Like Children, Some Properties Go Through Phases – Part 2

Last week, I began sharing information about the process people must go through to determine whether a property has environmental contamination, and if it does, what to do about it.

Decades ago, people used materials that were toxic to people and the planet on a somewhat regular basis and even regulations are now in place to prevent this from happening, once in a while when a property changes hands, people discover a problem that was never addressed, a mess that was never cleaned up or a problem caused because someone broke the rules.

When a buyer decides to purchase property and learns there may be reason for concern, a Phase I environmental assessment is triggered—basically, a paperwork investigation. (Read the previous column to learn all about Phase I assessments.) If, during that assessment, the concern is substantiated, a Phase II assessment is initiated.

A Phase II assessment involves a nice man or woman (with specific training and a license to inspect hazardous waste) coming to the property to take samples of areas with suspected contamination. We may simply be talking about asbestos in the popcorn ceiling or floor tiles or maybe lead paint flaking off around old window frames. While these problems require attention, the remedies are relatively easy. The fancy term is “encapsulation” and it basically means eliminating the danger by trapping the toxic substances and making sure they don’t get into the air or come into contact with people.

The use of asbestos in textured ceiling paint was banned in 1977 because inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung disease, including cancer. The next year, the use of lead-based paint was banned because lead poisoning can cause brain damage, which is especially dangerous for children whose brains are still developing. So, as long as asbestos and lead paint remain intact and no dust particles, fibers or paint flakes are hanging around, everyone remains safe.

Sometimes, unfortunately for the property owner, the contamination is not so easy to address. Instead of taking a sample of paint or floor tile, we could be talking about contractors and engineers taking soil samples and water samples at various depths with concerns about heavy metals, fuel oil, or other toxins.

As I mentioned last week, several Ukiah homes used fuel oil for heat with storage tanks buried on the property before natural gas became available locally. Although it may be tempting to have your cousin Norman the contractor dig out and remove that fuel oil tank in the middle of the night with no one the wiser, I recommend against it. These things always get discovered and the legal mess that ensues is no fun. Not only is it illegal for Norman to dig out the tank without the proper certification, he is not allowed to transport it on a public highway, either. It doesn’t matter that the tank has been empty for 30 years. He’d still be in a lot of trouble.

So, once Phase II determines the extent of the contamination, you’re on to Phase III: dealing with it. Hire people licensed to do this kind of clean up. Get the permits. Do it right. It’s expensive, but not as expensive as doing it wrong and getting caught, and trust me, Murphy’s Law ensures that most everyone gets caught.

Protecting the planet is of paramount importance; it’s not fair for polluters to get off scot-free while the rest of us pay for their actions. I admit, however, that I would love it if a little more rational thought went into some of the environmental regulations.

If you have questions about getting into real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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