Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


The most important rule of real estate (location, location, location) should be upgraded to the three E’s: environment, environment, environment. What we value in real estate is the natural and human environment of a site and its structures. A home is typically an American’s most significant asset; thus, environmental issues should be of interest, primarily because the effects of environmental degradation can cause devaluation while simultaneously imposing substantial expenses (such as cleanup, health care, and relocation) on the population. The real costs of ignoring the environment are life-threatening health and safety issues, including lung damage and cancer resulting from radon exposure, (which the EPA estimates kills 20,000 people per year), and indoor air pollution (from Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), for example), the effects of mold and polluted water, and heart and lung conditions related to poor air quality, result in thousands of premature deaths each year.

Environmental issues include both anthropogenic sources and naturally occurring phenomena. The problem is that, for some buyers, sellers and professionals, obtaining accurate data is difficult. Many know there are issues, but they are unable to get straight-forward, manageable information. Some do not want to know of the issues, and others are overwhelmed. Complicating the matter for everyone is the reality that the laws related to disclosure and duties to prevent or mitigate harm vary significantly by jurisdiction, creating unpredictable rights and duties that range from caveat emptor to duties of reasonable inquiry. Consistency between jurisdictions is of greater importance than ever because of the mobility of the population. Even with guidance and reports from the EPA, the tools available to the majority of individuals seeking to make this most significant purchase, the real estate market does not address the health and safety risks caused by environmental degradation.

Given this deficit in information, we propose a voluntary checklist to alert consumers, owners, and professionals of environmental issues that can impose significant costs for health care, remediation, and property devaluation. Knowledge of the issues should reduce disputes, and, over time, consumers may demand properties that are safer, with economic variables that are better quantified. That in turn should encourage sellers, builders and producers to satisfy the expectations of the consuming public with greener and more sustainable housing.