October, 2007
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Environmental Issues: Why They are Important and What Homebuyers Should Know


For just a moment, put yourself in your client’s shoes…

You just bought your dream home. You scraped and saved and worked the numbers to be sure that this, the biggest investment of your life, worked financially. You will raise your children here; friends and family will come to visit and share special occasions; maybe you’ll plant a garden, put in a pool, the neighborhood kids will be in and out ... it’s perfect! 

In most cases, it is perfect and the start of many years of happy memories. In rare cases, however, the dream can turn into a nightmare.


The United States is rooted in an industrial past with many amazing accomplishments that established this country as the leader it is today. Unfortunately, it also created an incredible amount of toxic waste. Only more recently, in the last 25 years or so, are we beginning to see the impact.

Correlations have been drawn between carcinogenic toxins that are known to be present in certain areas and “cancer clusters,” or groups of people in the area who have been diagnosed with similar strains of cancer or other health problems. Every day, across the country, news articles highlight situations describing families who have invested their life savings in their home only to learn, after the fact, that there is contamination on their property. They may be responsible for the cleanup of that contamination, which can cost thousands of dollars, irrespective of whether or not they created it. Or, if not addressed properly, it could affect the air or drinking water in the home, creating a threat to the health of the occupants — if it hasn’t already had an impact during the time it was unknown. So much for the dream.

Finding information

It is possible for homebuyers to protect themselves, to protect their investment and to ensure that their dream home is a sound decision on all fronts. Today, the U.S. government, as well as state, local and tribal governments, invests significantly in maintaining and tracking databases loaded with information about the location of various sites that could pose a threat. Most of the information is available to the public, for free.

But, here’s the problem — most people don’t know that it’s available or where to look for it. If they do search for it on their own, more than likely, they’ll do a top-level search at the federal level, which could leave out some important state or local sites that may affect the property. Even if they find the information they need, the governments don’t really make it very easy for a layperson to determine what is most relevant, nor do they make it easy to understand. Further, it would take the average consumer at least a week to track down the information and comb through it. Who has the time?

There are companies out there now that take the guesswork out of this process for consumers by providing an environmental report that compiles information from various government sources into one comprehensive and more easily understandable report. Companies have different models for offering the reports, but typically, reports are available within 24 hours. Some provide explanations of the databases, distances from the property for any issues identified and resources for more information.

Concerns about environmental contaminants in homes and the ability to order a residential report have found their way into national media in recent months with stories appearing on MSNBC, and in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine and even Vogue. Environmental Data Resources, Inc. (EDR), an ASHI Gold Affiliate Member, offers its Neighborhood Environmental Report™ through home inspectors nationwide. Home inspectors are certified through a five-hour online training course (approved for five ASHI CEs) so that they are well-versed in explaining the databases that appear in the report, as well as in how to direct a consumer to more information, if it’s

What if an issue is identified?

The good news is that most reports don’t show any issues within 300 feet of a property, thereby providing peace of mind to a buyer that his or her new home is free from this type of problem. Even if an issue is present, it doesn’t necessarily mean the potential buyer is going to abandon the purchase — just as they don’t abandon the purchase when they learn the furnace needs to be replaced or the roof has a leak.

Environmental information becomes a tool in the same vein as the findings in a home inspection report. It enables the buyer to negotiate further with the seller or simply to know ahead of time about an issue that may need attention. Or, in rare cases, as with a home inspection, when major issues are revealed, it enables them to walk away without harm. Bottom line — the buyer makes an informed decision.

What’s more, most of the time when issues are present there are fairly easy solutions. Across the United States, homes have radon filtration systems. The resolution to a potential environmental issue could be as easy as installing air or water filtration systems similar to those used for radon, which are commonplace in this country. Or, it could involve regular water tests for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are widely used as cleaning and liquifying agents in fuels, paints, degreasers, solvents, polishes, cosmetics and cleaning solutions, or other contaminants that a report can point to as potential problems.

The problem occurs when an environmental risk is present and undetected. Then it becomes a threat because a family could be unknowingly drinking contaminated water or breathing contaminated air in their home, which could be prevented with a simple environmental screening report of the property that could alert them to needing a basic installation to correct the issue.

The home inspector’s role

Providing an environmental report is a logical extension of the services a home inspector provides. Already inspecting the structure, why not also offer a report that evaluates the property’s proximity to issues like leaking underground storage tanks, landfills, state hazardous waste sites, “meth” labs and more that can create potential problems for the client down the road if left undetected? 

Home inspectors are considered the qualified expert on issues that relate to a home. Providing environmental information is one more way inspectors can provide clients with information that helps them make the smartest decision possible.

An ASHI Gold Affiliate Member, Environmental Data Resources, Inc. (EDR) is a leading national provider of environmental risk information services in the United States. The company provides reports, subscription services and other solutions to help its customers assess and manage environmental risk. Reports are reasonably priced, averaging $100-$150. Established in 1991, EDR is headquartered in Milford, Connecticut, with regional offices located throughout the United States.

ASHI members are eligible for a $50 discount off the regular online training fee for environmental reporting and the EDR training course is approved for five ASHI CEs. For more information, contact EDR at 800-624-0470 or resinfo@edrnet.com.


Beyond the Scope

According to the ASHI Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics, environmental issues are beyond the scope and purpose of a standard home inspection.

“The purpose of these Standards of Practice is to establish a minimum and uniform standard for home inspectors who subscribe to these Standards of Practice. Home Inspections performed to these Standards of Practice are intended to provide the client with objective information regarding the condition of the systems and components of the home as inspected at the time of the home inspection. Redundancy in the description of the requirements, limitations, and exclusions regarding the scope of the home inspection is provided for emphasis only.”

The topic is addressed even more specifically under 13. 2, General exclusions:

“A. Inspectors are not required to determine:
12. the presence of any environmental hazards including, but not limited to toxins, carcinogens, noise, and contaminants in soil, water, and air.”

When the ASHI Reporter publishes information about services that are beyond what is described as the “minimum” for a home inspection, it does so with the understanding that home inspectors, as independent businesspersons, are curious about what is available in the marketplace. Publishing information about a service does not suggest that it should be included in a home inspection, neither is it an endorsement of any specific service provider.

– Sandy Bourseau, editor