Look Before You Leap (Ask These Important Questions Before You Join)

By Diana Leafe Christian

“The results of this water test are enough to make the hair on the back of anyone’s neck stand up!” the scientist at the testing lab told my friend.

Soon after she bought a home in a brand-new cohousing community, the weather turned cold. She and her neighbors turned on the heat, and the water that came out of the hot water faucets smelled strongly like magic markers, and burned the eyes and skin. Lab reports revealed a situation that turned into a nightmare for her and this community.

While no one in my friend’s community had expected toxic water, they were all well aware that the core group’s decisions about the heating system had been contentious, and they made their choice despite strong warnings from a local heating specialist.

I’m sharing her dramatic story — even though such circumstances are rare in cohousing — to illustrate the need to seek full disclosure when buying a home, in a cohousing community or anywhere else. Of course, most cohousing communities are characterized by safe, well-built housing. However, I do know of two other of the 113 built cohousing communities in the US that had problems because of what their contractor did or failed to do.
In one community, some housing units became so severely mold-infested that residents had to move out for several months. In another, the contractor failed to provide adequate ventilation and other violations of the building code, which an alert member caught during construction. Each group used legal pressure to force the contractor to fix the problem, and with financial incentive from the contractor to sign legal agreements that they would not publicly reveal the contractor’s malfeasance.

What happened in my friend’s community? Here’s her story:
Less than a week after I moved into a newly built cohousing community, it was discovered that when the heat was turned on, the hot water smelled strongly like magic markers. When I used this water my hands burned for hours after. This wasn’t obvious at move-in in the summer when no one needed heat, but in the fall when it got cold it became apparent. People either didn’t turn on the heat (so it no longer had a detectable smell, although we later learned the toxins were still present, but to a lesser degree), or turned it on and showered elsewhere and washed dishes with cold filtered water.

No one in the group was trying to find out what was going on, so I began to try to track down the problem. In brief, the water tested at a lab proved to have very high levels of volatile organic compounds, including toluene and xylene, which are nerve toxins, and ethylbenzene, a carcinogen, and a number of other toxic substances.
It turns out the problem was due to the combination of radiant-heat floors — 300 feet of plastic hot water pipes running through concrete — and a highly toxic sealant applied to the concrete floors, which had leached into the pipes. The group had chosen an “open-loop” system, meaning the same pipes that carry hot water to heat the floor also deliver water to the tap. Because the law requires that potable water be delivered through oxygen-permeable piping, all the pipes were made of material that could be permeated by the penetrating sealant.
After weeks of investigation, I found that compounds in the sealant and in the water were identical. My investigation also revealed that members of the development committee had been strongly warned against choosing an open-loop system, yet did so anyway, to keep costs down. (I later learned this choice is illegal in 33 states, requiring instead a closed loop, separating domestic water from any heating pipes).
When I was buying in, no one told me there had been any kind of concern about the open-loop system or that they had been warned about serious drawbacks. And while I was led to believe the project was “green,” the sealant on the floor was anything but. (I hadn’t even checked out why the floor in my unit, recently sealed, had such an intense odor, because I believed those in charge of the project were making good choices.)
In October a very helpful local plumber I was working with advised at least an initial solution: that we get the contractor to separate the water into two systems: one for hot water and one for floor-heating. The group said no, as they had faith the contractor would solve the problem by less expensive means. I watched helplessly as the contractor, a company, which I later learned had many complaints lodged against it, tried lame and ineffective “solutions.”

In my unit the problem was also compounded by airborne fumes, because of the recent coating. I ended up leaving the heat off to keep the fumes down, keeping all the windows open to let out the fumes, washing dishes with cold water, and taking showers at a friend’s house. I just bundled up and spent the day in my upstairs office, using the wall heater. (As subsequent lab tests revealed the toxins were in everyone’s water, most in the community took showers elsewhere, and many left their heat off until we entered November, when it got too cold.) Despite stuffing cloths under the bedroom door at night to keep out the fumes, I still woke up with a bloody nose every morning, and burning lungs. By mid-November I finally left and stayed with a series of friends as I tried to figure out what to do.

Unable to pay both rent and a mortgage, and not having personal funds to try to repair the problem myself (while everyone else kept waiting on the contractor), I decided to sell the house. Miraculously, a couple who knew people in the community wanted to buy in. There was one remaining house to be sold, a smaller unit, but they were interested in my larger unit. The community could have insisted on selling only the smaller unit, but they felt so bad about what happened to me and the fact that I was leaving that they were supportive in allowing the couple to buy my house. Of course I gave they buyers full disclosure of the circumstances.

The buyers had enough money to immediately seal off the floor with tile and install large, expensive air purifiers. They also hired a plumber to separate the heating and hot water systems so the tap water didn’t go through the heating pipes first. (I believe others in the group finally took this step in February.) I was extremely fortunate to be able to sell the house, although I lost the entire amount of my down payment. I also had to pay legal fees to remove the liens I discovered against the property because the contractor hadn’t paid several subcontractors, and to make sure I was doing everything correctly in selling a contaminated house.

It has taken nearly a year for my friend to recover from health issues she attributes to living in her toxic house.
The point of this cautionary tale is to emphasize the need to learn if there are any such construction-related problems — or any other problems that might affect your health or finances — before joining a cohousing community. It’s the law that buyers must be given a disclosure sheet about the health and environmental aspects of the home they’re buying. Ask for this from the membership committee of your prospective cohousing community. If it’s an existing community, get this from the owner who’s selling, or the Realtor. If it’s a newly forming community, who is the developer or developer-partner? Look for one who is experienced, and perhaps with a regional or national reputation. And keep in mind that if the group, or developer, made a cheaper choice in construction, it may end up being far more costly in the long run.

If you’re joining an existing cohousing community, talk to members, and if you have doubts, to former members, about whether there have been any environmental or financial difficulties. If my friend had talked to former members before buying, she would have learned about the controversial and dangerous choice of their heating system, and would not have bought into the community.

Again, in most cohousing communities you’ll find high integrity among the members and cohousing professionals, lovely and well-built units, and freely offered disclosure. However, my friend’s story illustrates that it does pay to look before you leap, even, sometimes, in cohousing.

Category: Membership


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