Of all the things you have to worry about when you’re buying a home, paint really shouldn’t be one of them. The problem is, if you’re looking at an older home, the topic can shift quickly from “Why did they choose that color?” to “Welcome to the danger zone”— all due to the existence of lead paint.
Lead was a popular ingredient in house paint for years before scientists discovered that this element—if eaten or inhaled as dust in the air—could cause a wide range of health problems, from anemia to seizures to death, particularly in children.
Bottom line: This is not something you want hanging around a home once you move in. Thankfully, there are ways to check for lead paint and get rid of it.
Which homes have lead paint?
The federal government banned the sale of lead-based paint in 1978, giving many people the impression that a house built after that time is free and clear. But that is not always the case.
“Many painters loved lead-based paint,” says Welmoed Sisson, a Maryland-based home inspector with Inspections by Bob. It tends to be glossier, more lustrous, and it holds color better. “Once they learned the ban was going into effect, many of them stocked up on a cache of lead-based paint.”
And since the government made it illegal only to manufacture and buy the paint, using what you already had was a gray area that lasted for years. “I’ve talked to inspectors who’ve found lead-based paint in homes built in the ’90s,” says Sisson.
Signs of lead paint
Unfortunately, like with most things that spell disaster for a potential dream home, you can’t definitively spot lead-based paint just by looking at it. However, you can get a good idea that it is there based on one telltale sign.
“When the paint deteriorates it creates a pattern that looks like scales. It’s actually called alligatoring,” says Sisson.
Finding these series of cracks along walls can be a good indication that you’ve entered into lead territory, but most homeowners aren’t going to just leave crumbling paint on the living room walls, so you might need to put on your investigative hat.
“Look inside closets, along baseboards and basement window sashes,” says Sisson. “Anywhere were painters might overlook a spot.”
How to test for lead paint
Walls can also be tested for surface lead using a paint testing kit available at your local hardware store. For the test, you rub a solution on the wall. If the solution turns pink, you have lead. (Though, it will also stain the wall if it turns pink, so maybe it’s not a great idea if you’re just looking at a property.)
The problem is, the test has limits. It finds lead only on the surface. If the lead-based paint was covered up by new paint, the test won’t work. And while covering (or encasing) lead-based paint is one way to limit its danger, it isn’t the best way.
“When painters encapsulate lead-based paint, they can miss spots,” says Sisson. “Common spots like around windows can still have exposed lead, which can cause lead dust to disperse throughout your house when you touch the area.”
Should you hire a home inspector to test for lead?
To really tell if a home has lead-based paint, you’re going to need a serious test.
“When lead is suspected, inspectors use an X-ray to look through the paint layers to the base wood of the wall. X-rays can’t pass through lead, so it is easy to spot,” says Sisson.
Many home inspectors will check for lead paint, but not all—so be sure to ask. If not, you can hire a certified lead inspector by entering your address and other info on the lead abatement page of EPA.gov. If lead paint is found, a certified inspector can also remove it, although it will cost you.
According to the EPA, you’ll spend about $8 to $15 per square foot, or about $10,000 for an average-size home. In the end, walking away from the house of lead might be the better option, but if you love the place you should take heart that there are ways to make it safe.