Just when you think you’ve survived signing every page of a 1,000-page home loan doc or a renter’s agreement that practically asks for your firstborn child in the event that something goes wrong, you move into a home that secretly wants you dead. As you innocently settle into your new, lead-painted bedroom at night, the drip in the bathroom lets you know that mold is en route… and also, do you smell something just off? Suddenly your new abode doesn’t seem so inviting.
If you’re like me and live in a 100-year-old bungalow, death can feel especially, um, imminent (that beam is definitely about to collapse, right?), and if you’re renting, these problems can feel even more out of your control. But don’t worry—if you know where these five main monsters may be lurking, you (or your landlord) can take action. Your home can become less monsterish and more cozyish—like it should be.
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1. Get your pipes right.
Water lines or drain lines are often hidden behind walls, so issues like leaks can go undetected—which means they can cause major problems before you even know anything is wrong, says Bryan Blair, general manager of plumbing, electrical, and duct cleaning for Enercare. Plumbing issues can cause mold, which can lead to other health problems. And depending on where you live, there’s also the possibility that your water quality may be poor due to substances used in the water treatment process.
Here are Blair’s top tips for taking care of your water lines to prevent issues. If you are a homeowner, do this yourself. If you are a renter, it is reasonable to ask your landlord to do this for you:
- Test your water supply. To do this yourself, you can buy test strips online for $15 or contact your local water provider.
- Know how to shut off your water, always turn it off when you go on vacation (yes, even during the winter), and be sure to inspect your main shut-off (the lever inside your home that controls all your water—in an apartment unit, this may be located elsewhere) every six months.
- In cold weather, you can prevent breaks by winterizing your lines, which can be done by shutting off your water, draining all outside taps, and removing the hoses.
- Install a backwater valve to prevent sewage backup into the home.
- Don’t flush anything but toilet paper down your toilets.
- Install a water leak sensor or moisture detection system in your home (both less than $30 items), which can alert you when you may be experiencing leaks.
2. Banish mold from your life.
While leaking water pipes are a mold’s best friend, they aren’t needed for mold to flourish—one of the biggest causes of mold is humidity. Of course, older homes can also be more at risk than newer ones, and you may not know about it until the problem is so bad that it starts to make your home smell. Leak sensors will help, but they might not be enough.
Nelson Barnes, Jr., industrial hygienist and certified indoor environmentalist with Maryland Environmental Systems & Solutions, says that, unfortunately, mold can also enter your home on air currents. “I suggest every homeowner invest in an inexpensive hygrometer ($33) that measures temperature and relative humidity,” Barnes says. Renters can also buy these units to keep in their apartments.
“When you see relative humidity rising toward 60 percent, it’s time to turn on the ceiling fans or the air conditioner.” An open window, he says, is not a good solution, as it allows moisture to enter your home. Instead, opt for a dehumidifier, which removes moisture.
Mold can be really hard on our bodies. “Mold exposure in homes can result in bronchial irritation, burning eyes, congestion, difficulty sleeping, sleep apnea, disturbed sleep, and even difficulty resting, making us tired. It can also result in headaches and sinus problems,” he says.
Here are some of Barnes’s suggestions for handling mold in your home. If you are renting, report these issues to your landlord:
- Let your nose be your guide—your house should not smell musty.
- Check the air filter in your home. It should be changed regularly. Once the filter gets too dirty, air flow is restricted and particles of debris and mold spores bounce off the filter and into your air.
- Always use allergen filters. Specifically, you should use high-efficiency particulate arrest (HEPA) filters—they are the best at removing the most junk and toxins from the air. If you are renting and your landlord won’t use quality filters, consider purchasing them yourself—they can be pricey (this one’s on sale for $85), but they’re a great investment.
3. Improve your air quality.
Your air ducts are like the lungs of your house: When they get clogged with dirt and dander, no one breathes well. Blair says that a clogged air duct can host bacteria that spread throughout your home—and surprisingly, even changes in air temperature can affect the air quality.
“Rapid changes in ductwork temperatures from cooling or heating can cause the dust and debris to become moist and create mold,” he explains.
Here’s some of his advice about air quality. If you’re renting, these are issues that deserve your landlord’s attention, so feel free to nag:
- Change your furnace filter on a regular basis (every 3-4 months).
- Have your ducts cleaned and purified every 3-4 years based on the user (homes with more people or animals may need it more frequently).
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4. Keep an eye out for lead and asbestos.
Remodeling an old house is not for the faint of heart. Once, I wanted to lay carpet in my basement as part of a room remodel. The room was being painted, beautiful board and batten was applied to the walls, and one day, they pulled up the carpet. Suddenly, the contractor had to evacuate all the workers—they had found asbestos tile under my carpet.
Now, asbestos is harmless… if you don’t disturb it. But the dust from it is toxic, so my family and I had to live with my mom for three days while the crew donned hazmat suits and carefully removed it. I’m glad they took it seriously: Mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer, can occur from exposure to old building materials like asbestos. Relatedly, lead, which can be found in the paint in old buildings, can also make you very sick.
Here is Barnes’s advice for dealing with older building materials:
- If your home or apartment is built before 1978, take caution when doing renovations. Have your home inspected by a licensed home inspector, and for environmental issues, hire an industrial hygienist.
- If you do find lead paint or asbestos, only have it removed by a professional.
If you are renting an older home or apartment, ask your landlord about possible lead paint or asbestos. This is true especially if the landlord is doing repairs—it may be best to stay with someone while repairs are completed.
5. Check your furnace and gas stove.
Anyone who lives with an appliance that uses gas, oil, coal, or wood—such as a furnace, boiler, or gas stove—is at risk for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, which can be deadly. Signs of CO poisoning include a dull headache, dizziness, nausea, and confusion, and it can lead to loss of consciousness or even death. It’s crucial that you make sure that all your gas and oil appliances are functioning properly.
Here are some tips from the CDC. This is good advice for renters and homeowners alike:
- Have your furnace inspected every year and make sure other appliances that use gas or oil are working properly. If you’re renting, your landlord should do this for you. Insist.
- Install battery-operated or battery back-up CO detectors (about $22 a pop) near every sleeping area in your home.
- Check CO detectors regularly to make sure they are functioning properly.
Your living space can cause a ton of worry, but if you’re prepared and know what safety measures need to be in place, you can be ahead of the game. If you do your research and regular maintenance, your home doesn’t have to be a monster—it can even be a sanctuary.