FAIRBANKS — The new owners of a North Pole home were renovating the guest bedroom when they discovered black mold festering along the base of a wall.
Their real estate agent pointed them to someone who could help.
In mid-October, air quality consultant Bill Reynolds peeled back a layer of paint that had been applied over the mold.
Air samples from the room revealed Stachybotrys (pronounced stacky-bottress) levels of 5,200 spores per cubic meter. The environmental laboratory considers anything more than 600 “of concern,” Reynolds said.
The water, which came from a leaky bathtub pipe next door, soaked the trim along the wall and provided both ingredients for growing mold: moisture and cellulose.
“We were just really disappointed because it was not disclosed in the papers,” said Tanja Glidden, the new homeowner, who is eight months pregnant.
Neither the federal government nor Alaska regulate household mold as they do radon or arsenic. Mold has eluded regulation in part because there is no clear line between safe and dangerous levels.
“EPA has no regulation on it, no guidelines, because they have not been able to come to a consensus on what’s acceptable levels,” said Gene Duval, a local broker who is on the board of the Alaska Real Estate Commission. “It’s kind of like a bee sting. They sting me; it’s not pleasant, but it doesn’t kill me. Somebody else could die.”
The natural presence of mold makes it practically impossible to regulate, he said.
“If you start exploring in houses, you’ll find mold everywhere. … Under every vapor barrier in your house, everywhere there’s dirt, there’s mold,” he said.
But large, unsafe amounts of mold — like in the Glidden home — are a byproduct of water damage or another moisture problem. But vague disclosure laws, the persistent nature of mold, and the rising number of mold cases in Fairbanks have heightened the debate about liability.
Mold is a byproduct of too much moisture. It can be tricky to eliminate because it often grows out of view and returns unless the moisture problem causing it is removed. That means not just cleaning the mold but eliminating the water source and usually adding ventilation.
Typically, the mold you see on a wall or floor isn’t what sickens people. Instead, it’s the microscopic mold spores released by that visible mold. They float invisibly through the air and can concentrate in poorly ventilated space.
At lower concentrations, the spores usually are harmless. But those allergic to mold can become extremely sick from even a few spores. In high concentrations, mold can create cold and asthma symptoms in healthy people and cause even worse problems for those with allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mold dangers depend on the type of spores, the extent of the growth, its location and the personal threshold of those subjected to it.
That makes it a ripe issue for controversy when a house changes hands.
“Mold seems to have become a hot-button issue in real estate right now,” said Aisha Bray, an attorney at Guess and Rudd P.C. who has worked on two mold cases in the past year. “We’re getting a lot of mold claims from buyers against sellers after the sale.”
Some near the controversy blame sellers for being dishonest about mold, while others blame vague disclosure laws and the variable nature of mold. But experts agree that the only fix in the current system is to make buyers, sellers and real estate agents more wary of mold up front.
“You shouldn’t sell a home that you wouldn’t want to buy,” Reynolds said.
The absent law
During a home sale, a seller must fill out a disclosure statement noting everything from roof leaks to termites to mold. State law says if you fail to disclose something, you are liable for damages. If you intentionally hide something, you could owe triple damages.
Most complainants Bray sees at the law firm claim they weren’t informed about the degree of mold, she said.
The statement asks if the seller is “aware of any mildew or mold issues affecting the property.”
What does that include?
Not minor amounts on window sills or the bathtub, said Reynolds. But because of growing controversy about mold, Duval said you can never be too careful.
“I tell people, ‘Over-disclose, over-disclose, over-disclose,’” he said.
Still, you can only disclose what you can see. What if there is mold in the wall cavity or flooring that the seller didn’t know about?
“Then you’ve got the allegation that the seller didn’t disclose the extent of the mold and that the cleanup and remediation they did was really concealment,” said Bray, who handled such a case.
A building inspector might catch the mold, but inspections are optional during a home sale.
“I’ve had buyers that said ‘Never mind, I don’t want (the building inspection).’ It’s $500 that the buyer has to come up with,” said Eileen Cummings, president of the Greater Fairbanks Board of Realtors.
It’s not the real estate agent’s job to intercept mold, either, Cummings said.
“We help people buy and sell houses. We’re the person in the middle. By law, we’re not experts in mold, construction or environmental issues,” she said.
To formalize this, real estate agents created a “hold harmless” agreement that waives them of liability if mold is disclosed (which has also been legally challenged).
If agents are not held liable, only personal ethics will guide their approach to mold.
Cummings said her role is to inform clients about mold and, as a listing agent, to refuse to list a house with bad mold.
On the buyer’s end, Duval advises clients to walk away from homes with obvious mold.
Responsibility for mold lies squarely on sellers and buyers.
“It’s about empowering buyers or sellers to get the fullest information available,” said Rich Seifert, energy and building expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It’s about not allowing ignorance to rule.”
If there’s a question about mold, parties have a couple options. They could hire a mold consultant to test for humidity, mold and ventilation. That service costs $175 to $500.
DuVal refers clients to an environmental engineer, which is more expensive.
But it’s much cheaper than litigation.
Mold cases don’t typically go to court because litigation costs outweigh the amount of damages — usually between $5,000 and $15,000, Bray said.
“It’s cheaper to pay somebody $5,000 in ransom money to get rid of this claim because litigation is so outrageously expensive,” she said.
Both of her mold cases settled for a portion of remediation costs.
Remediation can be costly, depending on the severity of mold problems. For example, the Gliddens’ home in North Pole will need new flooring under the bathroom and repairs for a moldy, rotting wall in the crawl space, Tanja Glidden said, based on bids she had received. Neither the seller nor the building inspector knew about the mold, they said. Unless Glidden can prove they did, she inherited an expensive mold problem.
Buyers, sellers and real estate agents all have something to lose in a fight over mold. So does the local population.
“We don’t want a community of moldy houses,” said Cummings, the real estate agent. “I think if everyone is paying attention, we can get a handle on the situation and hopefully prevent people from getting sick.”
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