A Port Angeles homeowner recently discovered asbestos in the material used in her popcorn ceilings. When she purchased the home that was built in 1975, she had no idea that the home had health endangering levels of asbestos.

People who have been exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards and who have inhaled high levels of asbestos fibers are subject to an increased risk of lung cancer, including mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity, and asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is greater for those who smoke. People who get asbestosis have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

How could this happen to a home buyer?

The homeowner said she had a real estate agent representing her, and she paid for a home inspection, but she felt like “no one was watching out for her interest.” Estimates for cleaning up the asbestos and making her home safe to live in start at $5,000. After the down payment, loan costs, other closing costs, and with the “surprises” that already have cost her $10,000 before she could move into her home, an additional $5,000 is taking a tremendous toll on her.

Who is watching out for a buyer? Here are two traps for the unwary purchaser:

  1. State law takes the real estate agent off the hook as far as the seller’s representations in the Form 17 (Seller’s Disclosure Statement) are concerned (and in estate sales like this one, a Form 17 is not required), and
  2. Home inspectors have an escape clause in their contract, which states that they are not liable to the purchaser for such things.
This means a homeowner, like this woman, who relies upon professionals to protect her, may find herself the victim with no one else liable. Why do I write about this subject? Is it because I have a great interest in consumer protection? Not so much. It is because I have a soft place in my heart for widows who get victimized while everyone involved makes money off her.

Under the law real estate agents and inspectors in a case like this may have no liability at all, meaning they may in fact have complied with the law and done all that is required under their ethical codes. But under such a scenario as in this case, the homeowner gets thrown off the cliff, and everyone else gets a free pass. From the home buyer’s perspective, something is wrong with this picture.

How can I emphasize enough the importance of working with professionals who are competent and trustworthy, and who in fact watch out for the client’s best interests? In this case, it would only have cost $75 to test the ceiling for asbestos, but no one told the home buyer prior to closing. While the real estate agent and the inspector may not have been legally or ethically bound to tell the home buyer this, wouldn’t it have been in the client’s best interests to let her know her options? And where was the inspector in all this? Did he not consider the age of the house and the potential for asbestos? As between the parties, who has all the knowledge on these issues–a widow or a professional inspector or agent?

Be careful who you hire. You could end up a victim with no recourse, just like this widow.

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