If you’re already living a non-toxic lifestyle, but you’re ready to move… it can be daunting finding something that checks all the boxes. You might not prioritize a home that has all the so-called “healthy bells and whistles” over some features that you can’t change over time, like location or size. But there are some things that you might want to add to your checklist as you are assessing homes that you might be living in for many, many years.
I invited Amanda Klecker, a home inspector and building biologist and founder of Healthy House on the Block to speak with us about what she looks for when assessing homes for her new home buyer clients. She and I have known each other online for years. I love how she approaches the toxics and healthy home conversation and I’m thrilled to have her join me for this Q+A. You can listen to the full interview in the podcast link below, or read the highlights in this blog article.
- what your home inspector is likely focusing on and how health factors into their work or doesn’t
- the most common problems Amanda sees again and again, that most people don’t know to look for
- the kinds of questions you should ask when looking to buy a home
- do transformers and other external factors affect EMF exposure in the home
- so much more …
Q: What are most home inspectors trained to look for?
A: It definitely is different depending on where you live. I’m in the United States and every state has its own rules. In Minnesota, unfortunately, there is no licensing for home inspectors. You can get a national accreditation with a national certificate, and that’s what I have. And most home inspectors have that. Every now and then you find someone who thinks they know a lot about homes, but maybe really know one part really well. They maybe were a contractor before, and this is a good transition for them. So sometimes they’re not 100% trained. That’s why I tell people to ask questions before you hire and make sure that you’re hiring someone who’s a really reliable source who has experience or knows a little bit about everything in the house instead of just one part.
Most home inspectors are trained in the whole house. We have to know what I like to say “just a little bit about everything”. So I might not know how to fix everything, but I know how to point out and find these defects. We look at everything from the foundation to the electrical (that we can because we can’t open up walls and things like that). It’s called a non-invasive home inspection. We are also trained in plumbing, how to look for leaks if there are pipes that are not safe materials, looking at the whole structure, making sure the house is structurally sound. Knowing what safety precautions need to either be taken or what materials are unsafe. And then even little things like, do we have smoke detectors? We look at these details of a house too.
Q: What is the focus for most home inspections?
A: I would say most home inspectors focus on the questions: Is it working? Is it safe? When we find a leak, I always look a little bit deeper, but again, we can’t pull up flooring. So you have to disclose to the buyer and say, “Hey, just so you know, there’s this leak.” There could potentially be these other problems, because when we go in for a home inspection, we’re there for only two to three hours, maybe. It’s so different compared to when you’re living there all the time. A lot of times we’ll go in and we’ll see maybe a little bit of water damage either in the attic or something like that.
And I always tell people, I don’t know when this happened. If this house is 50 years old, it could have happened 40 years ago, and that stain is still there. It could have happened last week. We can check to see if it’s dry, but that doesn’t tell us when it happened or for how long. I think most inspectors would at least disclose that there’s a leak. And a lot of times, even if it’s not verbally said to the client, I think a lot of inspectors have something in their report that would be like a disclaimer saying, “Hey, if there’s water, we need to look further.”
And then you also have to rely on the realtor to go to the seller to look a little further into this, they’re kind of like the interpreter for the inspection report. If it’s not extremely explanatory with whatever the issues are or if the buyer didn’t go to the home inspection or wasn’t there the whole time, there can be a little bit of a communication disconnect.
Most inspectors, are looking at these functional things and then safety. Not everyone will look for mold. I think most of us would notice if there’s visual mold but maybe not necessarily pull up carpets or things like that. Sometimes you can pull up a little corner and just see what’s going on.
Q: When you say safety, is it more physical safety or does health play a role in there? What other health elements are factored in?
A: I would say lead paint is a big one. We’re looking at a home that’s built before 1978. Lead pipes – we find those in older homes. A lot of times it’s drainage pipes, but it is still a disclosure, “Hey, just so you know, these are asbestos floor tiles, asbestos ceiling tiles, and asbestos installation.” Those are big ones.
Mold is a big one, and if we see it, obviously we would disclose it. In Minnesota it’s not required that you test for radon, but that is another thing that I always tell people. I think you might as well, if you’re going to buy this house, you’re going to live in it, you should, to be safe.
Not every home inspector does radon testing, not every home inspector will hunt for mold, but if they see it, they’ll disclose it. And I would say, a lot of the safety issues would be things like, railings or little add on things.
Q: Dehumidification comes up a lot in my community. What’s your preferred approach?
A: I think there’s so many easy things that we can do. My favorite is turning on fans when we’re cooking, bathing or doing laundry. I think that gets forgotten a lot, but when you’re using a dryer and a washing machine, it is creating a lot of moisture. Sometimes people have a laundry room closet behind closed doors. Sometimes there’s a fan in there and if they don’t turn the fan on all that moisture just sits in there, and when you open it up, it makes that whole level, especially if it’s an upper level, very humid. So I think using fans is just the best tool.
There are other things that you could do, cooking with lids on if you can. When cleaning your floors with a wet mop that’s just sitting on your floor to air-dry can actually raise your indoor humidity level by approximately 15%.
Same with over-watering your plants or line drying. If you line dry all your clothes in the house, it just all evaporates into the house. So it’s just more habits. How can we have better habits in our house to keep the humidity lower. Another big one is if we live in a climate where it’s cold in the winter and we get condensation on our windows.
If you can prevent that and if you can’t, you’ve got to wipe it off because that’s a huge spot. Mold will take hold because it just sits there all the time. Keeping furniture away from vents by windows. Because a lot of times houses are built with vents by windows because that’s the best way to heat a house. So if you can keep furniture away from that, so it’s not blocked, you’ll get better air flow and you’ll reduce condensation naturally. But those are kind of the big things I think that are easy, you don’t have to go buy anything. You just need to change a little bit, tweak your lifestyle.
Q: If you need a dehumidifier, are there certain things to pay attention for or look out for?
A: I think you just have to be aware that it’s a tool and it needs to be cleaned out because if you don’t clean it out, then you’re going to get that mold inside it. Depending on where you’re running this dehumidifier, you can have it run directly to a drain. I love that idea.
A lot of times we’re busy. We forget to go and empty out a basin and it’s filled with water, just sitting there. And so if you can have it run to a floor drain or a laundry tub, I always think that’s a great option, but just remembering that it needs to be emptied and maybe even cleaned out once you start seeing a little bit of mildew and mold. if you can find one that has the fewest little crevices, that’s easy to clean. Those are a big thing in the winter, and you have to find one that is easy to clean because otherwise it doesn’t get done in one small dose, it’s almost impossible to get out.
Q: When you are walking through homes for your home inspections, what are some of the common problems that you see again and again?
A: There are definitely a set of things that I feel like I’m saying at every inspection. And I always tell people, don’t worry about it, I see it all the time and it’s fixable. And the big one when we’re talking about the health of our house is the grading outside the house.
You want your house up on a hill almost, with a very slight grade to keep moisture away from your foundation.
I live in Minnesota, we have basements. It’s very important to keep moisture away from the foundation. So anytime I go to a house, we look for what’s called Neutral Grading when it’s just flat against the house. And then we look for Negative Grading, which means it tips towards the house where water can pool, especially in a climate where there’s snow. You have to think of all the snow that builds up over the winter and then melts in the spring. And what we have in the spring is anything next to the house melts, and then it refreezes, and then it melts it, it refreezes for probably a month while we’re working into spring. It’s very hard on foundations.
It can cause cracks. And so that’s a big thing that we look at. You can also add a waterproof coating to your foundation, which helps because it’s usually concrete and it kind of acts as a sponge and it’ll pull things in. You have some sort of waterproof coating on even both sides. It really prevents moisture from coming into the house deteriorating the foundation.
We look at another thing that I like to remind people of this book for gutters.
If the house doesn’t have gutters, you’re going to have problems with moisture next to your foundation. So gutters, a lot of the time are important. They’re not required. You can’t ask them to put gutters on. So it’s a good thing when you’re looking at houses, you can add them, but just to have that in the back of your head, that there’s something that you’re going to want to do.
If you’ve got the gutters great, but if you’ve got the downspout that just ends along your wall and dumping into your foundation, it’s the same kind of problem. It’s the same if the gutters are clogged or they don’t have a rain guard on them or a leaf guard to protect from filling up, they just overflow next to your foundation. I think exterior is a big piece of the conversation, especially for first-time home buyers or someone who maybe has had a townhouse or a condo where they have not had to have any sort of knowledge about maintenance outside.
I like to point out all these things. Exterior is one of the biggest places that we spend so much time together outside looking at the house and knowing what to do.
Q: Do you look at EMFs?
A: I leave that up to my buyer. Some people are very interested in this and for some people it’s not a real concern to them. And so if it is something that they asked me a question about it, or they’re interested in knowing, I will absolutely talk to them about what is around the house.
A lot of times I won’t delve into what’s inside the house because that’s going to be, unless someone is extremely sensitive and this is something that they really want to know about where, they want to walk through with a meter look at things. I don’t have that very often. I would say most of the time we talk about what’s surrounding the house. And I have let people know if there’re large transformers nearby, if they ask and there is a concern I will absolutely tell them that I think it’s a concern and I would just think and really make sure this is what they want.
Q: Do you have EMF meters that you use?
A: Yes, I have a meter that we can walk through the house and check, But it’s one of these things where, you know you’re going to bring in your own electronics and you might change things, but we can check boxes and if they’re going to keep the stove or the appliances, we can check those things or different areas of a room. If they know where they want to have their bed for example, we can check that wall.
Q: What kind of impact do transformers, for example, have on the indoor levels that you have seen?
A: It drops off pretty quickly once you start moving away, but I have seen homes where it’s literally in the backyard, I would just think about it if you have kids playing in the backyard. Once you get about six to 10 feet away, it drops off considerably. And after that, it’s less and less. But again, it’s even that low exposure constantly that you just need to think about. And I think most people are probably not very sensitive to it, or it’s not something that they’re worried about. But if it is someone who has a sensitivity or has had other issues might be something to think about.
Q: What are the kinds of questions that somebody should ask when they are looking to buy a home and what are the top things to think about if it’s a new build versus an older home?
A: There are positives and negatives to both. I think the biggest thing to really consider is you can not change the location. So if it’s near, like we were talking about transformers, if it’s near where I live, we have dump sites that were closed essentially, and tarp was laid over it. The location to me is very important, whether you’re going to do new or old. Older houses can have a lot of these toxins that we talked about in the beginning, asbestos or lead because they were using older materials. Sometimes an older house will actually have more solid wood. And that’s a great thing. Sometimes depending on the era, it’s going to have more vinyls and more plastics and more man-made materials.
And so that’s something that I always like to consider.
Some brand new builds are put up really quickly with really poor quality materials put in and they’re just mass produced. And while they probably will have an air exchanger, which is an excellent tool for a healthy house, they may be very sealed. And sometimes the house that is so sealed up with all of these new toxins – carpet, maybe a medium density fiber board for all of the trim etc, those are going to off gas and it’s now stuck in the house unless we have a good way to air the house out, you’ve got to make sure that the air exchanger is doing its job correctly.
But in the same breath, a newer house is not going to have asbestos. It’s not going to have lead. And so you just have to weigh these out.
For example, I know I don’t have these toxins in an old house, but in a new house, do I know that I can properly ventilate the house or was a new house built with solid wood? Another example is hardwood floors to reduce toxins vs carpets. Every house is so different and so a lot of times, even when you’re comparing homes, it is not comparing the same thing. It’s just deciding what am I willing to work with and deal with and what’s a deal breaker for me.
You can learn more from Amanda at www.healthyhouseontheblock.com and on Instagram @healthyhouseontheblock
Listen to the extended podcast version of this interview here.