Mold growth in a house is the latest environmental concern. Mold is the common name for simple plants or fungi, usually microscopic in size, which are naturally occurring and produce spores that can be found everywhere indoors and outdoors. It has been estimated that there are at least 40,000 known species of fungi. Molds thrive on materials such as cotton, wool, paper, leather, and wood. As a result mold, which will grow anywhere indoors where there is moisture, is quite a common occurrence in buildings. The moisture may be in the host material, on its surface, or in the form of humidity in the air. Although there have been known health problems associated with mold, the one problem that brought it to the attention of the media and therefore the public is a house in Austin, Texas. Because of a series of water leaks in the house, a toxic buildup of mold developed.
It is not unusual for a water leak in a house to cause the mold buildup. However, in this case the mold was the toxic species Stachybotrys chartarum (atra), which is black in color and produces airborne toxins. The spores of other molds can appear as black, brown, blue, orange, or white specks although they are not always visible to the naked eye. Because of the airborne toxins, the family living in the house suffered a number of very serious health problems, and the house was deemed uninhabitable.
In order not to overreact to finding a mold buildup in the house, it’s important to separate the hype from reality. Fortunately, extensive Stachybotrys mold is relatively rare, and the molds usually found in homes are the less toxic species. Exposure to mold spores in a house does not always present a health problem. The testing for mold during a home inspection is not considered necessary even though there are a number of companies selling kits that test for mold. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, “It is not necessary to determine what type of mold you may have. All molds should be treated the same with respect to potential health risks and removal.”
If there is a mold condition in the house that you are inspecting and you are allergic or otherwise sensitive to mold, you will usually know it because you may experience symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, or wheezing. During your inspection of the interior, check all the rooms, especially a basement, for indications of a possible mold buildup. In this effort your eyes and nose are the best tools. Large mold infestations can usually be seen or smelled. If you see a moldy buildup on a wall or ceiling, record the location on your worksheets for either cleanup or replacement. In most cases you can easily remove the mold by a thorough cleaning with bleach and water. However, if there is an extensive amount of mold, you may want to engage the services of a professional with experience in cleaning mold in homes. Eliminating the mold problem may include discarding moldy items and replacing sections of walls and/or ceilings.
Mold odors can be masked intentionally or unintentionally by a seller. If the house that you are inspecting has an odor because of incense burning, cinnamon water boiling on the stove, or some other pleasant odor, ask the seller if you can return for an additional inspection when there are no extraneous odors.
If you detect a moldy odor in a room, look for water stains, even those stains that are dry to the touch. It is possible that there is mold buildup on the backside of the drywall or paneling. In this case further investigation is required. However, this type of investigation is beyond the scope of a home inspection and should be performed by a company or consultant that specializes in “sick houses.” Also, in those carpeted rooms that are vulnerable to occasional or more frequent flooding such as a bathroom or finished basement, if there is a moldy odor, the carpet should be suspect as the source of the mold buildup. If there is mold, the typical solution is to replace the carpet. The hidden dust in fibers and the underside of a wetted carpet are ideal locations for mold growth. In addition to the carpet, it is also possible that there is mold buildup behind the walls.
Since basements are below ground and are therefore vulnerable to water penetration, pay particular attention for any signs of past water problems because mold growth is almost always due to excessive moisture. A moldy odor in the basement during the warmer months is not uncommon and is the result of condensation because of high relative humidity.
The condition can be easily corrected with a dehumidifier. If the dehumidifier doesn’t correct the problem, further investigation will be necessary.