Real Estate is an interesting and challenging role that throws up a variety of scenarios and situations that often times requires a great deal of strategy, thought and planning to navigate successfully for all parties involved to achieve the best possible outcome in everyone’s interests.
From time to time a major issue arises which has an impact on the whole property market, affecting property owners, prospective property owners and real estate professionals alike.
The most obvious contemporary example is the leaky house syndrome which arose out of a change to building practices and building materials, driven by necessity at the time.
The leaky house syndrome is still having a major impact today and there are a lot of people in a lot of places who have suffered crippling financial and personal hardship.
Over time an issue such as the leaky house syndrome can mitigate somewhat as the scope and extent becomes better understood and a plan or strategy is developed to deal with it.
Today, it is generally speaking no more challenging to sell a house built in the era 1992-2005 and which fits the profile than it is to sell a 50’s or 60’s weatherboard example – all for the fact that we are collectively a lot more informed and knowledgeable about this type of house now than ever before. As they say knowledge is power.
The Meth “Contamination” Epidemic
Circa 2015 a new issue touched down in the real estate world which threatened to wreak havoc across the land – and in some highly publicised cases did in fact wreak havoc, and just like a leaky house, had the potential to ruin lives.
For an issue that promised so much pain and turmoil as it marched onto the scene, it was ironically known by just one letter – P.
What is P?
Prior to working in real estate I spent more than a decade in police and several years of this was as a detective in the CIB and in drug squad.
I witnessed first-hand the evils of the drug P or methamphetamine and the huge impact it had on many peoples lives, not only the users who tend to become a shell of themselves, but also to the massive number of law abiding citizens who suddenly became victims of crime such as violence and burglaries as users sought to fund their habit, sometimes costing more than $1000 a day, sometimes way more than that.
When the issue of methamphetamine contaminated properties arrived on the real estate scene, based on my previous experience on the front lines of policing, I was personally quick to predict it as New Zealand’s “next leaky home syndrome”.
Over the next year or so it certainly became a growing issue with methamphetamine contamination and the wide range of negative health and financial effects being plastered all over the papers and the television news and a veritable storm of hype, hysteria and hyperbole was whipped up around it.
The Meth Testing and Decon Industry
Almost overnight an entire industry popped up out of nowhere – this was largely focused on the testing and identification of methamphetamine contamination – and in the space of a very short time, there was any number of outfits and organisations established to test for and identify the presence of methamphetamine in properties, featuring technicians resplendent in white overalls, wearing furrowed brows, particulate respirators and toting cotton swabs.
The next level of response was the cleaning and decontamination technicians – which again almost overnight sprang onto the scene – who on the back of the failed meth tests would happily gut your entire house and remediate it with new wall linings, new ceilings, paint and paper, the whole nine yards, to expunge the scourge of methamphetamine from the property and preserve the health and welfare of the often unwitting, bewildered and in most cases heartbroken home owners.
I do not claim to have the expertise or the knowledge to fully understand the negative health impacts that methamphetamine contamination could have on a home and its occupants so absolutely I accept they exist.
At its height in late 2015 and early 2016 the methamphetamine testing regimes and the decontamination procedures looked like they would explode into the real estate environment and to all onlookers it looked like we would all have a massive nightmare on our hands.
Inaction? What Is Happening?
However as it became more prevalent, people started asking questions about the issue, and the industry which had become established around it – probing questions, insightful questions – such as what were the levels being identified in the testing? What did they actually mean? What did the Ministry of Health have to say about it? Who at a Government level was managing and monitoring this issue?
The reason there were so many questions, was because at that time there were no answers.
There were many examples of homeowners living out terrible existences banished from their homes, in many cases newly purchased homes, while test after test was carried out and massive bank breaking costs for remediation were levied upon them.
Many folks suffered health effects, headaches, lost sleep, respiratory problems and a whole raft of associated effects.
Methamphetamine is a noxious, poisonous and plainly evil chemical compound so the health effects are very real, I sympathise with the genuine people who moved into their new sanctuary only to be cruelly infected by this evil drug and its constituent nastiness.
But many people didn’t get sick, not so much as a cough, no itching, no scratching, no sore nose, no irritated eyes or nostrils, not a single symptom. Many were driven out of their homes simply on the basis of a failed meth test tested to an arbitrary standard.
There was a period about this time when meth testing was all the rage – as real estate professionals we were finding our feet on how to incorporate this into our selling processes, of course recommending testing if the buyer desired, interrogating sellers to identify any potential pitfalls, and developing responses to disclaim our own industry from liability while balancing the varied interests of everyone involved in the transaction.
All the while the Government stepped back and did not immediately engage in the issue – to many onlookers it certainly appeared a bit like the wild west.
The fact that the testing organisations quickly morphed into the decontamination organisations seemed sensible, convenient and logical for a short time, but in reality that helped to contribute to its own downfall.
Putting the Brakes On
The Government eventually came to the party issuing Health guidelines, specifying the levels of contamination which would be a health concern to home owners and occupants, and it was 3-4 times the levels previously referenced, a massive reconfiguration of the standard.
But It also came down to the fact that it became evident that there was an incentive for the testing agencies to pop a failed test at the arbitrary level and give them an opportunity to sell a solution.
It became obvious there was a lack of independence between the two industries, testing and decontamination, and scepticism quickly filled the space where a somewhat ill-informed trust had been.
In the start when I was predicting a major nightmare for homeowners, buyers, real estate professionals etc, one of my sales managers foresaw the opposite – insightfully believing that as a society once we understood the issue and had context around it, it would sort itself out.
I then also began to feel a little sceptical, not dismissive – sceptical about the meth testing and decon industry after witnessing a testing agent in T shirt and jeans, holding a forensic swab in his teeth while taking a sample next to a central air conditioning unit in an apartment building that recirculated air through all the units.
As a former detective trained in forensic procedures and in preventing and eliminating cross contamination I was not impressed.
Then there was toxicologist Dr. Nick Kim – a trail blazer – who sat in front of the cameras on Fair Go and said “you’d have to be at about 20 times higher than the meth clean up guideline before you hit the lowest plausible point at which you might expect or could get a health effect in a toddler who’s crawling around all the time.
Finally a qualified voice adding some real life context to the issue, and it hit the mark – you can read and watch about it here at this link:
Mention was also made that most NZ legal tender bank notes if tested would commonly have higher levels of methamphetamine contamination than most of the failed meth tests from houses.
Another toxicologist, Dr. Leo Schep was corroborative saying “people dwelling in a house where previous tenants had smoked methamphetamine, and there is some evidence of low concentrations on surfaces have minimal risks of toxicity”
Prior to the Ministry of Health clarifying the problematic issues and the Fair Go investigation I would commonly experience prospective buyers suspiciously demanding to know if a house was a “meth house” and outright accusing the vendor of all manner of illegal and illicit drug crimes.
Where Are We Now?
Since mid 2016 my personal observation in the market it that is has all but become a non-issue, no more or less relevant than any other part of a due diligence investigation.
Since June 2016 I have sold a lot of houses and how many times have I been asked about methamphetamine contamination?
That’s right, one time only, ONE BUYER in all that time out of hundreds of buyers I have worked with in that period, whereas prior it was at least about a third to a half of all buyers making this inquiry.
Is It Still A Problem?
Methamphetamine contamination is a live issue when it comes to buying and selling property and should always be considered as part of a prudent and pragmatic due diligence process.
I need to be clear that I am not dismissing the issue in any way, simply looking into how it has evolved in our property market in a very short timeframe.
As a former police detective I have personally seen houses that are pure vile inside and out, with the walls and ceilings stained any number of colours from tobacco and drug activities. They are dank and acrid and plainly not fit for human habitation.
But I personally have never seen such a house on the market for sale.
I do believe that a verified contaminated house could be a nightmare to have on your hands so naturally it is better to be safe than sorry and always know what you are getting yourself into.
However it is just one of the many boxes you should tick to cover off before you buy a house, and you should it approach it much in the same way you might when checking the title or the cladding or plumbing and electrical systems and satisfy yourself in all respects that you know what you are buying and that the property is for you.
The main thing today is that the hysteria has diminished while the facts remain. That seems a pretty good foundation on which to move forward.
Many people have had their lives turned upside down because of this issue, but sure as eggs, many did not need to suffer that fate. Many people have been made victims due to the initial inaction from Government and the enthusiasm of a brand new industry materialising on the scene.
If In Doubt, Test. But Know What You Are Testing For And What It Actually Means.
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