Big Decisions

10 Things to Look for When Buying a House: Health Edition

The style is all up to you

Taking the plunge and buying a house? You obviously weren't taken down by the avocado toast trend stealing all your hard earned moola. As you walk through potential homes we have 10 environmental health suggestions for things to look, smell, listen, and maybe even taste for.


  1. The plumbing - Check the pipes, or ask a plumber or the inspector to check them. But, as you walk through, flush a toilet, turn on a faucet, see if the water gets hot, make sure the water doesn't come out a funny color, things like that. If you are feeling very curious, you could also take a sip of water and see how it tastes. After all, you might be drinking and cooking with this water every day! You also want to be sure there aren't lead pipes, and that they are properly insulated.
  2. Signs of water damage - Look for discoloration on the walls, ceiling, in the attic, or around window frames, which could be signs of previous or current leaks. Also, pay attention for musty smells which could mean there is mold hiding in the walls, also usually from unwanted water. The seller should disclose any known mold or water-related problems.
  3. The Windows - First off, make sure there are a good number of windows and they face in desirable directions. Are there windows that allow for natural light throughout the day? South and west facing windows tend to get the best light. What about a way to create a cross breeze? Do any of the windows directly face a street that may have lots of light at night or people looking directly in them? While you are at it, look at the quality of the windows. Are they well insulated or double paned to hold in your heat or air conditioning? Windows can be relatively easy to change or replace, but it's more difficult to add them or take them away.
  4. Age - While an older home can add character and charm, it also means you have to ask a few more questions. Especially about things like asbestos and lead. Although there are still some limited acceptable uses of asbestos, regulations regarding asbestos started in the 1970s. It's important to ask if the seller knows anything about asbestos in the home and what has been done to deal with it. Many homes built in the before the 1980's have asbestos in the insulation and drywall, so if you are thinking about doing any renovations, the asbestos will need to be properly handled. Regulations on lead paint are a little stronger, considering it was actually banned in 1978. But if the home was built before the 1970's, there is a likely chance there is lead paint around that you need to be careful with, especially if you are planning on doing any renovations. While you are talking about lead, don't forget to check about the pipes, too.
  5. The Floors - As you walk through the house, look down. In terms of your health down the line, avoiding carpeting and vinyl flooring are the best options. Carpeting, or the carpet padding, is often treated with flame retardants that can easily escape into household dust. If you can, peek under a corner of the carpeting and see what's underneath, you might get lucky and find some beautiful hardwood floors. Not only a bonus in terms of what's trending right now, but they are a much healthier option. Vinyl flooring, while it may look like wood, doesn't act like wood. Phthalates, a chemical that can mess with your hormone levels, are generally added to vinyl flooring. There are new types of vinyl flooring available without these bad chemicals, but if it's older flooring, it's definitely something you might want to consider. Hardwood or tile are your best options when it comes to staying safe from health concerns coming from your floors.
  6. Pests and Pesticides - Look for signs of different invaders. Are there ants crawling around, do you notice droppings or gnawing marks that are signs of mice or rats. A home pest inspection is not required in every state, but depending on the market you can ask for one. You also want to ask the seller about pesticide use. Did they regularly apply them, and if so, where, and why? Is this because there was a problem in the past or just because they are trying to prevent one. Pesticides can be pretty hazardous, so you may want to learn about why they are being used to see if there are other options for controlling the issue.
  7. Smell the house - This may sound weird, but you can tell a lot about the house by the way it smells. Does it smell like smoke, pets, dirty socks? Walking around the property, do you smell sewage or gas? These are all signs to at least ask a few more questions. If it smells like smoke or pets, you might want to ask the seller or agent about the history of who lived in the house. If they smoked, there can be third-hand smoke that lingers in the house, especially in things like carpet, drapes, and even the paint. Science is showing that third-hand smoke can cause similar health effects to secondhand smoke, so you want to be sure the house is fully cleaned before you move in. The smell of gas could also be a sign of industry in the area, or a gas leak, or sulfur deposits. All of which are things you should dig deeper into.
  8. Noise - Pay attention to what you hear when you walk around the house. Is it in the line of a flight path, do the neighbors have a dog that barks a lot, or a baby who might cry throughout the night? Pay attention to the street noise as well. Is there a bar or restaurant next door that might have noisy patrons late into the night? Even if it's not constant, noise can add to your stress levels and end up affecting your overall health.
  9. The Basement - If the home you are looking at has one, it's a good idea to test for radon, which is a source of radiation that naturally occurs in various regions throughout the country.
  10. The neighborhood - This can have a big impact on how much you like living in your new home. Sure, people talk about schools and parks in the area, they also talk about night life and how easy it is to get groceries. But, what about things that may impact your health due to the neighborhood. Think about factors like how close the house is to a highway (further is better in terms of pollution), farmland and nuclear plants (again further is better for limiting exposure to pesticides, radiation, and other chemicals). More recently, how close your home is to fracking sites, or proposed fracking sites is also important. Fracking brings in a lot of trucks which bring with them pollution, in addition to the chemicals used in the process, and the potential for earthquakes.

Remembering to look at all of these things can be tough, and there are some you probably can't do alone. We recommend you get a home inspection. A lot about these things can be revealed by a home inspection when it is done well. If you have specific concerns, talk to the inspector and ask if they can pay special attention to those as well. They are trained professionals who know exactly what to look for in the home, and might find something you weren't aware of. This doesn't have to be a deal breaker, but it might mean you do some negotiating before you sign the final paperwork.

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