Understanding Radon

AND A COOL INTERACTIVE MAP, TOO!

The map areas correspond to zip codes. Click on each for a summary of information about radon in the area.

The map areas correspond to zip codes. Click on each for a summary of information about radon in the area.

Radon is dangerous. I think just about everyone knows that. But how dangerous is it? That's where things start to get a little fuzzy. A friend and colleague recently endured a few months of radon poisoning with almost deadly results. This can happen to anyone that lives in a home with exposure risk. It's important to understand this deadly gas, why you should be aware of it, and how to mitigate the risk to you and your family.

The State of Oregon publishes an interactive map of indoor radon risk levels that was recently updated. This is a useful tool, but be aware that no matter the risk level in your area, you can still encounter a radon problem.

SO WHAT IS RADON?

You can't smell it, see it, or taste it. It's literally radioactive. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. But what in the world is this stuff and why does it want to kill us? Let's go into geek-speak for just a second.

Not the best illustration, but it's colorful!

Not the best illustration, but it's colorful!

Radon is a colorless, chemically-unreactive, inert gas discovered in 1899 partly by Ernest Rutherford and in 1900 partly by Friedrich Ernst Dorn. It is 9 times denser than air, which is an important factoid to remember. It easily penetrates almost any material in a building, including sheetrock, concrete block, wood paneling, and most insulations.

Radon is naturally occurring in the ground and is the result of the breakdown of uranium present in soil, rock, and water. It occurs in several isotopic forms, of which radon-222 occurs most frequently. When this gas is released into the environment, it results in the formation of decay products that are radioisotopes (a chemical element that has an unstable nucleus and emits radiation during its decay to a stable form) of heavy metals (polonium, lead, and bismuth). These decay products can easily be inhaled because they rapidly attach to other airborne materials (like dust). It also may be ingested if it is highly concentrated in groundwater (well water), but the inhalation of radon is of higher concern.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF RADON EXPOSURE?

Respiratory problems are the most common signs of radon-related distress. These problems can include: a persistent cough that doesn't get better, difficulty breathing, chest pains, the coughing up of blood, wheezing, hoarseness and recurring respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Radon exposure can lead to lung cancer.

A lesser known symptom of radon exposure is neurologic issues. Anxiety, memory loss, and depression could be a sign of radon exposure. However, brain health and function issues have many, many other possible causes, so this is not a symptom often mentioned.

Serious effects from high radon levels are cumulative over a long period of time. It's important to periodically test for radon, but the presence of high radon levels in your home or a home you are thinking about buying is not a reason to panic.

WHERE DOES RADON OCCUR?

Radon is found in every state in the country. If you take a look at the map and find that you are in an area that is considered low-risk, you still may encounter a radon problem. It often enters the home through cracks in floors, cracks in walls, gaps around service pipes, joints between floor and walls, gaps around drains/pipes, etc. You may have no problem at all with radon while your immediate neighbor is dealing with extremely high radon levels.

HOW DO I TEST FOR RADON?

Okay, so this vat is 100% more like the stuff the Joker falls into than it is like radon, but I'm running out of visuals, here. 

Okay, so this vat is 100% more like the stuff the Joker falls into than it is like radon, but I'm running out of visuals, here. 

Short term, long term, and continuous tests are available for radon. Tests should be conducted in the lowest livable area of your home (remember how radon is denser than air?). If you are considering selling your home, I highly recommend conducting a short term radon test before listing the home on the market. It doesn't cost much and is very much worth knowing the results before you're in the middle of a transaction!

Most people start with a short term test to determine whether or not further testing is necessary. The test takes between 2-7 days and are then mailed to a lab to determine the results. These are available at most home improvement stores and online. 

Long term tests measure radon levels between 90 days and a year. They are more accurate than short term tests because radon levels can vary significantly from day to day and month to month. These tests are usually available through state agencies and online retailers.

Continuous radon testing devices plug into an outlet and can be used for both short and long term testing. They will give you a running average radon level. These are available from online retailers such as Amazon.

Home buyers: It's important to note that if you purchase a home in summer and conduct a radon test, you should conduct another test in winter when radon levels are more likely to be an issue.

SHOULD I TAKE ACTION?

One out of every 15 homes in the U.S. have radon levels that should be lowered. Fortunately, reliable techniques exist to reduce radon levels in homes so that almost any home with high radon levels can be fixed. If you have a radon problem, you can hire an experienced radon contractor or accomplish the repairs yourself.

The EPA recommends doing a second test if an initial short-term test registers 4 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher. A long term test is ideal, but you can perform a second short term test if you need results quickly. If the second test results in levels higher than 4 pCi/L, consider taking action to mitigate radon levels in the home.

WHAT CAN I DO TO MITIGATE RADON IN MY HOME OR REDUCE RISK?

Ventilation = good

Ventilation = good

It does take more than just sealing cracks in the foundation to mitigate radon risk and/or exposure. Active soil depressurization or fan and exhaust systems have proven to be cost-effective and reliable. 

Radon that escapes out into the air is not a problem as it quickly becomes diluted. Therefore, ventilation is key. Ventilation can be increased through opening doors, windows, and vents. Many people like to block their crawlspace vents in winter and/or install additional insulation in their crawlspace. Blocking crawlspace vents provides very minimal energy savings so unplugging these vents and possibly moving some insulation around may be all it takes to mitigate a mild to moderate radon problem. A heat recovery ventilator (air-to-air heat exchanger) can also be installed to increase ventilation.

All information above is provided for educational purposes. It is always recommended to consult a radon professional if you have any concerns about radon in your home.

- Brandi Whitaker

Farm Life Dreams

I met Miles and Brandy at a wine night dinner party with mutual friends. They were a smart, hilarious couple, with a house full of three kids, a dog, and chickens (well, the chickens were technically in a coop in the backyard). I liked them immediately.

Last year they contacted me about selling a house they owned in SE Portland - a BEAUTIFUL vintage home in a FANTASTIC neighborhood! I was thrilled. We did a walk-through and originally the plan was to wait until the tenant's lease expired, but with the Portland market being so strong and the location what it was, I thought we could sell it with the lease in place.  Which is exactly what we did.  Success! 

SE Portland BEAUTY!

SE Portland BEAUTY!

But that was just the beginning...

Miles and Brandy had a plan, a grand plan, a farm plan. The goal was to sell the SE Portland home then sell the house they were living in at the time in SW Portland and finally find a dream country property with a few acres and plenty of space for the entire family to live the farm life!  We listed their SW Portland home which was near Multnomah Village and started looking in Newberg for the dream property.

SW Portland – Home #2 SOLD!  That much closer to dreams of “farm life!”

SW Portland – Home #2 SOLD!  That much closer to dreams of “farm life!”

One day, we came across a listing for a house that was in need of "a little TLC." We made it out to the property and drove up a VERY long and daunting gravel driveway with several tight switchbacks. The whole time I was thinking "I hope my Jetta makes it. I hope I don't get stuck.  I hope this is worth it, once we get to the top."  

Wow, was it ever worth it! 

It was like magic, once we made it to the property at the top of the hill. The view was spectacular and it just had a very special feeling. Then we turned around and looked at the house which had been vacant for quite some time. We thought "Oh, cool!  Look at that eco-roof!" Then quickly realized the entire roof had been severely lacking in maintenance and had literally grown an entire ecosystem. I had never seen anything like it. We got inside to find that the roof was leaking (and had been for some time), there were spiders and dead flies everywhere, and almost every inch of it needed to be updated. I thought to myself "This will never fly.  Beautiful property, but just too much work for them." Boy, was I ever wrong.

1980’s farmhouse, before the gut remodel.  Note the “eco roof.”

1980’s farmhouse, before the gut remodel.  Note the “eco roof.”

Brandy and Miles listed and sold their SW Portland home with me and they bought that Newberg property in need of "a little TLC." They did a complete gut remodel and turned this tired, sad, neglected house, into a beautiful and unique dream home for their family: a truly contemporary farm-house. 

The Remodeled Exterior!

The Remodeled Exterior!

They are the most adventurous couple I have ever met.  They are creative, smart, funny as heck, and absolutely not afraid to get their hands dirty! This was my third transaction with them in less than a year. Third time was the charm: their farm-life dreams were officially a reality. It was one of the most rewarding real estate experiences I have had the pleasure of being a part of. Thank you Miles and Brandy for allowing me represent you throughout the process. It was a fantastic ride I will never forget! I am looking forward to checking out the solar eclipse this summer at "The Farm!" 

Before and Afters of The Farm

Oregon Tenant Protection Bill

This seems to be a subject much talked about amongst real estate agents, property managers, landlords, tenants, and homeowners (i.e. everyone). Yet, if you Google "Oregon tenant protection bill" or "Portland tenant rights bill", all you'll get is a few cut and dry articles from the Oregonian and other local news blogs and not much else. Most of what you'll see will be about other legislation that has already passed.

What are we afraid to talk about? I'm a Portland area real estate agent and I eat complicated, controversial topics for breakfast. Okay, no, I usually eat eggs for breakfast. Sometimes cereal. Occasionally a snack bar... 

But that's beside the point. Let's boldly go where few have gone before.

The original version of this article can be found here.

Boldly blogging where no one has blogged before.

Boldly blogging where no one has blogged before.

The housing shortage is driving legislation.

People are passionate about this subject because Portland is in a housing shortage. We need approximately 24,000 units to meet demand (read my blog about all the people moving here). Barring economic catastrophe, a housing shortage will always cause home values to rise and rents to increase. This places undo pressure on tenants and home buyers, while current homeowners get to watch their net worth rise and landlords have the opportunity to raise rents.

The only real solution to a housing shortage is to build more housing but of course we only have so much space available. But, hey, we're Portlanders, and if we can find a weird way to help solve this problem, by golly, we're gonna leap down that rabbit hole.

Multnomah County and Enhabit (no relation to Inhabit) are launching a pilot project called "A Place For You". It aims to build ADUs (accessory dwelling units or "tiny homes") in Portland resident's backyards. These will be used to house homeless families rent-free for 5 years in exchange for a tax abatement to the property owner. After 5 years, the homeowner gets to keep the ADU to be used as they see fit. The pilot project is starting with just 4 units but over a 1,000 homeowners have expressed interest.

It almost sounds like an episode of Portlandia. 

It's okay if you don't know what this is. What am I saying? No, it's not okay. It will never be okay. Things will never be the same again!

It's okay if you don't know what this is.
What am I saying? No, it's not okay. It will never be okay. Things will never be the same again!

This is an interesting idea but creativity isn't going to get us very far in the short term (and that doesn't get politicians re-elected). The housing shortage is enough of a hot topic that politicians such as Ted Wheeler and Tina Kotek have thrown their weight toward repealing the statewide ban on rent control (although last year Ted Wheeler said he supported this for the state but not in Portland, where he would adopt other measures first, he seems to have now changed his position). In the election last year, Chloe Eudaly upset incumbent Commissioner Steve Novick despite having no political experience. Her grassroots campaign for the Portland City Council was focused entirely on tenants rights.

Now that we're firmly into 2017 it means that politicians are putting their legislation where their mouth is.

In Portland, new rental ordinance is already in place.

Before we talk about the infamous House Bill 2004, let's quickly take a look at the tenant protection ordinance that took effect back in February this year. This was an emergency ordinance brought forward by Chloe Eudaly and Ted Wheeler that was passed unanimously by the Portland City Council. It requires landlords to pay moving costs for tenants that are evicted without cause or for tenants that must move because rents have been increased by more than 10 percent in a 12 month period. The one exemption is for landlords that have only one rental unit. Moving costs paid by the landlord range from $2900 to $4500 depending on number of bedrooms.

Attorneys are already dueling in court over the legality of this ordinance but for now it stands.

Not that kind of duel. Although court cases might be more interesting this way. 

Not that kind of duel. Although court cases might be more interesting this way. 

This brings us to the Tenant Protection Bill (HB 2004) that was recently passed (31 in favor - 27 opposed) by the Oregon House of Representatives and has now moved along to the state Senate for review. There are a lot of nuances to this bill and several compromises were made to get it this far. Remember, this is NOT law yet.

Here's a few salient points of the pending bill.

  1. After 6 months, no-cause eviction of tenants renting month-to-month are banned (before 6 months no-cause eviction of tenants renting month-to-month are allowed with 30 days written notice).
  2. After 6 months, evictions are allowed for month-to-month (30 days after the effective date of this legislation) and fixed term tenants (immediately after the effective date) with 90 days written notice for specified reasons, such as renovations, repairs, when the property is scheduled to be demolished, or for the sale of the property. Landlords must pay one months rent to cover relocation expenses in this case. (However, if the reason is repairs/renovations, the landlord must offer a new rental agreement back to the evicted tenant before other potential tenants.)
  3. After 6 months, evictions are allowed for month-to-month and fixed term tenants with 30 days written notice for cause. (Examples of cause: non-payment of rent, violation of drug or alcohol program, pet violation, substantial damage, etc. There are additional provisions that govern "cause" and timelines that a landlord should be fully aware of.)
  4. If the landlord terminates the tenancy in violation of the provisions, the landlord would be required to pay 3 months of rent to the tenant in addition to potential damages. This applies to both month-to-month (30 days after the effective date) and fixed tenancies (immediately after the effective date).
  5. Exceptions to the above exist for landlords that own four or fewer rental units or for landlords that live on the property and own two or fewer rental units.
  6. The bill also allows cities and counties to adopt their own rent control program which effectively abolishes the statewide ban on rent control.
  7. An exemption to rent control is provided for any new residential development for a period of 5 years from the date of issuance of the first certificate of occupancy.
  8. If a city or county passes a rent "stabilization" program, it must provide landlords with a fair rate of return and a process for the the landlord to petition for permission to increase rent in excess of the amount allowed in the program when needed to achieve a fair rate of return.
The rubics cube of government. Nuff said.

The rubics cube of government. Nuff said.

A few of the compromises that allowed this bill to pass include the exemption for landlords that own 4 or fewer units, reducing mandatory relocation assistance down to one month (originally the bill called for three months even when the eviction is for an allowed reason), and the 5 year exemption for new residential developments.

What does this mean?

So, does this bill seem sensible? Why would anyone object to it? Why was it passed on such a slim margin and why is the battle for it in the senate expected to be difficult?

I think the biggest concern is with point 6 - 8. Rent control is only fiercely debated when you don't talk to economists. Meaning, economists largely have a consensus of opinion that rent control results in a reduced supply of property to the market (which of course drives rents and home prices even higher).

Wait a second, reduces the supply? Didn't I just say earlier that this problem is a result of a housing shortage? 

Based on historical data, most economists viewpoints, and studies that have been conducted on rent control, enacting rent control (or "stabilization") causes housing shortages to become worse than if no controlling measures were put into place. I don't like it when legislatures pass bills with provisions that aren't supported by the data. (Read this article and this one and this one to gain some perspective on what economists think about rent control)

I don't think the 5 year exemption for new construction or vague "fair rate of return" language is enough to curb the negative side effects of rent control but politicians only have so many tools in their belt when in comes to housing. Those tools tend to be very blunt instruments. Even though a screwdriver might be needed, we're instead getting a hammer. Or maybe a mallet. Or maybe even a sledgehammer. Except I don't think Peter Gabriel is the solution here.

This analogy is too good for a caption.

This analogy is too good for a caption.

The merits of points 1 through 5 above really come down to your point of view. I won't delve into those here other than to say that I see both the positive and negative ramifications to being this restrictive about evictions but I'm open minded about the ideas.

HB 2004 hasn't passed the senate yet (it was just referred to the Human Services committee). I'll be following along to see if it passes and is signed by the governor, or if it dies, or if it becomes reborn as something more palatable. This is an interesting time for anyone that is a landlord or tenant!

Do you own a rental property? If so, what are your plans? If this bill passes, much of the legislation will go into effect either immediately or within 30 days. I'm a Portland area realtor and can assist you in deciding what course of action makes sense for your investment. Contact me if you have questions.

- Brandi Whitaker