Don't Overreact to Radon Gas


Question: Our home was recently found to contain unsafe levels of radon gas. In fact, the people who had offered to buy our home canceled the purchase when they received the test results. Now we're wondering how we can sell our home. Who will want to buy it when they learn about radioactive contamination in the air? Is there anything we can do to eliminate the problem?

Answer: Please don't lose heart. Overreaction to the presence of radon has become quite common, mainly due to inadequate information. If such fears were warranted, we might tremble at the thought of entering any building that has not been tested. To maintain a reasonable perspective, we should remember two basic facts:

1. The effects of radon are based upon long-term exposure (approximately 30 years of repeated contact).

2. Radon mitigation is neither complicated nor unduly expensive.

Radon gas is discharged from the soil nearly everywhere, producing low levels of concentration in our atmosphere. When radon emission occurs beneath a building, it can reach higher concentrations because it is being contained within an enclosed space. The air pressure in most buildings is less than that in the outside environment, and radon gas is highly attracted to low-pressure indoor areas.

Fortunately, this natural attraction to low-pressure areas can be used to draw the radon away from your home. The most common mitigation method is to install a metal shaft, extending from beneath the floor to the open air above the roof. This is usually done with homes built on concrete slab foundations. The shaft is usually concealed in an obscure location, such as the corner of a closet, where it extends through a small hole in the slab. Once the shaft is in place, it is equipped with a quiet electric fan, designed to operate continuously and permanently. The low pressure created by the fan draws the radon from the soil beneath the building and discharges it through the opening above the roof.

The cost for this type of radon mitigation is approximately $1,200 to $1,500.

Bottom Line on Codes: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Q: I'm worried about my house. Last week, I learned that the foundation violates the building code because it does not extend deep enough into the ground. If the building department finds out, I'm afraid they'll make me build a new foundation. What do you think I should do?

A: Please relax. Municipal building departments are typically not in the business of policing code compliance in existing buildings. Their primary function is to enforce legal conformity in new construction, additions, alterations and demolition work. Budgetary constraints and limited personnel leave them with few resources for much else, let alone the scrutiny of established construction.

Exceptions are generally confined to cases involving direct complaints by neighbors. For example, someone might notify the building department when a non-permitted addition blocks their view. Or blatant safety violations involving electrical wiring, gas piping, or a faulty chimney might raise concerns among observant persons living nearby. It is unlikely, however, that a shallow foundation would offend or even attract the attention of anyone, unless of course your house.

The fact is, non-complying conditions can be found in nearly all homes. The discovery and citing of such conditions would require a bureaucracy the size of the Pentagon, with new forms of taxation to provide requisite funding. Such unwelcome establishments do not appear anywhere on the foreseeable horizon. So unless you've noticed other foundation problems, I'd advise assigning your concerns to more pressing issues.

Inspection Covers Only Flaws That Are Visible

Q: Five years ago, we hired a home inspector to check the house we now own. During the recent rains, ground water penetrated into a bedroom that had been added prior to our purchase.

We called a general contractor who surveyed the problem by removing some soil from around the building and found that the addition was built on a concrete slab, without a foundation.

Upon checking the inspection report, we found that our home inspector did not disclose this condition to us. We contacted him and suggested that due to his negligence he should pay for the installation of a new foundation. He refused, saying that defect was not visible and therefore not his responsibility. Is he correct?

A: The inspector's failure to discover the lack of a foundation at your addition may not constitute negligent performance.

Most inspectors in your area are members of recognized inspector associations, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) or the California Real Estate Inspection Assn. (CREIA). Although association memberships do not guarantee expertise among home inspectors, ASHI and CREIA have established accepted standards of practice and codes of ethics which define the general scope of a home inspection. These guidelines have come to be the acknowledged standards by which qualified home inspectors perform their services.

According to these criteria, a home inspection is limited to conditions that are visually discernible.

Specifically excluded from an inspection are conditions that are concealed from view, such as items contained within walls, ceilings and floors, or which are buried beneath the ground.

According to ASHI and CREIA standards, inspectors are not required to perform dismantling of construction or excavation of ground surfaces to discover conditions which are not normally visible.

The fact that the foundation problem at your home remained undiscovered for five years and was only revealed by means of excavation indicates that the defect was not visually detectable.

If you have questions or comments, contact Barry Stone through his Web site at or write to Barry Stone c/o AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. Distributed by Access Media Group.

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