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It’s time to sell! You’re looking forward to finding your new home, but likely worried about getting top dollar for your current home. A lot can go wrong — will it close on time? What will the home inspection find? What if you miss out on your dream home while you wait for a buyer? But if you are selling an older home, you may have another worry — asbestos.
“Sometimes the owners have been in the home for decades and they don’t know,” she says, “But I can kind of tell by the size of tile in their utility room, or the size and designs on the tiles, that there’s likely asbestos in the house.” Applying her more than 37 years of real estate experience, McKenna knows to bring it up early with her sellers because she doesn’t want the transaction to fall through later on.
If you know, or suspect, that your home might contain asbestos, you’ll need a strategy to deal with it during your home sale.
What is asbestos?
First hailed as a “miracle mineral,” asbestos was initially used in home and commercial building projects due its heat and flame-resistant properties. The naturally-occuring bundle of six fibers don’t conduct electricity and make great insulation. Homebuilders used asbestos to strengthen cement, as insulation around pipes or in walls, in roofing materials, and for sound absorption.
If you’ve sat in the church pew of a building built before the late 1970’s, or attended school in an older building, you’ve likely been around asbestos. Up until the late 1970’s, asbestos was an extremely common building material. It’s estimated that more than half of U.S. homes contain asbestos.
“Growing up with it, the school I attended as a kid had asbestos everywhere. Every pipe, and all of them exposed,” says McKenna.
But, over time, researchers started noticing health problems in people exposed to disturbed asbestos. For example, mechanics who breathed in loose asbestos fibers when replacing brake pads and later developed lung cancer at higher rates than the general population. Soon, researchers and health professionals had linked asbestos to health issues and cancers and the government began banning its use in the late 1970’s.
Now, the EPA has placed a ban on using asbestos in flooring felt, rollboard, commercial paper, and other products. After 1989, they moved to ban new uses of asbestos in products entering the market (some old products are grandfathered in, however).
But it was so common in older homes that Dean Murphy, owner of Shoveltown Inspections on the South Shore of Massachusetts, says that his team inspects about 60 houses per month, and encounters asbestos-like materials in about 5-10 houses a month.
Use of asbestos today in new builds is restricted through the Toxic Substances Control Act, but surprisingly it’s not completely banned. It can still be used in automotive brake pads and gaskets, roofing products, and fireproof clothing. For any materials that are sprayed-on, asbestos must be less than 1% of the product.
There are six minerals that fall into the category of asbestos:
The two that you’re most likely to find in your home are chrysotile and amosite. They’re both members of the serpentine asbestos family, which makes up 95% of all asbestos used in the world. They were typically used in walls, ceilings, roofs, floors, cement sheets, and insulation. Treat both carefully, though amosite has a higher cancer risk.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
What are the dangers (and related diseases) associated with asbestos? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to asbestos can lead to:
- Asbestosis – scarring in the lungs from breathing in asbestos fibers.
- Pleural disease – a lung condition that causes changes in the membrane surrounding the lungs and chest cavity (pleura), which may lead to less-efficient lung function.
- Lung cancer – malignant tumors that invade and block the lung’s air passages.
- Mesothelioma – a rare cancer of the membrane that covers the lungs and chest cavity (pleura), the membrane lining the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), or membranes surrounding other internal organs.
Some of these conditions don’t show up until 30 to 40 years after asbestos exposure. Because of these risks, buyers are often wary of homes with asbestos in them. “Asbestos is a carcinogen,” says Murphy, “So when we find asbestos-like materials it should be tested or abated, in most cases.”
This presents a unique challenge to sellers who have asbestos in their homes.
Where will you find asbestos in your house?
Before its ban, homebuilders commonly used asbestos in home construction to either insulate, protect against heat, or strengthen building materials. If you walk into an old basement from the 1970’s and see checkerboard tiles on the floor, there’s a good chance that they have asbestos in them.
You could find asbestos in:
- Insulation around pipes or in ducts
- Insulation in the walls and floors around stoves or furnaces
- Insulation wrapping an octopus furnace or older boilers
- Floor tiles, whether they’re made of asphalt, rubber, or vinyl
- Roofing, shingles, or siding
- Materials on walls and ceilings, which includes soundproofing elements or decorative material
- Textured wall paints
If you see loose or hanging wrapping around pipes in your basement ceiling, worn seals on a wood stove, or crumbling material coming down from a ceiling, don’t touch it. It could be asbestos. While you won’t likely find a label or brand on asbestos that tells you what it is, be cautious when doing home improvement projects in areas where it’s often found.
Most asbestos experts agree that a layperson should not attempt to fix, patch, or seal asbestos themselves. While no federal law prohibits homeowners from removing asbestos themselves, states, counties, and cities may have regulations that prohibit self-removal.
That said, the dangers of breathing in microscopic fibers, which could cause long-term health problems, are simply too great. Many flooring workers in the past have suffered from asbestos-related diseases because they were tearing out old tiles and unknowingly creating toxic dust. Always call an expert.
How to sell a home with asbestos
Don’t panic, you can still sell a home with asbestos in it! In fact, it was used so widely that it’s hard to find homes from certain eras that don’t contain asbestos. While you’ll have to disclose its presence in the house, you have several options on how to handle it.
Know the asbestos testing options and laws
If you’re reasonably certain you have asbestos in your home, you could get ahead of any buyer’s objections by testing for it yourself. Being proactive gives you more power at the bargaining table, and ensures that potential buyers know about it upfront and won’t be scared off later in the process.
Even if you think that insulation around an old boiler pipe is asbestos, it can only be 100% positively identified using a specialized microscope. Nick Gromicko, founder of InterNACHI, the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, explains that if a general home inspector thinks you have asbestos in your home, they’ll typically only identify it as an “asbestos-like material” while on site.
In some states, you can buy an at-home kit — which runs from $30-$60 — and save yourself money. You collect the samples and send them to an EPA-certified lab. But by disturbing the material you’re taking the risk of exposing yourself and your family to asbestos.
If you live in a state where it’s illegal for you to collect samples for testing, your home inspector can refer you to a specialist (and, really, do you want to be cutting up pieces of asbestos insulation yourself? Probably not).
The cost for mail-in or off-site testing is between $50-$180, depending on analysis, and on-site testing ranges from $250-$750. If you or your home inspector suspects that asbestos is present in the air, you might consider an air monitor test, which can cost anywhere between $300-$1,200.
The cost of testing for, and identifying the presence of, asbestos varies by state, depending on regulations. While testing could help you get out in front of any buyer objections, discuss whether or not it’s worth it with your real estate agent.
Disclose known asbestos and negotiate
When you complete the seller’s disclosure, you typically must disclose any known asbestos in the home. State laws vary, so if you’re confused ask your agent for help completing the disclosure. Failing to disclose could expose you to potential lawsuits — and it’s always best to be honest.
But don’t lose sleep worrying that disclosing will hurt your chances of selling. “In my experience, asbestos in a home hasn’t been a deal killer,” says Illinois-based agent Kati Spaniak, an experienced agent who sells homes 57% quicker than other agents in her area.
If you’re unsure if asbestos is present, be clear about that in the seller’s disclosure. For some buyers, if a home inspector suggests the presence of asbestos it’s enough to confirm suspicions. Asbestos was so common as a building material pre-1980 that most home buyers assume some small presence of the mineral in an older home.
Don’t be surprised, though, if the buyers ask for testing before the closing. While you’re not required to grant their request — since it could disturb the asbestos — they might walk away from the purchase if you don’t. Or, they could use the likelihood of asbestos to negotiate other concessions.
Decide if you will fix or abate the asbestos
Even if asbestos is present in your home, you’re not legally required to do anything about it.
While you could head off any buyer concerns — or requests for repairs after the home inspection — by fixing or abating the asbestos before you list, Spaniak says that “I have never had anybody walk away from a home that had asbestos.”
If in good condition, flooring, siding, or roofing materials with asbestos can last several lifetimes. But if it’s clearly damaged, you might want to fix or abate the asbestos before listing. Removal costs will depend upon where it’s located, how much asbestos is present, and how badly damaged it is. Removing asbestos from attic insulation can cost as must at $15,000, while tile removal maxes out at $15 per square foot.
Homeowners with asbestos in their homes have two options to make it safer; sealing it, or abating it. Again, most asbestos experts and even some local laws say that this is not a do-it-yourself project; hire a contractor who’s EPA-certified in asbestos removal. Consider the location and condition of the asbestos when deciding between either removing or abating the asbestos — there’s a chance the expense is unnecessary, and you might not see the return reflected in the offers.
Sealing or covering the asbestos
Remember, asbestos is only dangerous if disturbed. Sometimes, it’s both safest and cheapest to cover it rather than have it removed. Because you won’t have to pay for removal costs, containing the asbestos typically costs 15%-25% less than removal.
To seal asbestos, workers dip fiberglass cloth in water, which activates a resin to harden and form a permanent cover after wrapping the cloth around the asbestos. This is the most common option for sealing in asbestos around pipes. To cover it in other areas, the contractor might spray it with a high-grade professional sealant. In Gromicko’s personal experience, “nine times out of ten, you can contain the asbestos instead of removing it.”
With abatement, professionals remove and dispose of the asbestos in your home. Because this requires disturbing it, which increases the danger, it’s a more expensive and lengthy process.
The asbestos removal company typically asks that you, your family, and any pets not be present when it happens. It can take up to 48 hours before it’s safe to go back into the house. Ask if your abatement contractor includes testing the air post-abatement in their services.
Before getting started, the abatement company closes off any vents and turns off all heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units. Then they seal off the room or area of abatement with plastic sheeting. This prevents asbestos fibers from getting into other areas of your house.
The abatement team will wear a hazardous materials suit and full-face mask respirator while cutting off wrapping, prying up tiles, or removing insulation. Using wet cleanup tools and HEPA filter vacuums, they’ll clean the workspace when done, then remove the asbestos from your home, sealing it in leak-tight containers.
Offer a credit for repairs or abatement
In an ideal world, you’d have abundant time to fix or abate the asbestos before selling. But if you’re selling to relocate, or because you’ve already bought another house, time may be of the essence. Or, you just don’t want to deal with the hassle.
McKenna says that it’s common for buyers to ask for a credit because it’s the practical thing to do. “If the owner is living there with their family, [they’re] not going to do it then or while packing up and moving and stressed out,” she points out. The perfect time to take care of the asbestos is a few days before or after closing, when the house is vacant.
Consider getting an estimate on the cost of containment or removal of the asbestos. Include those quotes in your listing, along with a note that you’ll offer a buyer a credit at closing for the repairs. That way, they know they’ll have the money available immediately to fix it.
McKenna advises her sellers to get an estimate from several asbestos abatement companies. She doesn’t have her sellers discount their list price for the abatement or remediation costs, because in her experience, “If I say to a buyer and a buyer’s agent — we’ve priced this home considering the fact that we’re going to need to abate and it’s going to cost $1,800, they’ll ask for another $1,800 off the price.”
Instead, she warns sellers that while they’ll price the house at market value, they should expect to take the estimated cost of abatement off the top.
Consider selling “as is”
Managing the asbestos resolution yourself could be more work, time, and money than you want to spend. You have to call around and get quotes for covering or abating it, arrange a time for the contractor to come in and do the work, and possibly stay in a hotel while it’s done. If you’d rather not deal with it, consider selling your home “as is.”
When selling a home “as is,” you either indicate this on the listing or calculate if selling your home for cash is an option.
With the HomeLight Simple Sale tool, you don’t need to worry about repairs or open houses. Simply answer a few questions about your home, its condition, and your selling timeline, and get a cash offer within 48 hours. If you choose to accept it, you could close in as few as 10 days. This path is most recommended if the home has extensive or costly asbestos removals that you’re unwilling or unable to take on.
Can you sell a house with asbestos? Yes!
Asbestos is only dangerous if it’s been disturbed and is in the air, so it’s not necessarily a bad idea to buy a home with asbestos. But buyers will want a plan in place to handle the asbestos at some point while they own the home. In most cases, banks will finance a home with asbestos as long as it’s managed in a way that does not affect the health and safety of the occupants or the property’s ability to serve as collateral.
Your best bet, as a seller, is to be upfront and tackle the asbestos head on. McKenna gives buyer’s agents a heads up that there might be asbestos in a home. Partnering with an experienced, top agent is the best and most reassuring way to navigate the selling process when asbestos is part of the equation. They’ll have strategies for handling a home sale with asbestos, and can draw on years of experience when negotiating abatement or a credit with the buyer.
If you’re looking for a top agent in your area, try the HomeLight’s Agent Match tool. It sorts agents by the volume of sales in your area, how often they get their sellers a premium, and how quickly they close, allowing you to find the best agent to sell your home.
Header Image Source: (Alex Block/ Unsplash)
- "How Many U.S. Homes Likely Still Contain Asbestos?," Mesothelioma Guide (December 2020)
- "EPA Actions to Protect the Public from Exposure to Asbestos," United States Environmental Protection Agency (July 2022)
- "Types of Asbestos," The Mesothelioma Center (August 2022)
- "Health Effects of Asbestos," Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (November 2016)
- "Asbestos Floor Tiles: Is It Safe to Remove on Your Own?," The Mesothelioma Center (September 2021)