Lead hazard disclosure: Time to better inform home buyers and renters

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director.

Imagine what would happen if firms like Zillow and Redfin that have transformed the real estate marketplace also helped consumers make informed decisions about health hazards in the home.

In the past 20 years, if you’ve bought or rented a home built before 1978, you’ve seen it–130 words in a dense paragraph titled “Lead Warning Statement.” Below it, the landlord or seller most likely checked the box saying he or she “has no knowledge of lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards in the housing” and “has no reports or records pertaining to lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards in the housing.”

By the time you read that dense paragraph, you’d have already chosen your new home, so you likely signed the forms and put the “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home” booklet in your to-do pile; a pile that all-t0o-easily gets lost in the chaos of a big move.

Congress created this lead hazard disclosure requirement in 1992 as part of a comprehensive law designed to protect children from lead in paint. The objective was to transform the marketplace by having buyers and renters demand homes that were either free of lead paint or, at least, lead hazards.

It has not worked out that way. The marketplace for lead-free or lead-safe homes never materialized, and sellers and landlords have little to no incentive to look for problems that might complicate the transaction.

The current lead hazard disclosure requirement had all of the hallmarks of an effective right-to-know policy but has fallen short of meeting its objective. It is simply too little too late to help consumers make informed decisions.

Further, the disclosure requirement failed to address another important source of lead in the home—lead in drinking water.

Today there is an opportunity to align the principle of transparency with the practice of better management of the hazards of lead in paint and water. Just as Congress updated the financial disclosure requirements to match the current realities of the real estate marketplace, it needs to do the same for the lead disclosure mandate.

And there is also a powerful role for the private sector as well. Consumer demands for transparency are driving change in every conceivable market, including real estate.  Firms like Zillow and Redfin provide extensive information for consumers shopping for a new home from the number of bathrooms and size of the yard to the quality of local schools. What if they also included information on environmental hazards in homes such as lead-based paint and lead pipes and plumbing? Together with new Congressional mandates for disclosure transparency we might finally begin to deliver the outcomes we all seek—healthier homes.

What changes are needed to the 1992 law?

  1. Expand the disclosure to lead hazards in drinking water: Flint has shown us that drinking water is a significant source of exposure to lead. Consumers need to be told about the risk and whether they have lead pipes in the underground service lines that connect the main in the street to homes. It makes little sense for a new homeowner to first learn of the hazard from a water bill or after their child is tested by a pediatrician.
  2. Use plain English: The lead warning statement is difficult to read, and only Congress can change it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should be given the flexibility to update the specific wording and requirements to reflect what we now know about how to effectively communicate the risk to buyers and renters. The effort should mirror the science-driven approach used by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when it revised the mortgage disclosure requirements.
  3. Inform consumers before not after they make a commitment. Consumers need to know about environmental hazards when they are evaluating a potential home not after they have already committed. They should be informed early in the process – in the rental application or in a seller’s counteroffer. Obtaining information at this stage of the purchasing process may allow a buyer to choose a different property or demand that the hazards be remediated and the costs folded into the mortgage.

What could the private sector do to inform potential buyers or renters?

Just as the internet has transformed how we buy consumer goods, it has reshaped the landscape of real estate, especially for people buying or renting homes. Two firms dominate the market. Zillow is “dedicated to empowering consumers with data, inspiration and knowledge around the place they call home.” Redfin’s “mission is to redefine real estate in the customer’s favor.”

Instead of a property listing system tightly controlled by real estate professionals who make commissions on sales, information technology draw from county records and other data sources to provide consumers with easier access to much more information about a home. Consumers can now learn about neighborhood schools, who owns the home and what they paid, and the walkability of the neighborhood.

If data on environmental hazards were also included in these search engines, consumers could determine whether a home has a lead service line or if it is likely to have lead-based paint as well as the likelihood of having high levels of radon.

Why do consumers need the information on environmental hazards such as lead?

The connection between the condition of a home and the health of a resident has become increasingly clear in the past 20 years. Mold and pests are linked to asthma. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. More than 500,000 children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. And carbon monoxide from damaged fuel-burning equipment kills thousands each year. In 2009, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a call to action to promote healthy homes.

Some of these hazards should be identified by a top-notch home inspector. They can inspect a roof for a leak or identify an ungrounded electrical outlet. But environmental hazards such as radon, lead pipes, lead hazards in dust or soil, and carbon monoxide are invisible. Do-it-yourself kits can be useful, but certified professionals provide more rigorous assessments.

A potential buyer or renter who is informed of the presence of the hazards early in the process can make a decision whether the risk needs to be investigated, tested, and mitigated. Just as buyer will demand that a leaky roof be repaired, a buyer may insist that radon hazards to mitigated, lead hazards controlled, or lead service lines be replaced. The costs often range from $1000 to $5000 and can be built into the mortgage. A smart seller or landlord will anticipate the problems and fix them before putting the property on the market.

Even when a buyer or renter chooses not to investigate or mitigate the environmental hazards, they will still be aware of them and have the option to deal with them in the future.

Information technology has fundamentally changed the residential real estate market since Congress directed EPA and HUD to mandate lead hazard disclosure in 1992. Today, the market is more transparent. Therefore, Congress needs to update the law. And private sector firms that have driven that change have the opportunity to expand transparency by including environmental hazard information critical to families in making a decision about a healthy home.

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