As home deals heat up in the South Sound, many buyers worry about whether they can win out in an increasingly competitive market.
But another problem could lurk in the stacks of paper people sign when buying a home: The disclosure that the property once was contaminated by methamphetamine.
Meth was a scourge in Pierce County more than a decade ago when the drug was at its peak. Contaminated properties reported to law enforcement and health officials ballooned from a handful a year to more than 100 a year, starting in 1999.
Doctors say meth dust loose in a home, even years after the fact, can cause a variety of serious health problems. Homes found with meth contamination, either by police or other means, must meet strict standards for cleanup before people can live in them again.
Today, more than 1,000 homes in Pierce County have been cleaned of contaminated with meth, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
More than 100 of these homes have changed hands in the past three years, county records show. While the state requires a disclosure on the title, even when the home is cleaned to state standard, many buyers don’t see it.
“A lot of people rent and purchase properties and don’t do a lot of due diligence,” said Joe Gallagher, environmental health specialist for the Health Department. “A little research and you could get some more information.”
Potential buyers can learn about their dream homes’ initial condition, view police reports and see what steps were taken to clean the property.
One thing to remember if you’re a renter: while state law requires sellers to disclose the condition to buyers, renters receive no such notice.
One of the dozens of formerly meth-tainted homes in the county is on East Roosevelt Street on Tacoma’s East Side.
In late 2001, police entered the two-level home and found dozens of items used to make meth or run a drug house: funnels, buckets, isopropyl alcohol, baggies containing white powder, several propane tanks, video surveillance cameras and more.
Records show it took the property owner more than a year to clean the house to the Health Department’s satisfaction.
Anna and Travis Loudenback found that out — after they bought the house.
Buying a former meth lab
The Loudenbacks began house shopping two years ago and were impressed when they visited the East Roosevelt Street home.
Built in 1940 and updated, the home was move-in ready, Anna said. All three bathrooms were recently remodeled. It had new appliances and cabinets in the kitchen and the drywall was “pretty much perfect,” Travis said.
About a month after the couple paid nearly than $235,000 for the home, Anna searched their new address online. Only then did she realize the house was on the list of local homes that had been contaminated with meth.
“It was not something we expected,” Travis said. “And I don’t know if it would’ve changed our minds if we had known.”
Sited on a corner lot, the home has a spacious yard and room for their three children, ages nearly 2 to 16.
“We’ve been very happy with the neighbors,” Travis said. “We grew up in Federal Way, so we were a little worried just because, I mean, it’s Tacoma and there are parts of it that aren’t wonderful.”
He works at a collision repair shop in Kent, and while the couple could have bought a home up north to shorten the commute, “A big part of it is you get so much more bang for your buck in Pierce County. A similar house would’ve cost another $100,000 there.”
Would she still have bought the house had she known its history? Sure, Anna said, after looking closely at the inspection reports.
“It’s been long enough that we’re not worried about people still thinking it was a meth house,” she said.
Health hazards linger
Though it can be years — more than a decade in some cases — since meth was made in a home, the chemicals can linger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Residual meth contamination from a lab can affect residents, “particularly in young children,” a CDC paper states.
Meth contamination remains a health concern here, said Dr. Stephen Anderson, emergency medicine physician at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center. He is a 30-year veteran of emergency medicine.
Cooking the drug can create byproducts that long remain in household objects, he said.
People who live in spaces that haven’t been cleaned can suffer from chronic headaches and recurrent nausea. Meth contamination also can cause chronic breathing problems in those with asthma or emphysema, he said.
“Dusty houses or houses that seem to have fumes that linger,” Anderson said. “People complain about those for years and years sometimes.”
While the heyday of cooking meth is likely long past, partly due to strict controls on the supply of some of the ingredients, Anderson said he still sees about one person a day in the emergency room who has used meth.
“Depending on the bad full moon,” he said, “I could have 10 or 15 that day.”
The hefty toll of meth cleanup
An extensive cleanup of a tainted home can cost thousands of dollars, and homeowners are on the hook for the costs, said Brad Harp, program manager for hazardous releases with the Health Department.
Meth “gets in the carpets and in the countertops and the fan above the oven,” he said. “You really can’t clean (to the state standard) in a shag rug.”
Wood trim often is removed, as is any porous material, including cabinetry and carpet. Sometimes a home must be gutted to the studs.
Once a home’s surfaces meets the state standard of less than 1.5 micrograms of contamination per 100 square centimeters, the Health Department certifies it acceptable for occupation, Gallagher said.
Would he live in a house that’s been cleaned of meth contamination?
“That’s a hard question,” he said.
File a request for records on your home
Check the list of reported meth-contaminated homes on the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department website.
Request records about the home’s meth contamination and cleanup. File a request with the department to view available records: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the home’s address.
The records can include a police report, letters to the property owner, notes, and reports about the property’s initial condition and a work plan for eventual cleanup.
Older reports are often archived. It can take time for health department officials to retrieve the documents from storage.
Arrange a time to view the records with the health department. Records can be viewed from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department office at 3629 S. D St., Tacoma.
Copies of records cost 15 cents per page, according to state law.