Should You Test for Lead Paint before Buying an Old House?

Are you considering buying a home or house that was built before 1978?

While old houses can be charming in their own right — full of history, beauty, and potential for renovation — don’t be too eager to say yes right away.

Beneath quant trimmings and old-fashioned wallpapers often lies hidden dangers posed by lead-based paint.

If you’re wondering whether you should get lead paint testing for your potential future home, you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s what homebuyers should know about lead paint testing before purchasing an old house.

The Problem with Lead-Based Paint

Lead is a toxic substance that, even in tiny concentrations, causes a variety of short and long-term health problems.

It’s especially harmful to young children under 6 years old, who may suffer from irreversible damage to their mental and physical development. Some symptoms of lead poisoning in young children include:

  • Developmental delays and learning difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Seizures

Since we know that lead is so dangerous, why is lead-based paint so prevalent in old homes?

Prior to lead being publicly outed as an extremely toxic substance, lead was prominently used as a component in household paint. Adding lead to paint accelerated drying, increased durability, resisted moisture, and helped maintain a shiny, fresh-looking appearance.

Lead paint was banned for use in residential buildings in New York City in 1960. In 1978, the federal government also banned the use of lead paint across the entire United States.

But that doesn’t mean that old houses no longer contain lead paint — the ban only stopped new housing from using it.

According to the EPA, approximately 87% of homes built before 1940 contain lead-based paint. That percentage drops to 69% for homes built between 1940-1960, and 24% for homes built between 1960-1978.

Why You Should Test for Lead before You Buy

There are several reasons why a prospective homeowner should consider getting an old house or building tested for lead before making a purchase.

The most important reason is if you have a child under 6 years old in your family.

The consequences of exposure to lead paint and lead poisoning is highest for young children, as well as pregnant women. In New York City, owners of multi-family housing are required by Local Law 1 to inspect and remediate lead paint wherever a child under 6 resides. This requirement does not apply to individual homeowners, but lead testing is strongly recommended for the same reasons.

That doesn’t mean older children and adults are safe either — lead paint can be a serious health hazard for anyone. Getting your future home tested for lead will give you peace of mind knowing your family can live safely.

Another reason to test is if you plan to do any renovations. Any construction or repair work may disturb lead paint and produce toxic lead dust. If accidentally inhaled or ingested, even a minute amount of lead-containing dust can lead to various short and long-term health problems.

Your Rights as a Homebuyer

The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 requires all sellers to provide homebuyers with a 10-day period to conduct a lead-based paint inspection or risk assessment.

That means after signing the contract, you still have 10 days to hire a certified lead professional to test the premises for lead paint. However, note that the buyer is responsible for scheduling and paying for the inspection — not the seller.

If the lead inspector finds any lead paint or lead paint hazards, you as the buyer have the right to cancel or renegotiate the contract without penalty.

Some homebuyers choose to waive this right, unaware that the costs of removing or abating lead paint hazards in the future may come as a large, unexpected expense. Even if you don’t want to walk away from your dream home, in some cases you can leverage the findings from a lead inspection to negotiate a price reduction or credit for a paint allowance.

Are Sellers Required to Disclose if the Home Has Lead Paint?

Yes and no.

If a seller has knowledge of lead paint in the house, then they are required to disclose that information to the buyer.

However, there is no requirement for sellers to actually test for lead paint. So in most cases, the seller won’t actually know for certain whether there is or isn’t lead paint present. And if they don’t know, then they aren’t required to disclose anything.

If you’re concerned about lead paint in a home built before 1978 (which you should be), ask the seller whether or not the property has been tested for lead-based paint or other lead hazards. If they say no, then there is a good chance that it has lead-based paint.

Can I Just Paint Over It?

No, this is common misconception. In most cases, applying a fresh coat of paint over lead-containing surfaces is not enough to safely eliminate the danger.

That’s because the layer of lead paint underneath can continue to deteriorate, causing potential future problems if the surface layer suffers any damage or disturbance from accidental scratching, impact, friction, water leakage, or construction.

There is a way to “paint” over lead surfaces to safely abate it, but that requires a special type of paint called an “encapsulant.” Encapsulants are liquid or adhesive compounds that help seal the paint to a surface, preventing the release of paint chips or dust.

Regular store-bought paint is NOT an encapsulant, so simply applying a fresh coat of paint will not rid your new home of potential lead hazards.

Professional Lead Testing in NYC

Lead paint testing should be done by an EPA-certified lead inspector or risk assessor. Home lead test kits are not considered accurate.

The highest standard of professional lead testing is X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis. This involves the use of a special handheld machine that bombards surfaces with x-ray beams and then detects the unique energy responses to identify which atomic elements are present, such as lead.

XRF testing is also non-destructive, which means that it doesn’t require any paint or surface samples to be marked, damaged, or removed.

If you’re considering purchasing a home built before 1978 and would like to have it tested for lead-based paint, Green Orchard Group is here to help. We are a team of EPA-certified lead professionals in New York City with over 25 years of experience doing lead inspections and abatements.