Surely the rates quoted for radon testing in Silicon Valley ($650 to $750) are greatly overstated. I charge a fraction of that. Maybe the glut of wealth in Silicon Valley has inflated this service.

Should home buyers test for radon?



Buried in the piles of paperwork showered on California home buyers is a discussion of radon, a radioactive gas that causes lung cancer. But despite the scary description of this environmental hazard, very few home buyers in Silicon Valley ask for radon tests.

"Typically radon is not one of the tests that people choose to do," said Jeff Barnett, vice president with Alain Pinel Realtors in Los Gatos. The few clients who select a radon test from a list of optional inspections are generally people moving to the Bay Area from the East Coast, where radon testing is more common. "It's just a test people choose not to do because we haven't had a problem."

Radon, an invisible, odorless gas, is produced as uranium decays in the soil. Exposure to high levels of it can cause lung cancer, especially in smokers, whose lungs are less able to protect themselves from harm. Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air, and when that number is 4 or higher, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends homeowners take action.

Should radon tests be as common as roof inspections during home sales? Although experts agree that homeowners would be well-advised to test their homes for radon, the question of whether to do that during a real estate transaction is more complicated.

Some reasons for not testing for radon don't hold water, experts say. For example, some say short-term radon tests are not accurate enough to be worthwhile, or that radon is only an issue in homes with basements. And others are convinced that radon is simply not a problem in California.
"There's plenty of radon in houses in California," said George Faggella, staff environmental scientist with the California Department of Public Health's indoor radon program. It's true that radon levels tend to be higher in basements, but homes without basements can have high levels as well. "In every type of construction, you can find radon."

Experts often recommend following up a short-term test that gives a high reading - especially if it's only slightly higher than the acceptable level - with a long-term test to more accurately assess the long-term exposure. But they still recommend starting with a short-term test.

The EPA estimates that the average radon level for homes in Santa Clara County is below the level at which it recommends taking action. But that's just an average - there are some homes with dangerously high levels.

Linda Kincaid is a certified industrial hygienist with Industrial Hygiene Services in San Jose who does radon tests and is also researching local radon "hot spots" for a master's thesis. She estimates that about 1 test in 12 in Santa Clara County shows a high reading. This number probably overstates the problem, since people who suspect they have high radon may be more likely to order tests.

Certain rock formations are more likely to produce radon than others, Kincaid said. The flat parts of Silicon Valley that are built on sediment, for example, seem to have fewer high readings than areas in the hills.

But even though geologists can predict where radon is more likely, levels in a neighborhood can still be vary widely.

"You take one house and you have no radon at all," said Kevin J. Renken, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who researches radon. "The house right next to it, they could have a very high level."

When to test Despite all the good reasons for testing for radon, however, it's not clear that doing the test during a real estate transaction is the best time.

The main reason is cost. Do-it-yourself radon tests are simple and inexpensive: They cost $15 to $25 and can be purchased online or at a hardware store. They contain a small canister of charcoal, which you set in your home for a few days. During that time, you need to keep all the windows and doors closed, except for opening the door to go in and out. The cost of the test includes postage to mail it to a lab and the lab's analysis.

"The test was super straightforward," said Jeff Eisenbaum, a broker associate with Intero Real Estate Services in Los Gatos who had his home tested after learning that his home was an in area with a higher potential for radon. His test showed radon within the normal range.

The problem is that if a seller is doing the test during a real estate transaction, it's not likely to be good enough for the buyer. The test could produce low readings even in a house with a radon problem if the seller left the windows open, for example. This means that during a real estate transaction, professionals are generally hired to do the tests - at a cost of $650 to $750.

Kincaid, who performs these tests as part of her work, said the high cost is due to a long protocol that the EPA requires when the test is done by a professional. It involves at least two visits to the house, plus setting up systems to detect tampering. It takes at least four days to get the results, which could be a hassle during a real estate transaction.

Pros and cons "When I do a test during a transaction, that is the most expensive and least representative case," Kincaid said. "What I would really like people to do is test after they move in."

Testing after you buy a home also allows time to redo a short-term test if it comes out high, for example, or to follow up a short-term test with a test that takes several months (and does not require the house to be closed up). This provides a more accurate view of the average exposure in a home over the long term.

The downside to waiting to test until you own the home, of course, is that you'll be stuck with the bill for fixing a radon problem if you find one.

"I would tell the home buyer to definitely get the data beforehand," Renken said. "You really don't want to get stuck with a house with a radon problem."

High radon levels can generally be taken care of by installing a ventilation system under the house, something experts estimate generally costs $2,800 to $5,000 in this area.

Ultimately, Fagella said, home buyers will need to weigh several factors to decide whether they want a radon inspection before they buy: What is the risk level for the area where the home is? Could they afford up to $5,000 to fix a radon problem if they found one later? And does the current real estate market give buyers enough leverage that they can demand this test?
This article contains a few half-truths and misleading statements. For example:

"The problem is that if a seller is doing the test during a real estate transaction, it's not likely to be good enough for the buyer. The test could produce low readings even in a house with a radon problem if the seller left the windows open, for example."

John Q. Public would think, after reading this, that there is no way to determine if EPA protocols were maintained during his radon test. What he does not learn from this article is that there are several anti-tampering methods that radon measurement professionals can use.

"It takes at least four days to get the results . . ."

That may be true if these professionals are using charcoal canisters but some devices give immediate results (e.g., CRMs) and others provide same-day results (e.g., E-PERMs).

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