December 27, 2009
Canada's red hot real estate market has real estate buyers scrambling
to get into the profitable real estate market while the getting is
good. Many feel purchasing and renovating distressed properties such
as former grow ops or methamphetamine labs are an easy flip for
profit. For the unsuspecting home buyer, this column is geared for you!
Many in Canada see the marijuana industry as a victimless crime. Grow
ops, ecstasy labs and meth labs can be next door in any home,
including 5,000 square foot luxury mansions from Hope to Whistler.
Believe it or not, there are more million dollar plus homes used for
manufacturing drugs in British Columbia versus an old home.
Most people cannot tell if a house was used as a drug lab. Many do
not realize they may be buying a toxic wasteland. Meth drugs labs
produce about seven pounds of hazardous waste for every pound of meth produced.
Many Realtors and Home inspectors are not experienced in detecting
former drug labs. So it could be buyer beware. This column will
provide some basic insights in what to look for when you suspect that
smoking hot deal may too good to be true.
Homes in the lower mainland costing upwards of a million dollars plus
are certainly a major investment for anyone.
A little investigation by the home buyer beforehand will go a long
way in providing some protection, after all it is your investment,
including the health of your family.
Background on homes built in North America before 1980
Ninety percent of homes and buildings in North America built before
1980 have asbestos (a cancer causing mineral fiber) in much of the
building materials used in the construction of these homes.
Examples of asbestos containing materials; drywall mud, ceiling
textures, wall plaster coatings, attic and wall insulation, vinyl
sheet flooring and floor tiles are just some examples.
Many drug lab operators who know the health risks will hesitate to
cut holes in the walls, floors and ceilings of these homes for obvious reasons.
Many of these older pre 1980's built homes have a limited 60 amp
power supply, certainly inadequate for energy hungry drug labs,
especially grow operations, hence why the criminal element prefer new
homes with a larger power supply, such as 200 amps or larger.
Myth and Reality
One myth many believe is that only dilapidated houses are used for
grow ops and meth labs.
The reality is most drugs labs are located in many affluent family
friendly neighbourhoods like yours. These neighbourhoods are ideal
areas as they are less likely to be detected by police.
If a drug lab is busted by police or other agency, your municipality
will have a record of it. This information may not be available for
public release, but you can try to get it from the municipality.
If the drug lab operation went undetected, police, fire and
municipalities will not know it's existence.
The homebuyer can always inquire if the municipality will release any
information to verify if the home was ever used as an illegal drug facility.
Banks and Insurance companies usually request proof of this from the
home purchaser before lending money or insuring the home.
Another method, though not the best way is to ask a neighbor or two
if the home was ever visited by police or the fire department and why?
Below are a list of recommendations for the homebuyer and
homeowner. Using these recommendations may assist you in picking up
telltale clues and whether further investigation is warranted by
What to bring to do your own inspection
Digital camera, black light, flashlight, six foot ladder (for attic
inspections), pen and notepad.
Digital cameras set to large format are useful in taking photos of
any area you feel need further inspection.
Photoshop and other programs are valuable tools for modifying
contrast, colours and brightness of your photos. These modification
controls can usually spot imperfections in wall and ceiling surfaces,
revealing circular lines.
Room by room inspections
If a homebuyer suspects a home was used as a drug lab, there are easy
ways to find out. Take a black light, check all wall surfaces and
floors for evidence of massive cleaning, phosphorous used in some
cleansers will light up the area.
Freshly painted concrete basement or garage floors are a clue to hide
telltale circular potting marks where marijuana plants were kept.
Chemical staining inside the laundry tub or plumbing fixtures are another clue.
For walls and ceilings, turn off the lights in the room, then take a
large wattage flashlight and with a sideways glance direct the
flashlight beam along the wall for signs of circular areas.
Circular areas usually indicate a previous drywall repair and can
range in size from four inches to twenty inches in diameter. This is
where ductwork is passed through the wall or ceiling to provide
venting of noxious gases to the outside.
Look for areas on the wall and ceiling for adhesive markings or
fastener holes. These may be used to secure drug equipment, plumbing
or hang growing marijuana plants for drying.
Wallpaper borders along the top of the wall bordering the ceiling
have been used to hide adhesive tape marks. Red Tuck tape is commonly
used to hang reflective black and white plastic sheeting in the room
for plants to reflect light or retain heat.
Red cellophane brand "Tuck tape" has excellent adhesion properties
and is very difficult to sand off drywall, in some cases the drywall
along the top of the wall and drywall bordering the window frames
becomes damaged, wallpaper borders are one way to hide these markings.
Inspecting the floors can be conducted by looking inside closets for
carpet patches or walking the floor for any unevenness. Carpet
patches or unevenness under carpet or flooring may indicate these
areas were previously patched to hide ductwork pass throughs.
Look for mould, though it may not be a perfect indicator, it may
provide a clue.
One should know mould is everywhere, energy efficient homes can be
susceptible to mould due to the energy air tightness of the home and
when the air exchanger is not working or areas are not well
ventilated. Homes which do not have ductwork and rely on baseboard
heat are more prone to mould if in a high humidity environment.
Inspect the electrical panel and judge if it is new or original, or
get an electrician to check it out for you, as they are pretty good
at detecting tampering of the circuits and power.
Tampering with the electricity in a home is usually done directly
above the electrical panel, so check for drywall repairs around the
panel and the floor directly above the electrical panel.
Cupboards and shelves
Open cupboards, look at workshop shelving for anything unusual.
Open every closet, inspect the floor and ceiling inside the closet
for repairs in these areas. These are favoured places where previous
installations for drug labs to run power, water and ductwork, thus
hiding it from the prying eyes of visitors.
If the basement is unfinished, look up at the basement ceiling at the
wood framing members and wood joists. Inspect closely, do you see any
staples embedded in any of the wood? If not, do you see pinhole marks
made by the staples?
Check the wood framing members on the walls, do you see staples or
marks left by them? Staples are used to secure black or white poly
sheeting to the walls and ceiling of the basement.
If you notice staples on the walls of the basement securing clear
plastic sheeting, with insulation behind it, that is normal.
This inspection is normally out of the realm for most homebuyers and
best left to a plumber or building inspector. Though taking a few
photos of anything unusual wouldn't hurt, such as oxidation of copper piping.
Drug lab operators tie into the water lines for process water or to
feed their plants.
Freshly painted basement floors may indicate someone is hiding
circular marks left on the floor where flower pots were left for the
marijuana plants. This is why you check for staples or staple marks
left on the wood framing members or joists in the ceiling. No staples
or staple marks? Chances are the concrete basement floor was painted
to look nice.
Inspect the attic and inspect for wood sheathing repairs, which may
indicate that venting and ducting was used to vent chemicals and
noxious gases to the outdoors.
Is the attic insulation neat and uniform throughout or does it seem
as if someone was walking through the attic.
Is there debris in the attic, discarded cardboard boxes, do these
cardboard boxes have electrical or lighting labeling on them, names
like Ballast or transformers?
Is there anything else in the attic that looks out of place?
Check for odours in the attic, does it have a distinct odour similar
to a skunky odour, though not a positive indicator, it may be a
warning sign of a previous grow op.
Mould in the attic on the roof sheathing may be another indicator of
a previous grow op, but is not always the case. Roof leaks, a loose
exhaust duct from a bathroom may be the culprit. Damp sheathing is
not a good sign either way. Take a photo of the wood sheathing as a
reference for later on.
Attic and fireplaces
Ingenious drug lab operators use large cylindrical carbon canisters
and modify the fireplace flue to vent toxic fumes outdoors in order
to escape detection, as the carbon filters remove that distinctive
skunky odour that is all too familiar to police and wary neighbors'.
Look for any obvious signs such as large bags of fertilizer, Perlite,
large chemical containers, coils of electric wire, transformers,
ballasts, black, white poly plastic sheeting and lastly large
lightbulbs the size of a housecat.
Look in any garbage containers or garbage bags, don't route through
it, just open it and peek inside, getting stuck with a syringe and a
trip to the emergency ward is no fun.
Look over the grounds for unevenness in the landscape, drug labs
routinely bury their contaminants instead of putting them out for the
garbage men who are trained to look for suspicious trash commonly
used by drug lab operators.
Grow ops commonly use commercial potting soils such as Perlite.
Perlite is a brownish soil with small white beads mixed in. If this
is found in the landscape, this may be a sign grow operators are
disposing of Perlite by mixing it into the landscape. Perlite potting
soil is not commonly used outdoors.
There are additional methods used to spot a former drug lab, but
these methods are normally out of the realm for the inexperienced homebuyer.
Finally, when in doubt, obtaining the services of a reputable
environmental company is a cost effective method in safeguarding your
Environmental companies experienced in drug lab investigations are
usually listed with local bylaw agencies in your municipality.
Though all the above recommendations are not foolproof, it's a step
in the right direction for home buyers.
The RCMP estimate there are 18,000 drug labs currently operating in
the lower mainland of British Columbia. Perhaps this is a home
lottery one should hesitate to play when it comes to buying a home
without first checking it out.
Knowledge is power, every little bit helps.