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Sherri Zickefoose and Kathryn Young, Calgary Herald and CanWest News Service
Calgary homebuyers hunting for reduced prices on remodelled former marijuana-growing operations may be getting more trouble than they bargained for.
Homes renovated to clean up mould and indoor air problems caused by defunct grow ops may still be unfit to live in, says a federal researcher who will study the problem this fall.
Fungicides, insecticides, solvents and other chemicals used in drug-making operations are absorbed by drywall, carpeting, wood, subfloors and concrete basement floors, says Virginia Salares, a senior researcher with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
The chemicals may also be found in backyards, where they are frequently dumped.
“People cannot take for granted it’s safe,” says Salares. Vapours from chemicals can permeate the entire house, not just the rooms where the plants were grown.
The health risks vary, depending on the concentrations of chemicals used, how long the grow op was in operation, and the age, immune systems and health conditions of the people who move in.
“You wouldn’t want to put an infant or a child under those conditions, being exposed to gases,” Salares said.
Calgary police say they raid 120 to 140 residential grow ops each year. A typical bust seizes 50,000 pot plants worth upwards of $60 million annually.
The homes, which are predominately located in the city’s suburbs, are usually unoccupied, according to Staff Sgt. Monty Sparrow.
“It’s pretty steady. We’ve gone from mom-and-pop operations to an organized crime situation,” said Sparrow.
The Calgary Health Region posts homes condemned as grow ops on its website.
Former city grow ops are identified on Internet real estate listings disclosing the toxic past.
One home in Harvest Hills has a reduced price reflecting its drug-house history.
Police estimate there are about 50,000 grow ops in Canada, although the exact number varies.
Grow op homes typically sell for 25 to 30% off market value. Despite the risks, lower prices attract buyers, says Ottawa real estate agent Richard Rutkowski, who recently represented the seller and buyer of a former grow op that had been on the market for two years.
“There’s a buyer for everything,” he says. “Ironically, the (nearby) hydro lines posed more of a deterrent than the actual grow house.”
Real estate agents have to ensure everyone involved in a sale is fully aware of the home’s state, says Rutkowski. He estimates that for every 10 people interested in a property, eight will back out when they learn it’s a former grow op.
Other agents refuse to list grow ops, and counsel their clients to avoid them.
“There are too many unknowns, especially with the chemicals,” says Winnipeg realtor Cindi French. “I personally would never consider them a good deal at any price.”
Salares completed a study this year into mould and indoor air quality in rehabilitated grow ops. It noted that while police succeed in identifying and seizing many grow ops, marijuana growers often avoid detection by buying and selling houses quickly.
“The homes are superficially repaired and sold to unsuspecting buyers, who may be unable to locate the previous owners,” the report states.
Growers typically pack hundreds of plants into small spaces with high moisture and no natural light or air circulation. As a result, the plants get fungal diseases and insect infestations that are treated with high doses of chemical pesticides. Growers are unlikely to use organic solutions or dispose of chemicals in an approved fashion, Salares says.
“High productivity is their goal: the most plants in the shortest time possible.”
Salares is now studying which chemicals are being used in grow ops, how they’re stored, how various surfaces absorb and give off toxic vapours, and how a house can be rehabilitated.
Bob Linney, communications director for the Canadian Real Estate Association, says guidelines for rehabilitating a former grow op and standards for air quality will be invaluable to real estate agents.
Rehabilitating a former grow op can cost anywhere from $3,000 to more than $100,000, depending on how long it was used, how long it stood empty and what changes the marijuana growers made, says Marie Dyck, who worked with Salares on the first study.
People who knowingly buy former grow ops because they’re good deals should think twice, adds Salares.
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