Screening purchases
No one is suggesting that every home purchase should be treated as a potential meth lab. But there are some tip-offs that tell you to investigate further. Unfortunately, many clues – squalid living conditions, graffiti, strange visitors coming and going at night – aren’t available to a buyer. However, you can screen for the most obvious red flags:

  • Foreclosures: Plenty of meth labs get used, trashed and abandoned. They end up in foreclosure and then are recycled onto the market. Scrutinize foreclosure purchases carefully,  Connell says.
  • Houses: A disproportionate number of labs show up in single-family homes compared with apartments and condominiums, Connell says.
  • Police trouble: A house that has a history of arrests or police visits is more likely to have a meth history. Here are tips to learning a home’s history:
  • Chat with neighbors. Knock on doors in the neighborhood. Introduce yourself, say that you’re considering buying the house down the block and that you’re researching its history. Find longtime residents whose memory stretches back awhile. Ask if police have been called to the house or if arrests or busts were made there.
  • Call the police. Phone or visit the police department’s community-service office and ask them to check the address of the home you’re considering for arrests, drug busts and other problems.
  • Call the health department. Find out if the address you’re considering is listed in connection with any health department reports.
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Professional testing
The only way to guarantee the home you’re buying isn’t contaminated is testing by an industrial hygienist specializing in drug-residue detection. “By walking into a property, I can tell you, based on the structure, other properties around it, where the light switches are, which way the wind blows, where to collect the sample that tells if meth is present,” Connell says. Samples are sent to a lab for analysis. A cursory evaluation can cost around $450; exhaustive testing starts at $2,000 or more.

Amateur testing
A decent (but not fail-safe) screening can be done with a good test kit. Cost: $9 to $35. A positive reading shows that a place has a problem. But a negative reading doesn’t mean the home is clean. Amateur testers can easily miss “dirty” areas. Increase your chances by using seven or eight kits in a home you’re serious about, wiping many different locations – counters, ceiling, floor and walls in different rooms. Tests can be purchased over the Internet but vary in quality. Connell recommends SKC Methchek (in which he has no financial interest), which uses a method developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that lets you see results instantly. Cost: three tests for $109; discounts for volume purchases.

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To protect yourself, it also helps to do these things:

Learn your state’s protections.
Some states give buyers more protection than others, both in terms of how much information a seller must disclose about a property and in terms of acceptable standards for cleaning up a drug-contaminated site.

Most states require sellers to disclose certain known problems, such as structural defects. In addition, some states also make sellers disclose that they’re not aware of environmental hazards such as asbestos or lead. A few states go even further. Colorado, for example, now requires sellers to certify in a real-estate contract that a property was never used as a meth lab. A buyer can get a house tested and can back out of a deal if a meth history is revealed. Once a house has been decontaminated to Colorado’s standards, though, sellers no longer need to disclose the history.

Disclosures matter because, in most jurisdictions, if property that you own turns out to be contaminated, you must pay the cost of testing and cleaning it up, whether or not you were aware of the home’s history. Increasingly, communities and states are setting strict standards for cleanup. (See the Environmental Protection Agency’s Voluntary Guidelines for Methamphetamine Laboratory Cleanup.)

When you’re buying property:

  • Learn what to expect from disclosures. Read: “Disclosure: What sellers need to know.” Ask a good real-estate agent to explain exactly what sellers must disclose in your state. Look up your state’s real-estate laws and learn how to contact regulators at the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials’ Web site.
  • Accompany the home inspector. Even if you don’t suspect problems, try to be on-site during the pre-purchase inspection of a home you want to buy. You’ll learn much more by watching the inspection and asking questions than you will by simply reading the inspection report. Don’t expect a home inspector to be able to identify meth contamination. However, some inspectors have taken training that lets them point to suspicious signs.
  • Use your own smarts. Look for unusual problems such as yellow staining on carpets and walls, and corroded plumbing and electrical wiring. The Nevada Attorney General’s Web site lists more ways to recognize a meth house here.