Home Improvement

Buyer Beware: Health and Safety Dangers in a Fixer-Upper

Empty room with green ceiling and olive carpet floor. View of the walk-in closet

Fans of HGTV and enthusiastic do-it-yourselfers would likely jump at the chance to take an outdated house and make it their own. A fixer-upper is often an economical alternative to a move-in ready home, affording you the opportunity to customize the layout, materials and overall look to match your wildest dreams.

But taking on a fixer-upper is not just about tearing down a wall or two and refinishing the hardwood floors. “You need to be very careful – there are things that could be a real health hazard as well,” says Scott McGillivray, host of the HGTV show “Income Property,” who partners with Owners.com.

Long-outdated houses are often fraught with serious structural, electrical, plumbing and air quality problems. Before you take a sledgehammer to any walls, it’s necessary to thoroughly check the property for health and safety hazards and make any needed updates the No. 1 priority.

They may be some of the least fun and most expensive updates to deal with, but ensuring all your home’s systems – plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning – are to code and properly functioning is a must.

The National Fire Protection Association’s Electrical Fires report, issued in March, notes that between 2010 and 2014, municipal fire departments reported 45,210 house fires involving “electrical failure or malfunction.” And electrical fires caused an average of $1.4 billion in damage and 420 civilian deaths per year during the four-year period, according to the report.


While an outdated house may not have had any electrical problems yet, as you move in and begin plugging in your own appliances, chargers and lamps, it can lead to greater problems, explains Dylan Chalk, a certified home inspector based in Seattle and author of “The Confident House Hunter: A Home Inspector’s Tips for Finding Your Perfect Home.”

“You could have an old house that, in theory, might have worked for Grandma, who didn’t plug much stuff in,” he says. “And a family of five moves in with all their gizmos, and the same wiring systems just wouldn’t be safe.”

Even before you purchase a fixer-upper, consider those potential updates that may not be as obvious as removing the floral wallpaper in the kitchen. McGillivray recommends looking at wall outlets – if the receptacle doesn’t have the third prong, it means the outlet isn’t grounded – and checking out any visible wiring in the basement or attic to get a glimpse at the electric system without having to poke holes in the wall before you buy it.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way – you can find something to tell you what’s going on,” McGillivray says.

Old plumbing may seem like less of an immediate danger, but cracked pipes, lead leaching into water and sewage gas coming from a dry drain are a few of the problems that can bring about health problems for you and water damage for your home.

And when utilities have been off for more than a couple days, McGillivray says you may find “toilets are cracked, pipes have burst, even drains can crack.” If you’re buying a fixer-upper that’s been long vacant, plan for plumbing updates and other related repairs in your budget.

[Read: Is Your Home a Death Trap? How Mold Affects Your Health and Your Home’s Value.]

Room to Breathe

In addition to having systems updated, you should ensure that the older materials used in a home don’t pose a threat to your health, as lead paint and asbestos from old popcorn ceilings, insulation or tile mastic are serious hazards to your lungs when particles become airborne.

“If you’re going to be making dust – pulling out walls, whatever – then you’d really want to test for lead and asbestos,” Chalk says.

If the house was built before 1978 and hasn’t undergone a top-to-bottom renovation since, there’s a good chance you’ll see lead paint and asbestos, Chalk says. The use of lead paint in homes was outlawed by the federal government in 1978, and the use of friable asbestos in household materials largely declined around the same time.


Narrow down your search by determining the amount of work you want to do on your home from the get-go.


If lead and asbestos are found and not encapsulated, they’re often considered friable, or easy to crumble and release particles into the air, and the removal process is very detailed and can get pricey. The area needs to be sealed off to be airtight, and removal requires dampening surfaces to keep particles from hanging in the air, settling elsewhere or even working their way out to the rest of the neighborhood.

Asbestos and lead removal is not a DIY project. Many home contractors are certified for lead or asbestos removal, but you may need to find a separate company from the one you hired to complete the overall renovation to handle the safe removal of the hazardous materials from your home.

An older home that hasn’t seen many updates is also likely not equipped with a radon mitigation system, which acts as a vacuum to pull radon gas from the earth beneath the foundation of the house and expel it outside, keeping it from concentrating inside the house.

Exposure to high levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so it’s important to have your house’s radon levels tested if there is no mitigation system in place. Radon gas levels can vary by region, topography and even by street and house.

[Read: Is Your Home a Death Trap? You May Be Eligible for Compensation.]

Inspect Everything

The possibility for health and safety hazards in an outdated fixer-upper shouldn’t deter you from customizing your home just as you want it, but they should be a priority in your budget. An open floor plan may be just what that 1925 house needs, but not if it means keeping electric wiring from 1945.

Keep necessary updates in mind as your tour fixer-uppers, and McGillivray recommends bringing a contractor with you to discuss the cost of renovations and help point out other possible required updates as you consider an offer price.

Once you go under contract, schedule an inspection during your due diligence period to find out likely problems. McGillivray recommends opting for a more thorough inspection, which can be $700 rather than $200, he says, to get a better diagnosis of what’s wrong with the property.

“A good inspection report is like a blueprint for maintaining a house,” Chalk says.

The results of that inspection can help you set your renovation budget and, above all, make your fixer-upper safe to live in.

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