An Environmental Checklist for New Home Buyers

Barry Chalofsky shares his environmental checklist for new home buyers, including tips for environmental considerations when buying a home, checking land for environmental hazzards and avoiding wetlands.

| December 2000/January 2001

  • An environmental checklist for new home buyers.
    An environmental checklist for new home buyers.
  • Photo of author Barry Chalofsky.
    Photo of author Barry Chalofsky.
  • Check for tunnels or rotten wood when inspecting a home.
    Check for tunnels or rotten wood when inspecting a home.
  • Leftover pesticides in the soil can seep into groundwater and wells.
    Leftover pesticides in the soil can seep into groundwater and wells.

  • An environmental checklist for new home buyers.
  • Photo of author Barry Chalofsky.
  • Check for tunnels or rotten wood when inspecting a home.
  • Leftover pesticides in the soil can seep into groundwater and wells.

An environmental checklist for new home buyers.

When we buy a car or a new computer, we often read consumer and specialty magazines to get the background information we need to make an informed decision. But when we buy land and a house — perhaps the most significant purchase that we make in our lives — the average American spends very little time on research. Usually we worry only about affordability or mortgage qualifications, and we don't stop to consider the environment we're buying into.

At times, the environmental considerations of buying a home can even be more crucial than the purchase price. Asbestos ceilings and lead paint can lead to less-than-healthy indoor air quality; and if your property lies in a floodplain or over a sinkhole, then you may be rebuilding sooner than you think. The following environmental checklist for new home buyers will identify some fundamental considerations that you need to be aware of before you buy your next home. If you wait until after the purchase, it may be too late.

Back to the Land Floodplains

While a house near a tranquil river may seem like an idyllic paradise, spring rains can easily turn your dream home into a disaster area. Even in areas of the country where streambeds are dry for significant portions of the year, a sudden rain can turn that streambed into a raging river. Do not be fooled by the size of the stream; even small ones can flood and cause considerable damage. The quickest way to find out whether or not land sits in a floodplain is by referencing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a government agency that publishes maps called Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM). They are available at state environmental agencies, county planning departments, and local, county and university libraries. If you purchase a house in a floodplain, make sure you obtain flood insurance, but as a general rule avoid buying houses in the 100- or 500-year floodplain of rivers or streams.

Homes Near Wetlands

Wetland areas, better known as swamps or bogs, can be covered with water all or only part of the year and should be avoided at all costs. If you come across a house built in one of these spaces, you'll notice wet basements along with flooding or settling problems. In addition, since the federal and state governments regulate development in wetlands, it will be difficult — not to mention expensive and time-consuming — to obtain approval for construction.

Drainage and High Water Tables

The most significant cause of flooding in basements, however, does not come from wetlands or traditional flooding from rivers and streams, but rather from poorly drained runoff or high water tables. Location, slope, vegetation and soils are all determining factors for runoff-if not properly managed, drainage can cause significant problems for homeowners. If you are at the top of a hill, for example, you have far less potential for problems than if you are at the base of a hill. When shopping for land, try to investigate the site while it's raining so you can check out its drainage systems.

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