Monthly Archives: January 2012

Taking Advantage of the FHA 203K Renovation Loan When Buying a Foreclosure

I recently attended a seminar in which a mortgage lender explained the importance of an FHA 203K in a low-income loan process. Basically, an individual or family that plans to live in a house (or multi-family unit or condo) for one year can receive a low-interest FHA 203K loan for the purpose of renovating the interior of the property so it meets minimum building code requirements. The lender explained that her company will lend up to the full amount of the 203K ($35,000) on a property that appraises well prior to the renovations, and then appraises well following the renovations.

For example, a foreclosed property that needs some interior work is selling for $120,000 from the bank. It was once worth considerably more, and appraises now for >$120,000. The buyer closes on the house and monies are released to begin the renovations (this particular lender releases 50% at closing). A contractor who has bid the work must complete the job, and the balance is released by the lender to pay off the contractor when the job is complete. In some cases, a re-appraisal may be required by the lender, which should not present a problem if the renovations were priced fairly and completed properly.

This loan could help thousands of first-time home buyers with limited income achieve home ownership. It would also help remove distressed properties from the inventory of homes for sale – an inventory that is keeping  property values down in many markets. This loan could help neighborhoods where a foreclosed property is viewed as a ‘blight’ on the neighborhood.

Why are we talking about this in an blog about indoor air quality? Many foreclosed properties have been vandalized or have developed moisture damage that may be deterring people from proceeding with the purchase. The 203K could provide the funds to make the necessary repairs to drywall, framing, etc., allowing a buyer to get into a house they might otherwise take off their list.

The 203K is a win-win loan: the bank removes a distressed property, a low-income buyer gets into a decent home, and the neighborhood is improved when a family moves into the house with the foreclosure sign in the front yard.

For more information, check out the 203K on the HUD website at http://tinyurl.com/3wdm4ox

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Toxic Mold in the Workplace (Part 3 of 3)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. As a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, he has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments in buildings ranging from apartment units to military installations.

This is the final installment of a 3-part series about mold in the workplace. Part 1 provided some background information about mold and especially what the OSHA website says about it. Part 2 discussed employer actions when an employee has a concern about mold. This installment is about the employee, and specifically, how to move forward so that all parties can agree on an action plan.

A common scenario we hear about at our office involves an employee who thinks they see mold in their place of work and is concerned about the employer’s apparent lack of attention. The ‘complainer’ has often been viewed as someone who is always sick or has other issues not related to their job. The employee tries to balance staying healthy and keeping their job.

Employees who have questions about the air quality at work and feel that their voice is not being heard should do two things before making a formal complaint: 1) take pictures of the offending leaks, stained materials, wet carpet, etc. Try to do this without being noticed or you may be accused of creating panic; 2) Request a copy of all of your medical records.

From the perspective of an independent environmental health professional who is sometimes engaged by an employee, I usually speak to them about their options, many of which are listed below. These are intended to be informative, only, and not legal advice. An employee should consult with an attorney before pursuing any legal action against their employer.

Option 1: make a written complaint to your manager about your concern for the air quality in the building. Be diplomatic and express concern for everyone at the facility. Then ask them to kindly let you know what, if anything, is done to assess the air quality.

Option 2: find another job. Easier said than done, but if you truly feel harmed at work, why would you not look for another workplace?

Option 3: if you already have medical records and a doctor’s note indicating that the air quality at work has caused harm, you may be entitled to disability or workmen’s compensation. This can be a challenge, as many physicians are reluctant to write a letter about an environmental illness.

Option 4: if your physician is qualified and willing to write a letter, but you want to keep working, you may request special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If your employer refuses to make reasonable changes to accommodate you, there could be a need to engage an attorney who specializes in the ADA.

Option 5: locate an occupational health clinic through OSHA and ask them to review your situation. They may ask for your home to be inspected and for medical exams, blood tests and a psychiatric exam. You will need to agree to whatever they deem as necessary.

Option 6: if you have all the proof you need and your attorney thinks they have a strong case, you can proceed with litigation or request for a settlement. If things take the legal route, it is advantageous to involve others who also claim harm and are willing to participate in a class action.

Option 7: if you have at least one other employee who feels harmed by the air quality, you can fill out paperwork with OSHA to request an investigation. Keep in mind that most employees are going to remain silent for fear of losing their job.

As stated in previous blog entries, it is best to become familiar with OSHA’s position on mold in the workplace. Whether employer or employee, becoming educated about the known health effects and remaining open to whatever is discovered in the assessment process is critical to a non-litigious outcome.

Toxic Mold in the Workplace (Part 2 of 3)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. As a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, he has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments in buildings ranging from apartment units to military installations.

In Part 1 of this series on mold in the workplace, some important background information compiled from the OSHA website about was shared with readers. OSHA does not downplay the health effects or seriousness of mold exposure, and it would be good to become familiar with the information in the first entry and on the OSHA website.

This entry focuses on some of the challenges faced when confronted with a potential environmental hazard relative to mold. This is not to be confused with legal advice – for that, please consult an attorney.

A few of the scenarios ESG has encountered involving mold at work include:

  • A plumbing or roof leak has recently saturated carpet and other materials in an office area and employees are mentioning an unusual odor.
  • The HVAC system failed and the office became hot & humid for a couple of days until repairs were made. Once the HVAC was powered back on, employees mention that they notice a musty odor and have begun sneezing more than usual.
  • While undergoing renovations to make room for new employees at an occupied office building, contractors find what they believe is black mold along the base of several walls where wallpaper has been removed. Employees become very concerned as one of them is pregnant and another has been getting sick while at work.
  • Employees at a government building complain to their boss of mold on ceiling tiles for weeks. One employee gets fed up with inaction and files an official complaint, after which she is demoted. This employee ends up quitting her job and filing a lawsuit.
  • Employees at a food processing facility complain of headaches and nausea just a few minutes into their shift. After one employee vomits, the business owners are contacted and ESG is called in to ‘check for mold’. The issue turns out to be a buildup of carbon monoxide due to lack of fresh air ventilation.

One of the many questions employers ask is, ‘How do I know an employee is being affected by the building?  This person is often sick and I don’t think I should be responsible for his well-being.’ The fact is, some people are very sensitive to environmental agents (including light and noise) and some will convince themselves that a certain thing is making them sick.  Employers can either be proactive by having an independent environmental assessment or ‘wait it out’ and hope the problem goes away on its own.

In our experience, the worst thing an employer can do is nothing. In many cases, this will infuriate the employees and incite them to take action of their own. In most cases, an impartial assessment by an environmental health & safety professional who reports to management and subsequently informs the employees of the findings is recommended. We have found that genuine concern and transparency is welcome by employees and will usually diffuse a challenging situation.

Toxic Mold in the Workplace (Part 1 of 3)

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. As a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, he has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments in buildings ranging from apartment units to military installations.

As environmental health professionals, we are constantly reminded of the number of people who have been affected by an environmental hazard such as mold. Whether an allergenic, pathogenic or toxic fungi, exposure to mold can cause a wide range of health issues, some which may not present with symptoms until much later.

Our office receives a number of inquiries each week regarding toxic mold in a building, either a home or office. We are going to briefly discuss mold at a place of employment as this situation comes with its own set of unique circumstances for the employer and employee. Namely, the employee does not want to lose their job and the employer does not want an OSHA violation or to be sued.

First, it is important to understand that the OSHA website states that 50 to 100 common indoor molds have potential for creating problems. Many of our clients seem fixated on toxic mold as the media has focused on ‘toxic black mold’ for the past several years. All molds have the potential to cause an allergic reaction, which can be quite severe to some people. We have witnessed odd skin rashes, swollen eyes and employees having difficulty breathing at numerous workplaces where no toxic mold was identified.

Second, OSHA states that people at greatest risk of health effects are individuals with allergies, asthma & other respiratory conditions, infants & children, elderly people and pregnant women. OSHA adds that molds can cause mild infections in healthy people and more serious infections in people with an immune compromise or those taking an immune suppressant such as a steroid.  Granted, the workplace is not full of children & elderly, but people with allergies, asthma & other respiratory conditions are common, as are people who take steroids for a variety of conditions. This creates a unique challenge for employers, especially when asking employees about their health history could be a HIPPA violation. Even if someone is healthy when hired, they could develop a sensitivity or immune deficiency while employed.

Finally, OSHA states that air or surface sampling for mold is not always necessary, however, it may provide tangible evidence supporting a hypothesis that investigators have formulated. For example, air sampling can establish a correlation between the HVAC system and airborne mold concentrations. If you are in doubt about sampling, consult an environmental health or safety professional with experience in microbial investigations to help you decide if sampling is useful or necessary. An independent health professional can assist in sorting out the workplace issue and help both parties move toward resolution.

It is interesting to note that OSHA does not mention testing of blood or urine as a means of diagnosing a health issue relative to mold. We have found medical testing to be very helpful in identifying potential allergens.

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