Asbestos: Dismiss the Realtor’s Role at Your Own Peril

By J. Kane Latta

In this, the first of a series on asbestos within residential and commercial properties, we’ll explore the issue with two experienced real estate agents operating in the Raleigh, NC area: Harold Daniels an agent with Coldwell Banker and Chuck Friend an agent with real estate by DESIGN.

 “Once the deed has been recorded and something is discovered, nine times out of ten the buyer is on the hook for the asbestos remediation because both parties went through the process. Even with an inspector you can’t be absolutely sure.”

Chuck Friend

Asbestos: Realtor's Role | Asbestos Infographic

Asbestos is a well-recognized health hazard and its use is now regulated by both OSHA and the EPA. Asbestos fibers are too small to be seen with the naked eye and breathing asbestos fibers can cause a buildup of scar tissue in the lungs called asbestosis resulting in loss of lung function that often progresses to disability and death. Asbestos also causes cancer of the lung and other diseases such as mesothelioma which is an aggressive malignant tumor of the membrane lining the cavity of the lung (pleura) or stomach (peritoneal). Epidemiologic evidence has increasingly shown that all asbestos fiber types, including the most commonly used form of asbestos, chrysotile, causes mesothelioma in humans.

Generally speaking, if a home or commercial property was built before 1977 it likely has asbestos in some of the construction materials such as linoleum floors, roofing, insulation or joint compound.  If the material is undisturbed the EPA tells us it is not usually a hazard. However, as materials get older they may be prone to breakdown and disturbance.

“The problem with it asbestos is if it crumbles and breaks apart when you touch it,” says Friend with real estate by DESIGN. If the material in question is not friable then the asbestos fibers will not become air-borne. As long as the asbestos is encapsulated in the building material it will not cause a health problem.  “For example,” says Friend, “we find problems all the time in a crawl spaces where the heating system is located and someone has taped up the old piping. There could still be asbestos in that. It doesn’t always reach the point of dangerous, but it’s always, always worth checking out to make sure.”

The biggest risk posed by asbestos in homes and commercial properties is during a remodeling or renovation. “A few years back, we were selling a house that was to be moved for a commercial property to be built,” says Daniels, “but later found out that it could not be moved and instead had to be torn down with the guidance of asbestos abatement professionals.” Even if you’re not moving and entire house, little renovation projects can be just as hazardous, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.  If your house was built in the 1970’s or before you can assume there is asbestos in some building materials and can have it checked to see if you are right.

If you’re buying or selling a property yourself without a realtor — navigating the process and more importantly the potential legal liabilities and removal costs — it can be a real slippery slope when asbestos is involved. Surfing the Internet by state, county and city agencies or doing research on can be both time consuming and confusing. “You want someone that’s hands on that can navigate you through the different options,” says Friend, “you really want to be careful when you are making that big of a decision in your life by doing things correctly. That’s where a Realtor comes in.” By comparison, remediation and potential litigation can exponentially exceed a realtor’s small sales commission ten-fold. Therefore. if you’re weighting the idea of selling or buying without a Realtor, beware of  the potential perils.

By that same measure, realtors in most cases only know the basics about asbestos, “Realtors are most often not experts,” says Friend. “We don’t go in with extensive expertise when it comes to asbestos and if an agent does present themselves as such, then they shouldn’t be a Realtor. As a Realtor we are there to make a transaction and guide the buyer or the seller through to the closing table.” If a Realtor goes beyond that when it comes to asbestos and a buyer or seller accepts their direction — then all parties are put at risk.

Just like a plumber, contractor or anyone else in the residential or commercial building industry, some Realtors have years of experience and hands-on knowledge of construction, asbestos, etc. and some only have experience with newer properties built after 1977. Whether you’re a buyer or seller, it’s wise to fully explore the background and experience of a Realtor before you contract with them, most especially if the property was constructed on or before 1977.

Bringing in a Certified Licensed Inspector

“Clearly there are pros and cons to everything about a house or commercial property and we [the Realtor] need to point those out, but it’s always a good idea to bring in a home inspector. Here in North Carolina they are certified by the state and if they are not certified then a buyer or seller shouldn’t use them.”

It’s all about a seamless handoff from an experienced real estate agent to the inspector with the direction of the buyer or seller as to who they wish to use. “Normally I provide three inspectors and let the buyer or seller decide with which ones they would like to conduct a phone interview,” says Friend, “even though I’m personally very comfortable with the inspector’s work, the client should make the ultimate decision on which inspector they wish to use.” While it may seem that only the buyer should have an inspection conducted, it’s actually just as important for the seller.

“The seller needs to make sure the house is saleable,” says Daniels. “If the seller knows there is asbestos in the house, they are compelled by law to disclose it as part of the contract. If the seller didn’t disclose it, the buyer could potentially initiate a law suit if it can be proven the seller knew but did not reveal it.” In the event that the buyer’s inspector finds there to be an asbestos hazard, the seller then has their own independent inspection in hand with which to compare. Just as sellers and buyers often see things differently, so too do home inspectors, so having a second opinion already in hand — in the event something does arise — just makes good sense.

Even so, thousands of properties are bought and sold each year in the U.S. with no inspection completed by either the buyer or the seller. Daniels says “for a buyer if they don’t have a home inspection done, I make them sign a waiver stating it was highly recommended. If a buyer hasn’t reviewed an inspection and made any and all repair requests previous to the contract being signed, then it’s too late.” If something is later discovered, even with a good attorney, without an inspection completed it is typically — but not always — a losing battle for the buyer.

Purchasing or selling a property is most often the beginning of a new direction, be it a seller leaving a property behind to move on, a new homeowner settling in for perhaps the rest of their life or with a commercial property — it may be the launch or expansion of someone’s ultimate business dream. With a little due diligence, professional expertise and guidance, the transaction can be handled smoothly with few surprises.

In our next segment, All Home Inspectors Are NOT Created Equal we’ll be interviewing several inspectors along with some contractors and real estate agents to get the inside story on how they would go about choosing an inspector if they were a buyer or seller.


Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice nor is it intended as such. This article contains only general information.  If you have questions about asbestos and real estate you are urged to consult with an appropriate attorney.