Many states require sellers to disclose a wide variety of information to prospective buyers, such as a leaky roof of heating problem. (See the Nolo article Required Disclosures When Selling U. S. Real Estate for background information).
As part of their disclosure rules, many states require sellers to disclose details on environmental hazards that they know about, such as lead (see the Nolo article Seller Responsibility for Disclosing Lead-Based Paint Hazards) and mold (see Mold: Is It Hiding in the Home You're Buying?). This article focuses on legal and practical issues regarding asbestos in the home.
Exposure to asbestos has been clearly linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly for workers in the asbestos manufacturing industry or in construction jobs. Recognizing the health dangers of asbestos, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards for the testing, maintenance, and disclosure of asbestos in the workplace. While these regulations do not cover single-family homes, many states require that sellers disclose information on asbestos on the disclosure forms they provide buyers.
If your state requires disclosure of asbestos on your property, and you know about (but did not disclose) the presence of asbestos, you could be sued by the buyer for damages suffered, such as lung and other health-related problems caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
Houses built before 1975 or so often contain asbestos insulation around heating systems, in ceilings, and in many other areas. Until 1981, asbestos was also used in many other building materials, such as vinyl floors and tile.
If you're concerned that a material contains asbestos and is airborne or about to be (for example, you have insulation that is falling apart, or drywall is crumbling due to recent home remodel), hire a trained and accredited asbestos professional to assess the situation and make any necessary repairs. When removal is necessary, hire trained asbestos removal specialists, and make sure the debris is legally disposed of in approved hazardous waste disposal sites.
If you are planning any house remodeling in an area you suspect contains asbestos material, be sure to find out whether or not that's the case before you start the work.
For undamaged material that you know (or suspect) contains asbestos, it's best to leave it alone and monitor it for signs of damage that may release asbestos fibers. Also, limit access (especially by children) to the particular area, such as an attic.
For specific tips on identifying and dealing with asbestos hazards in your home, and hiring an asbestos professional, see the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission information on Asbestos in the Home.
For additional information on asbestos, including state asbestos contacts, see the Asbestos section of the EPA website.