out for:

  • Old metal water pipes
  • Stained glass work
  • Old paint, especially if its chipping and peeling
  • Homes near airports: the aviation gas contaminates the air and soil with lead
  • Drinking water
  • Outside soil (this is important if you garden)

Lead isn’t just in older homes though. Newer building materials, like flooring and repurposed building materials can contain lead. Here’s how to avoid lead in a home:

  • Remediate and repaint anything that has old paint on it
  • Check pipes for sources of lead and other toxin exposures
  • Test the water and use a water filter
  • Check lead levels in any soil before gardening in it. Container gardens are a good option for those with poor soil.
  • Avoid using repurposed building materials, like pallets or old barn wood.
  • Choose lead-free flooring options

Formaldehyde

Many building materials and furnishings have hidden formaldehyde. This chemical can trigger breathing problems for asthmatics and those sensitive to it. Even at 1 part per billion (ppb) people can react to formaldehyde, especially those with depressed immune systems.

LEED safe building standards cap formaldehyde exposure levels at 17 ppb (parts per billion). Yet, the average living room carpet emits 400-600 ppb. This doesn’t even include the chemicals released by the glue holding the carpet down.

Some products may not technically have formaldehyde in them but are formaldehyde releasers. Some brands market wood glue, floor adhesives, and other construction materials as non-toxic. Yet as they dry they release thousands of ppb into the air.

The Green Design Center is my go-to for options that avoid or remediate formaldehyde and off gassing.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Many “green” building materials are low VOC or VOC free. While this may sound like a safer option that isn’t always the case. Simply peeling an orange releases VOCs into the air from the essential oils in the peel.

Eco-friendly products may be safe for the environment, but not necessarily for humans. According to green building expert Andrew Pace, VOCs are:

A carbon based molecule that’s readily vaporized at room temperature that could evaporate off the surface, travel to the upper atmosphere, react with nitrogen and UV to create smog. That’s the exact EPA definition of it. Nowhere in that definition that does say anything about human health.

Look for something free of toxins known to harm humans, instead of simply VOC free.

Here are some more toxins to watch out for in building materials:

  • Phthalates are suspected endocrine disruptors and reproductive toxins are in many different materials. You’ll find them in carpet backing, wall coverings, and furniture fabric. Learn more in this post.
  • Chemical flame retardants (PBDEs)  are largely found in insulation and cushions, even most mattresses. The biggest source of exposure includes contaminated house dust. Animal studies have linked PBDEs with liver, thyroid, developmental, reproductive, and neural toxicity.
  • Repurposed Old Building Materials. Old barn wood and pallet wood may look enticing, but it isn’t always the best option. Some chemicals may have off-gassed by the time you get to them. It’s impossible to know though what toxins they’ve been exposed to over time. Mold, asbestos, and lead contaminate a lot of old building materials.

Healthy Flooring Options

Young children, especially babies, are at a higher risk from toxins in flooring. Babies are closer to the floor, crawling on it, putting things in their mouths, and have more sensitive respiratory systems. All of this can create a big issue when it comes to toxins in the home.

  • Tile is generally a safe option, but the glaze on it can contain lead. An easy fix is to get a lead swab test and test the tile before investing in a whole floor’s worth. Cork flooring, natural linoleum, hardwood, and bamboo are other safe hard flooring options.
  • Formaldehyde-free flooring may not contain certain types of formaldehyde, but can contain others. Plywood underneath the floor can contain formaldehyde that off-gasses for dozens of years. If you can’t remove toxic plywood flooring, a non-toxic sealant helps with off-gassing.
  • Safer carpet options include wool, although this doesn’t work for people with wool allergies. You can also find non-toxic synthetic fiber carpeting. Although I prefer hardwoods, I use this natural carpet cleaner on the carpets we’ve had.

There’s a lot to consider when buying the best home for your family, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming! These healthy home buying tips can help you navigate the process.

What’s most important to you when buying or building a new home? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Sources:

  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2016, Nov 23). Asbestos Exposure and Reducing Exposure. CDC.
  2. Building Green. (2021). LEED
  3. CDC. (2020, April 7). Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention: Sources of Lead. CDC.
  4. CDC. (2020, January 7). Health Effects of Lead Exposure. CDC.
  5. Century 21. (2018, February 23). Can You Sell a Home with Asbestos? 
  6. Mold Help For You. (n.d.) Mold Testing



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