October 3rd - 2011

Break out of the mould: Watch for mould and water damage in homes

It’s a scenario you dread: You’re showing your clients the home of their dreams. Every room is better than the last and they’re falling in love with the place, when suddenly they recoil in horror and beat a hasty path to the door. The culprit? The harsh spectre of mould.

It’s a scenario you dread: You’re showing your clients the home of their dreams. Every room is better than the last and they’re falling in love with the place, when suddenly they recoil in horror and beat a hasty path to the door. The culprit? The harsh spectre of mould.

Homebuyers often have concerns about mould, but are their fears justified? What do you need to know to protect the interests of your clients or customers? As the seller’s representative, what are your obligations?

Although thousands of types of mould exist, only a few are actually harmful to people. Toxic varieties, such as moulds from the genus Stachybotrys, can produce chemicals linked to various health problems including sinus infections, asthma and certain respiratory infections. However, mould must generally be present in large quantities to have a noticeable effect on most people.

Mould eats wood cellulose and can potentially affect the structural integrity of wood. Some insurance companies have excluded mould damage from both first party and third party coverage. Property owners may be able to obtain costly site-specific environmental insurance that specifically includes mould coverage.

Mould is caused by water damage or excessive humidity, poor ventilation systems, wet construction materials or poor construction or design. Mould travels on air currents and is all around us, and so it is difficult to find a house that is completely mould-free.

The smell should be the first red flag, according to Sally Cook, a salesperson from the Thomas and Sally Cook team at Toronto’s RE/MAX Hallmark Realty Ltd. brokerage. “I’ve gone into houses that were fixed and flipped. They’re nicely renovated and freshly painted but the smell is bad! There’s a musty, mouldy smell, and I’ve seen that plug-ins and potpourri are covering it up.”

Cook’s advice to REALTORS® representing buyers is to use common sense. During a home inspection, the inspector cannot open walls. Therefore, you may need to rely on your sense of smell. “If moisture damage has built up in the basement over the years, the smell will reveal it right away, regardless of how nice it looks,” she says. “Don’t let someone convince you that it’s not a big deal, because it can be. Until someone owns the home and can rip the walls down, they won’t know the severity of the problem.”

If you’re representing sellers, Cook advises you to let them know that they will need to spend some money if there’s mould in their home. “They can’t simply gloss over it,” she says. “It may be a minor issue involving a lack of circulation in the basement, or it could be a serious case of black mould coming through the drywall or baseboard, which probably needs to be ripped out. You can’t just wipe it off.” Either way, the issue causing the mould must be solved and the area has to dry out.

Whether listing a home for a seller or acting on a buyer's behalf, you as a REALTOR® should be able to identify signs of water damage. You should find out about any moisture problems, discuss them with your clients, disclose them to potential buyers, and, if needed, advise your clients to obtain services from a home inspector or other professional.

When viewing properties, be sure to inspect moisture-prone areas such as basements, bathrooms and kitchen cupboards. Mould behind a wall will not be visible to you, but signs of mould include:

  • discolouration on finishes
  • staining
  • spotty patterns revealing visible mould growth (which may indicate a larger, unseen problem)
  • musty smells.

Mould issues can usually be resolved. The moisture or water source needs to be located and stopped, and then the mould needs to be removed. If the problem turns out to be widespread and remediation is necessary, it’s important to ensure that the entire problem area is remediated, otherwise the mould infestation could return.

A proper home inspection may uncover indications of mould or structural deficiency issues, although there is no guarantee that it will. However, an inspector cannot speak to chemical contamination or health risks. The inspector may recommend that the homeowner enlist the services of a mould investigator or “sick house” consultant.

Disclosure of any information that might affect either the decision to buy a property or the value of a property is always the best policy for REALTORS®. Ensuring that sellers disclose any and all defects and recommending a home inspection for buyers is the best defence against possible litigation. Share with your sellers the obligations of real estate professionals to discover and disclose material facts related to an acquisition or disposition of property as they are set out in the REBBA 2002 Code of Ethics.

Brokers and salespeople should advise sellers to disclose upfront any water problems or the presence of mould, including cases that may render the premises harmful and/or unfit for habitation. If your clients are in any doubt, they should seek legal counsel. The best advice you can give buyers is to beware. If buyers or sellers have any concerns about any aspects of mould, they should consult with lawyers, home inspectors and insurers.

For more information on mould health concerns, clean-up, the obligations of REALTORS® and additional resources, check the section on Mould Issues in OREApedia. You’ll find it in Members Only section at www.orea.com.

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For more information contact

Ontario Real Estate Association

Jean-Adrien Delicano

Manager, Media Relations


416-445-9910 ext. 246