Friday, April 25, 2008

My $1,200 Radon Job

Radon Home ImprovementThe Least Sexy Home Improvement Could Be a Lifesaver

It might be the ugliest home improvement. Last month, I finally did something about my radon problem.

Two men came and drilled a five-inch-wide hole in my home's bottom floor. They attached a suction system of white pipes and a big round fan to draw air -- and radon -- from underneath the house and vent it out through a black pipe stuck in the roof. The work took six hours and cost $1,200 -- about what I paid a pro to retile my bathroom.

Most homeowners have heard about the health hazards of radon, a radioactive gas that emanates from rocks, soil and water. Outside, it's relatively harmless, but inside it can collect in dangerous concentrations, seeping in through cracks in the home's foundation and other openings. Radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, and one in 15 homes has an elevated level prior to treatment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency estimates 750,000 to 1 million U.S. homeowners have taken radon-reduction steps over the years and says those steps, along with techniques in new construction, have helped prevent 6,000 deaths.

Despite the risks, radon until recently has ranked pretty low on many homeowners' action lists, including mine. You can't see, smell or taste it, which makes it -- unlike mold -- easy to ignore. The federal government recommends but doesn't mandate remediation for homes with elevated levels. And let's face it: In the scheme of renovations, there are sexier ways to drop 1,200 bucks than drilling a fat hole in the basement.

But as homeowners and builders rush to make dwellings healthier on all fronts -- from nontoxic paints and organic lawns to formaldehyde-free kitchen cabinets -- radon is emerging as a hot button in both new construction and resales. The National Association of Home Builders' Green Building rating program, which kicked off in February, requires installation of mitigation systems in certain radon-prone regions. Last year, the EPA launched a campaign encouraging the use of radon-resistant materials in new construction -- such as plastic sheeting under a home's slab and a built-in vent pipe where a fan can be attached. New studies are examining whether granite and other stone countertops play a role.

"As people become more interested in the green lifestyle, it encompasses radon as well," says EPA spokeswoman Kristy Miller. It has taken time to build public awareness, just as it did with smoking, she says. "We've been on that for 45 years or more. With radon, now we're seeing a culmination of all these issues."

In 2006, 10.6% of single-family detached homes were built with active radon-reduction systems in place, nearly double the percentage in 2001, according to the national home builders group. State and local building codes in nearly half the states mandate some level of radon control, and the number is on the rise, says Peter Hendrick, executive director of the not-for-profit American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. A number of local groups, like the Pennsylvania Builders Association, encourage members to spend a bit more up front to install radon-reduction systems. "I would encourage any builder that it's the right thing to do -- it's cheap to put in and it's in the client's best interest," says member Frank Thompson of Sweetwater Builders, near Pittsburgh.

As part of Gwendolyn's renovation, a white pipe (top) was drilled through the garage floor, which shares her house's slab. The pipe then funnels up into the garage's attic (bottom) where a fan pulls the air out from underneath the home and vents it to the outside. The one downside: she can hear a whoosh whenever she parks the car.

As for resales, while no federal or state regulations mandate home radon testing, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in 2005 urging all Americans to have one done. The majority of states have some form of disclosure law requiring the home seller to inform the buyer about property defects, such as radon -- but only if the seller knows about them. Many experts believe this discourages testing and say a better model is an Illinois law that took effect this year. It requires sellers to provide information about radon risk in general, whether the home has been tested or not.

Meantime, some radon labs say they're seeing a steady rise in testing. Sales of radon test kits have jumped 40% in the past five years at Radon Testing Corp. of America, a major national testing lab in Elmsford, N.Y. "The number of prospective home buyers asking for tests has increased even though the real-estate market has dropped," says RTCA's president, Nancy Bredhoff.

There is concern, though, that the push for more testing and remediation is overkill, burdening home builders and potentially slowing sales in a tough housing market. And while most scientists agree about radon's long-term risks, some question the benefits of reduction efforts. "Only after many years would a successful radon abatement program begun today be likely to reduce the number of lung cancers, and then only by a very small percentage," according to the Web site of the Health Physics Society, a scientific and professional organization focused on radiation-safety issues.

Where I live, in a rocky New York county, the indoor radon average is slightly above the government's recommended take-action level of 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). My home was built in 1978. When I purchased it in 2003, the seller neglected to stipulate on the required disclosure form if the home had been tested for radon. (In the haste of the deal, I didn't notice.) When I tested, the levels came back between 5 and 13 pCi/L -- a level higher than the EPA standard but not off the charts, according to pros I talked with. Most suggested retesting down the road, and when I did, the levels still hovered around 5 to 6 pCi.


PROFESSIONAL TESTING: The U.S. Surgeon General and EPA recommend all homes be tested and fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or more.

Find links to qualified testing and mitigation professionals in your state at and via the National Environmental Health Association ( or the National Radon Safety Board ( The latter two groups offer proficiency listing/accreditation/certification in testing and mitigation.

DO-IT-YOURSELF TESTING: Inexpensive, easy-to-use radon test kits can be purchased in stores like Home Depot and online at sources .

HEALTH INFO: Studies about radon's health effects can be found through the nonprofit American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists and the World Health Organization.

Since my score could present a selling problem later, I decided to take action. Unfortunately I had to start from scratch, installing an "active soil depressurization system," which pulls air from underneath the home and reroutes it outside, often through the roof. These types of systems reduce radon readings below the 4 pCi action-level in 99.9% of cases, according to Bill Angell, chairman of the World Health Organization's Radon Prevention and Mitigation Working Group, which plans this year to release standards for radon resistance in new homes and reduction in old ones. "Virtually never do we find a home we can't get below the threshold for action," he says. Other tactics include sealing basement cracks and installing a special ventilator.

The soil depressurization technique I used is called a "sub-slab suction" system, and involves a fan and piping that is drilled through the floor slab and routed up through hidden areas, like closets, and then typically into an attic and then outside. An alternative is to run the pipe up the home's exterior, where it is more likely to be visible. The cost of fixing an existing home typically ranges from $800 to $2,500; the cost to builders to install similar measures in new homes ranges from $350 to $500.

After checking reputations with local real estate agents, I called several pros for bids. (Many state health departments list qualified contractors; for those that don't, the EPA offers standards to be followed.) Each one pronounced my home "very difficult" because the lower level was all living space (hard to drill a hole inconspicuously) and I had no main attic (Where to put the fan?). The man I ultimately hired, David Barber of Acceptable Environment in Newburgh, N.Y., suggested drilling in my garage, which shares the home's concrete slab, and running the pipe and fan though a small attic space in there.

The upside: It isn't an eyesore. The downside: I can hear the fan's whoosh every time I park the car.

A week after Mr. Barber mitigated, I ran a new radon test. The result: 2.8 pCi/L -- about a point below the federal limit. I'm safer on the home-sale front, but because I am in my home's lower level a lot, I may pay Mr. Barber another $150 to run a second pipe from beneath a lower-level stairwell to the garage attic fan. My goal: getting down to at most 2 pCi/L, a level that puts my lifetime risk of radon-related lung cancer as a nonsmoker at 4 in 1,000, according to the EPA. Meantime, I'm focused on finishing a happier renovation project: the kitchen, where I hope the only gas I'll think about is from my new range.

By: Gwendolyn Bounds
Wall Street
Journal; April 19, 2008

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Many Worry About Mortgage Payments

WASHINGTON(AP) -- One in seven mortgage holders worry they may soon fail to make their monthly payments and even more fret that their home's value is shrinking, according to a poll showing widespread stress from the nation's housing crisis.

In an ominous snapshot of how the sagging real estate market and sour economy are intersecting, the Associated Press-AOL Money & Finance poll also found that 60 percent said they definitely won't a buy a home in the next two years.

That was up from 53 percent who said so in an AP-AOL poll in September 2006. Only 11 percent are certain or very likely to buy soon, down from 15 percent two years ago.

In today's economic climate, even holding onto what they already have is a challenge and source of distress for significant numbers of homeowners. Nearly three in 10 said they are concerned their home's value will decline over the next two years, while 14 percent of mortgage holders expressed worry that they might miss payments in the next six months.

One nervous homeowner is Daniel Gallego, a warehouse worker in Stockton, Calif., who said in a followup interview that he may have to sell his house at a big loss.

"We may have to move in with my wife's parents or my parents," said Gallego, 30, who has two young children. "I could pay off some debt, then we could rent, and maybe buy another house in a few years."

He said the rising cost of gasoline and other expenses have made his adjustable rate mortgage unaffordable. Because he doesn't expect his home's value to recover soon, he said he may be better off moving now before his rates rise.

One in 10 have adjustable rate mortgages, half the number who said so two years ago. These mortgages generally start at a low interest rate and are later adjusted to market conditions - which has often meant steep, unaffordable boosts that have forced many to refinance or even lose their homes.

The growing reluctance to dip into the housing market seems to stem partly from worry that housing prices will continue falling - good if you're buying a house but bad if you have to sell one.

The number envisioning falling prices in their area has grown to one in four, while four in 10 think prices will rise, a decrease from two years ago. Expectations for rising prices are highest in the South, with Westerners likeliest to predict they will drop.

"This is a great time to buy, but not necessarily to sell," said Robert Jackson, who lives in a two-bedroom house in Ferguson, Mo., with his wife and four young children. He said he would love to purchase a larger home, but can't because even if he found a buyer, he would probably lose thousands on his house, which he bought less than two years ago.

"We're just going to have to slap a Band-Aid on it and stay here until the market gets a little bit better," said Jackson, 30.

Underscoring the public's unsettled feelings, the number saying local housing prices are about right has fallen to 35 percent. Half say homes are overpriced - especially in the Northeast - while those saying housing is underpriced have doubled to one in 10. Midwesterners were likelier than those in other regions to feel this way.

Some areas of the country buck regional trends. Laurie Jensen, a single mother of three, struggles to make payments on her home in Whitehall, Mont., by working as a seasonal road construction flagger and at times collecting unemployment. She said she'd like to move outside of town, but the area is popular and prices have surged.

"Things are pretty crazy," she said. "Places I don't consider that great are really expensive."

The public anxiety is in reaction to an economy that is veering toward recession and losing jobs even as the housing market sputters badly. Foreclosures have soared to record highs, mortgage rates have increased, sales of existing and new homes have fallen and home values have dropped.

Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics for Moody's, a consulting firm, estimated that 9 million homeowners owe more on their home than its worth. He said his company believes home sales are at or near bottom and home values will continue to fall until early next year.

Even so, he said, many people bought their homes before the run-up in values that started around 2001 and remain in good shape.

"So the value of your house goes down temporarily," he said. Unless the homeowner must sell now or can't afford the payments, "that doesn't have that much of an impact."

The poll also found:
The biggest worriers are those expecting to buy soon. Of that group 43 percent frets that their home's value will drop in the next two years, compared with 25 percent of those not expecting to buy soon.

Fifty-nine percent think now is a good time to buy.

Half think this is a very tough time for first-time buyers, an increase from two years ago. Nearly two-thirds think it's harder for first-home buyers than it was five years ago.

The AP-AOL Money & Finance poll was conducted from March 24-April 3 by Abt SRBI Inc. It involved telephone interviews with 1,002 adults nationwide, for whom the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Included were interviews with 769 homeowners, for whom the sampling margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 points. The margin of sampling error for other subgroups was larger.