The day that new homeowner Kevin Harrison took occupancy of his 1910 character house, he got more than a set of keys. He got an unexpected bit of news. A neighbour approached and said, “You bought this house even though it was a grow-op?”
When Mr. Harrison purchased the house in 2003, sellers weren’t required to reveal whether their house had been a grow-op on the standard disclosure statement. His real estate agent, Patricia Houlihan, who is also a part-time lawyer, went back to the previous owners and negotiated $10,000 to cover the cost of ripping out drywall in the attic room where the plants were grown to check for mould. As well, the home was checked for pesticide off-gassing and faulty electrical wiring – all potential problems when a house has been turned into a grow-op.
“We took apart everything,” he says. “It had been a very small grow-op. There was no mould. And the police told us they didn’t find pesticides. Usually there are big barrels of pesticides.”
When it came time to sell, he disclosed the grow-op even though he
wasn’t required to do so. As a result, the buyers wanted a mould inspection, and Mr. Harrison paid for the $1,500 test.
Today, Mr. Harrison, who became a house inspector as a result of his experience, says he would never buy a former grow-op house unless it had undergone an industrial hygienist air quality and mould inspection, as required by the City of Vancouver.
It would have to be a condition of the sale, he says. “When I inspect a house and find out it’s been a grow-op, I just present the information to the seller. And usually the client does not buy the house.”
The problem for home buyers throughout the province, however, is that if they are in a municipality that doesn’t require disclosure of a grow-op or drug lab, they may find out the hard way that the house needs expensive remediation.
Disclosure and remediation regulations for grow-op houses differ among municipalities. The City of Vancouver will offer information related to drug operations and remediation upon request.
“Once a house is identified, the building is evacuated due to safety concerns, and a multitude of inspectors do inspections to identify all of the bylaw infractions and safety concerns,” says Will Johnston, director of licences for the city. “We provide an order to the owner saying, ‘You must carry out these repairs before the house can be occupied.’ ”
Inspectors return to verify that assessed work has been properly carried out. By the time the reoccupancy permit has been issued, the owner will have paid about $1,250 in fees to the city. Depending on the list of safety concerns, the remediation cost can be several thousand dollars.
But not every municipality operates the same way. Some municipalities won’t release information without a freedom of information act request, citing privacy laws.
In order to standardize the process across the province, the British Columbia Real Estate Association is in discussions with the Ministry of Housing about setting up a task force. For the past five years, the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board has been exploring the issue in collaboration with police and fire departments. But the board needed the backing of its provincial association to push for government involvement. Although real estate boards now try to protect consumers by asking for sellers to disclose if a house was a grow-op, sellers can and do lie. Also, because grow-ops are believed to be creeping farther north and hiding in more remote locations, the problem is now more widespread than the Lower Mainland.
The provincial association, which represents 11 boards, recently put together a paper outlining the need for a centralized process requiring disclosure of a property’s history, and standardized testing and remediation of a grow-op house, including who’s responsible for that.
“Then the client can judge whether they want that risk of buying a former grow-op, or they can decide, ‘I’m not making an offer,’ ” says Damian Stathonikos, spokesman for the association.
“Right now, there isn’t a consistent way to have access to that info. It’s just really challenging.”
Real estate agent Kelvin Neufeld was chairman of the five-year illegal
drug operation task force that first examined the problem in the Fraser Valley.
“We have 100 realtors, and it’s impossible to stay away from former grow-ops,” Mr. Neufeld says. “You can find out if that used car you are about to buy was in an accident, but can’t find out if that house was a grow-op. That’s wild.
“And it’s becoming more difficult to finance it because most large banks won’t finance [former] grow-ops any more.”
Ms. Houlihan strongly urges her clients to stay away from grow-ops because their history never goes away.
“You could have bought a property five owners ago and it still has to be answered ‘yes it was a grow-op’ on the disclosure statement. I don’t think some realtors even realize that,” she says.
“Once that happens, your property has a stigma from now until the end of time. So it will be harder to sell. In Vancouver, if the market is hot it’s not a problem, but in a market that’s not so hot, it is.”
There are an estimated 18,000 grow-op houses in BC Hydro’s service area, says Surrey fire chief Len Garis, who’s co-authored a report on the topic.
“If I were talking to someone about a decision to buy [a grow-op] house, I would hire an environmental consultant before I took a chance on it,” he says.
“They don’t want to be raising children where herbicides and pesticides could have been freely used to manage the operation.”
The Globe and Mail