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Phouka Home

Renovation Worries

Well, you've bought this old house, and the first thing people will start warning you about are lead paint and asbestos. They'll forward you articles. Should you really be worried?

DISCLAIMER: There are MY opinions only...I'm not a scientist, nor a specialist in this field. This is just what I did

Lead Paint

If you buy an old house, assume that you are buying a house with lead paint.

Everyone seems to be currently up in arms about lead paint, and rightly so. Lead paint is extremely hazardous to small children and pets who ingest paint chips or inhale dust that is laden with lead from lead paint. If you have small children at home, you do whatever you need to in order to make sure your house is safe for you children - I have no qualms with this.

That said, it seems that people are getting a little too excited about the whole thing, in my opinion. Some home buyers are demanding lead-paint removal and abatement that runs into tens of thousands of dollars to remove any trace of paint possibly containing lead. Lead testing kits are popping up all over the place, recalls of products, new laws controlling the disclosure of any possible lead paint, and frightening articles touting the dangers of lead are running rampant. If you try to buy a house, you sign at least three pieces of paper warning you not to eat the paint (it seems like three dozen)

Get a grip, people.

Yes, lead paint is a hazard. But, there are methods of containing the problem that do not beggar the home-seller or renovator that are just as acceptable. Lead abatement need not be a Superfund Cleanup site kind of endeavor.

We had lead paint on most surfaces in our house, especially woodwork that was painted several times in the last forty years. We tested a few window sills, and when these came back positive, we assumed that everything painted in the same time period was lead paint. We decided on encapsulation to control the lead paint - basically, painting over it to entirely with non-lead paint to keep the paint from peeling, flaking, or being abraded so it would release dust contaminated with lead dust. We would have done this anyway (in the previous incarnation, the woodwork in the house was painted the most hideous color of bilious green and pumpkin orange that I've ever seen!)

We had to sand and scrape, obviously, and followed the current recommendations that we wear respirators, wet the paint flakes before vacuuming them, etc. We disposed of them as hazardous waste. (just so you don't think that I'm completely ignoring the problem). Of course, there is still a problem with windows frames that scrape and abrade the paint on the jambs, leaving the window sills dusty and possibly contaminated. This we control with normal cleaning.

If you have kids in the house (we don't), you may want to be more aggressive in controlling the lead paint and go through the process of completely removing old paint and repairing or replacing old windows, that's up to you. There are no consistent guidelines for lead cleanup, but the current laws in Massachusetts outline the requirements for lead abatement quite clearly, and can be used as a reference to determine what needs to checked/cleaned/repaired/replaced:

  • peeling or loose paint or plaster
  • windows with sills < 5' above the floor
  • windows with moveable surfaces that rub against one another
  • chewable surfaces that extend 1 1/2" out from the surface, or that are < 5'4" above the floor
In all these cases, you should remove or encapsulate the paint. If necessary, you can remove wood detailing and store it to be replaced later when children are older and the risk is negligable.


Once again, if you buy an old house, assume you have asbestos somewhere.

It was used as pipe insulation, insulation around coal furnaces, and in the cottage-cheese stuff that is sprayed on ceilings (ugh!).

If you even mention asbestos to most people, they start having nightmares that everyone within five miles of a house with asbestos in it will die of horrible cancer. Probably within months. Asbestos seems to have an even more hideous reputation than lead paint.

First off, asbestos is only dangerous when it's disturbed or disintegrating. Asbestos pipe insulation or blown-on ceiling is not a hazard as long as it is in one piece (in fact, I truly believe that you will be exposed to more asbestos danger if you try to have it removed than you will ever be from living in a house with asbestos insulation that is properly encapsulated).

The sellers of our house did, in accordance with the law, disclose that the pipes for the ancient heating system in the cellar had asbestos insulation on them. They cringed when they did it. They just knew that we'd back out of the agreement, or demand some ridiculous removal clause in the documents. We had it inspected, and determined that it was whole and in good repair. No problem. We left it as is.

If the asbestos is coming apart, then you need to do something about it. Encapsulation is an option, but frankly, I'd rather not deal with the stuff myself. It is probably time to call in the big guns and get a professional company to do it. There are a few products on the market to let you handle small projects yourself, so you can deal with a bit of crumbling insulation or damaged floor tile without risk.


To be completely honest, we didn't even test for Radon in our house. It is apparently a fairly big problem out here in Colorado, but our house is such a sieve that we don't consider it a risk. On a good day, there is a stiff breeze in the cellar, and the rest of the house is certainly not super-insulated. Radon seems to be more of a problem when a house is "sealed", as are many of the new homes on the market. An old house doesn't seal anywhere, I can assure you of that. Even if you try, unless you replace all the windows and doors, it will still leak. (On a windy day, the carpet in the dining room used to lift up with good gusts because the floorboards gapped.)

If we got serious about sealing the house and trapping all this gas in our cellar, Radon is one of the things that I would worry about. This is serious stuff, but in most old house projects, the risk is low. By all means, test.

A good article about radon can be found in the Jan/Feb issue of Old House Chronicle


There is probably more damage done to old buildings by water than by any other cause. It rots, it mildews, it stains, it crumbles.

See Water and your old house .

Bees, wasps, and assorted buggies

It seems odd to add bees (and wasps) to a list of worries, but they seem to pop up all over the place, and are a real menace. Our painters refused to work on one corner of our porch because of the huge wasp nest.

Termites can be disastrous for your wood house, and you should insist on a thorough inspection and extermination if they are found.

Call an exterminator. Call one quickly.

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All content ©1998-2009 R. Fingerson
Last updated 03/05/2009