My college roommate Kara and her husband Brian are the kind of people you can go a year without seeing and then show up on their front porch and pick up like no time passed at all. They own 170 acres of pristine land between the Arkansas River and Clear Creek Reservoir near Buena Vista, Colorado, a small mountain town about two hours from Denver. Now in their late 30s, Kara and Brian, who asked to be identified pseudonymously, bought the land from an 84-year-old man who taught them how to grow, harvest and bale hay, and operate the hydroelectric system he built decades earlier. At any given time, Brian has a half-dozen projects going: building an A-frame at the top of a vista, tending to their bees, leveling the Jeep trails to make the property more accessible. The work is never done; that’s the point.
Kara and Brian are smart with money and always have been. They’ve saved, and negotiated, and done their research. The ranch was an investment, intended to be the site of a great 50-year adventure, and the couple decided to maintain their old house an hour up the road from the main property as a rental to serve as a source of extra income. Recently, however, they became embroiled in a kind of labyrinthine domestic horror story when their tenants discovered, to everyone’s shock, a meth pipe under the rental house’s stovetop. The tenants, a young couple, discovered the small pipe — a clear glass tube with a chip on one end — while they were cleaning. The stove had been in the house when Brian and Kara bought it; there was no way of knowing when the pipe got there, if it was smoked out of, and if so, when. “If I had found the pipe myself, I probably would have tossed it in the trash and never given it much thought,” Kara said. The tenants were worried, though — they’d also found some crumpled foil and burnt sticks along with the pipe. They threatened to sue Kara and Brian for failing to find the pipe before they did.
And so Kara and Brian’s nightmare began. Colorado law says that if you suspect meth use or production by evidence of paraphernalia at a specific property, you must have it tested for residual traces of the drug, and must have it cleaned if the test shows levels above the state cutoff. If an owner does not have the property cleaned, they are subject to fines and even criminal charges. The tenants threatened to sue not just Kara and Brian but their property manager as well, because the company hired to clean the house before they moved in also hadn’t discovered the pipe. The tenants likely feared they’d be responsible for footing the bill for several costs, including moving out and finding a new place to rent (I was unable to reach the tenants for comment).
After finding meth paraphernalia, the only way for a property owner to be protected from any liability, both monetary and/or criminal, is to have the property properly tested for meth residue, and if found, cleaned according to state guidelines. Only when the property is determined to be free of residual traces meth by a state-certified inspector is the owner in the clear.
There were also meth-related health hazards to be concerned about at the house. Unless someone has cooked meth, or smoked it in extreme excess, residuals can go completely unnoticed but can lead to toxic chemicals — like red phosphorous, ephedrine, hydrochloric or muriatic acid, and sodium hydroxide — finding their way into the walls, furniture, and appliances. Children and the elderly are more susceptible to the effects of third-hand meth exposure, which can include recurring headaches, respiratory, skin and eye irritation, nausea, and vomiting. (Kara, Brian, and their young son spent plenty of time in the house and never experienced symptoms.)
Kara and Brian soon discovered that testing a home for meth is an expensive and time-consuming process. First, they had to find someone to do the testing, a job that requires a certified industrial hygienist. They ended up hiring a man named Scott Stiles, whose company, Stiles Environmental, was one of the only state-certified testing companies not in or near Denver. Having been in the business of meth-detection for more than 10 years, Stiles is an authority on what can and can’t be cleaned. “Carpet can never be saved,” he said. “Above certain levels, even drywall has to be demolished.”
“Carpet can never be saved. Above certain levels, even drywall has to be demolished.”
Determining a property’s meth levels can run up to $1,800 per test, and it often takes three to five rounds of washing and subsequent retesting before a house is clear. Residual meth is measured in micrograms; states have different laws on how many micrograms per 100 square centimeter is considered dangerous. Typical limits range anywhere from 0.1 to 1.5 micrograms, with several states yet to set limits at all. Colorado’s laws concerning meth residue are fairly strict. Anything above 0.5 micrograms is considered unsafe and requires cleaning.
Several of the rental house’s rooms registered above the limit. The kitchen, living room, dining area, and laundry room all registered at 7.8 micrograms. One of the two bedrooms registered 6.6, and the bathroom was at 1.3. While far above the legal limit, a house in which meth has been cooked can have levels in the triple digits. Based on the rental house’s readings, it was likely that someone smoked meth in it regularly, but did not cook the drug. Stiles determined that they didn’t need to demolish any walls but that they did need to replace all appliances and clean all surfaces.
After the house tested positive, Kara and Brian had to find a cleaning company certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Colorado law, cleaning companies and testing companies can’t be the same entity. In order to prevent a potential conflict of interest, the people doing the cleaning can’t be the ones verifying the success — or not — of their own work, and whether an area needs to be cleaned again. That lessens the chance of corruption within the whole process.
After the cleaning, each room has to be tested again to re-record the meth levels. If the test comes back above the limit again — which, according to Stiles, it often does — the cleaning crew is called back in. Because meth is largely invisible, cleaning its residue is like working blind — a cleaning crew can never be sure that they’ve gotten all, or any, of it.
Jason Johnson, who runs 70 Services, a biohazard remediation company in Denver, said that the process of cleaning up meth residue involves several steps and varies according to different surface materials. “You’re never going to get something like a popcorn ceiling clean,” he said, but something like hardwood is salvageable. Every surface requires a multi-step treatment: first vacuuming with a high-efficiency particulate air filter, and then scrubbing with various cleaning solutions, often hydrogen peroxide followed by dishwashing detergent mixed with hot water. “I don’t want to say that people have gotten better at making meth,” Johnson said, but like other drugs, over the years the drug’s potency has increased, as has its toxicity. “Meth’s uniqueness is that it will push its way through latex paint and pretty much anything else if you don’t take steps to mitigate it.”
Stiles and Johnson both told me that Kara and Brian’s house is fairly typical of what they see throughout the state, where by some metrics, methamphetamine is abused at higher rates than even opiates. “People don’t realize that meth isn’t going anywhere,” Stiles said. “It stays in a house for years and years.” The worst case he’s ever seen, he said, was of a detached garage that had served as a meth lab shortly before he tested it — the reading came back so high that he recommended the garage be demolished.
It can be hard to determine when and how a house became contaminated by meth. Part of this is intuitive: if the culprit happens to be a property owner or a tenant, it’s unlikely that they’re going to admit to having smoked meth in the first place, let alone in their place of residence, and besides, any number of people can be in and out of a property throughout the course of its upkeep. Norris Minick, the owner and managing broker at the Boulder-based real estate firm Agents for Home Buyers (A4HB), told that in some nightmarish cases, “contract workers smoke in basements or bathrooms when they’re working on a home, and homeowners have no way of knowing.” In the last seven years, A4HB has encouraged all of its clients to conduct meth tests on their rental properties. Of the 192 homes that were tested, 28 had meth contamination, with the highest concentration reaching 60.5 micrograms. “These were all nice-looking houses, condos and townhomes,” Minick said. “Neither the inspector, nor the industrial hygienists doing the meth testing saw any indication that would cause them to suspect meth contamination.”
Minick told me that he believes Colorado needs to change its laws “so that real estate inspectors, rather than industrial hygienists, can be trained and certified to do meth screening tests. That would bring the price of the test down to where most people would consider it.”
It took three complete scrubs before the rental house’s rooms tested below 0.5 micrograms. The tenants, however, were long gone — they vacated the property, leaving almost all of their belongings behind, never to return. They didn’t end up suing Kara and Brian, but the couple released the tenants from their lease and an out-of-court settlement was reached.
The process of discovering the pipe to having the house tested and cleaned until it was up to a livable, legal standard took Brian and Kara four months and $15,645 in fees, as well as a $6,950 refund to their tenants — the total amount that the couple paid in rent for the five months they lived in the property, plus their entire security deposit — plus a few hundred dollars to replace all of their appliances. “I really think $30,000 in total costs is not an exaggeration,” Kara said, mentally totaling up how much a single meth pipe ended up setting them back. But that figure doesn’t account for Kara’s and Brian’s time. Not only did they dedicate dozens of hours in dealing with their tenants, testers, and the cleaners, they had to repaint the interior of the entire house after the cleaning destroyed it.
This spring, the couple will put the house on the market. “It’s very, very clean,” Kara said, laughing. And because they’ve gone through the proper steps to ensure that the home is up to state standards, they aren’t required to disclose the ordeal. While they aren’t optimistic about making a huge profit on the sale, they’re confident that it can make a great home. And they’re hopeful the next owner won’t find any meth in it.