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Cleanup of meth houses can be costly

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF KERRI HARTNETT - More education is needed about meth houses, so that buyers can avoid purchasing houses where methamphetamines were manufactured, said Keller Williams Realty Portland Central Principal Broker Kerri Hartnett.It’s a difficult subject, but Keller Williams Realty Portland Central Principal Broker Kerri Hartnett said real estate agents and their clients should become educated on how to avoid buying houses where methamphetamines, aka speed or crank, were smoked or manufactured.

Even years later, meth manufacturing may present a health hazard to those exposed to the chemical residue left on walls and other surfaces.

“I know it happens,” Hartnett said. “Yet, it’s not something that people are tuned to. But they need to be.”

As president of the Oregon Chapter of Women’s Council of Realtors, Hartnett’s leadership role includes brainstorming class topics to educate realtors on issues related to selling properties. And at the council’s national conference in Chicago last year, a member from Tennessee suggested that the organization sponsor a class titled “Meth and Mold: Things You Need to Know.”

“Most areas in the United States have a problem with meth,” Hartnett said. “And everyone agreed that would be a good program to offer.”

Specializing in all types of real estate, including properties in distress, Hartnett once had clients who purchased a house where meth had been manufactured. But the buyers were aware in advance, through the property disclosure, that illegal drugs had been manufactured and distributed in the home. Located in Oregon City’s historic district, the house had been cleaned up and certified safe by Oregon Health Authority.

“The clients came to us and they knew about the house,” Hartnett said. “But the house had a certificate of fitness.”

Other cases may not be so clearcut. Recently, a client of hers asked Hartnett to check out a foreclosed house in Northeast Portland. As a bank-owned house, in such cases banks ordinarily don’t know whether the house was used for meth manufacturing and so there may be no disclosure, Hartnett said. But when she entered the house, she felt certain it had been used for making meth. For one, the house had been abandoned and squatters had moved in. Everything of any value had been stripped. The walls were soiled with smoke-like stains. And Hartnett smelled a strong chemical odor, sometimes compared to cat urine, ether, ammonia or auto parts cleaner, but which Hartnett described as smelling like paint.

“I had a headache for a few hours afterward,” Hartnett said. “And I went back to the client and said, ‘You don’t want this house.’ ”

But not all meth houses have telltale odors. Plus, any house, shed or garage, including ones in high-end neighborhoods, could have been used to manufacture meth. But Hartnett cautioned that potential buyers should be especially cautious when considering purchases of foreclosures and short sales.

“Do your due diligence,” she advised. “Get your questions answered, have the house inspected and do your homework.”

Homework includes checking with the health and police departments for possible reports about the property, talking to the neighbors and being present during house inspections.

When he is hired to inspect a house, Owner of Insight Home Inspections Jeff Wearne said part of his job is to look for things out of the ordinary, such as syringes in crawl spaces and chemicals stored in the bedroom.

“But as far as testing carpet fibers, sheet rock and paint for meth goes, that’s not something we do,” said Wearne, who has been inspecting homes in Oregon for 20 years. “Testing is the client’s choice to take that step.”

In Wearne’s opinion a lot of houses where meth was once manufactured are going undetected. When in doubt, buyers should consider having a lab analyze samples from the house, he said.

“Buyers are not going the extra step because there are no signs,” Wearne said.

For those buyers who take that extra step, having a house in Portland tested for meth by a drug testing and clean up contractor typically costs about $450, said A Best Environmental Owner Larry Stone. Since its founding in 2001, A Best Environmental has tested many homes in the Northwest region and, in Oregon, decontaminated between 300 and 400 mostly residential houses, with about 60 of them located in Portland, Stone said.

Decontaminating a house can cost from $9,000 to $12,000, Stone said. That process involves removing all carpets and other items, vacuuming with a Hepa vacuum cleaner, washing and scrubbing all surfaces three times with a special detergent and, then, retesting. If the property is a posted drug lab then a third party will do the retesting.

After Oregon introduced legislation in 2006 requiring prescriptions for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, meth lab incidents in the state have declined dramatically.

“It’s less of a problem now because the precursor chemicals are more difficult to obtain,” Stone said. “Posted drug labs are down 97 percent from their peak.”

Currently, Oregon Health Authority posts three properties in Multnomah County as drug labs unfit for use due to meth or storage activities. They are: a trailer and shed in Gresham, a property in Inner Northeast Portland and one in Outer Southeast Portland.

“Ten years ago you would have seen a lot more,” Stone said.

But there’s still work to do, Stone added: “Just yesterday, a man called saying he thought his horse arena had been used for meth.”