'Spot the grow-op' no easy game for homebuyers

'Spot the grow-op' no easy game for homebuyers

The story of a woman in Limoges, Ont., who unwittingly bought a former grow-op highlights an ongoing challenge for homebuyers, experts say.

Home inspectors in Ottawa contacted by CBC said homebuyers in this city have also fallen for properties that once housed marijuana growing operations, in some cases because they were so anxious to close a deal in a hot market that they bought without conditions and passed on an inspection.

"They're waking up and smelling the coffee later on, when they realize there are issues," said Paul Wilson, who's worked as a building inspector since the 1980s.

Withered plants in the attic of one home suggested a grow-op a few owners back, Wilson said. While that kind of legacy might not cause the new owner too much hardship, other aspects of a grow-op's legacy are more difficult to live with.

No provincial registry of former grow-ops

"There are issues like mould in the walls. A lot of them have structural issues," said Matthew Thornton, vice-president of public affairs and communications with the Ontario Real Estate Association, which represents the province's 70,000 realtors. "The grower will tamper with wiring or drill holes in the foundation to vent the grow-op, that kind of thing.

"A lot of people don't know that they're buying a grow-op, and that's a problem."

In 2013, OREA supported a private member's bill by Ottawa MPP Lisa MacLeod to create a provincial registry of former grow-ops.

That bill died, which means information about former grow-ops still varies greatly from municipality to municipality.

City of Ottawa tracks grow-ops busted by police

Ottawa seems to have more information available than most.

Ottawa police publish a list of grow-ops they have dismantled, and they alert the city clerk to busts large and small, according to Beryl Brownlee, a program manager in the city's planning services department.

An Ottawa bylaw requires the property owner to vacate the home after a grow-op is discovered. To be allowed to return, they must remove grow-op material and equipment, and repair all related damage under the direction of a professional engineer, all at their own expense.

The city's order to comply with the bylaw is attached to the property title, a public document that can be viewed at the land registry office by anyone who might want to buy the house.

After repairs are completed and the home passes inspection by the city, however, discovering the house's former grow-op status becomes more difficult. The city's order is removed from the title, so to turn up evidence of that history at the land registry, the prospective buyer must tailor their search to include deleted documents, Brownlee said.

Police say they also remove the house from their own online list of dismantled grow-ops — which explains why a Google news search of Ottawa grow-ops turns up many properties that aren't on the police list.

No bust, no public record

The bigger risk to homebuyers is the grow-ops that aren't found by police.

If an owner discovers a tenant or relative running a grow-op on a property, he or she might simply shut it down and make repairs on their own.

"There's no paper trail. You don't know what's behind the walls," said Peggy Blair, an Ottawa real estate agent.

Prospective buyers also shouldn't assume that the agent for the seller will inform them about the former illegal operation, according to the Real Estate Council of Ontario, which regulates real estate professionals.

"If the property has gone through remediation and there are no lasting impacts to the structure of the home that was formerly a grow-op, then the seller is not required to disclose the property's history," said spokesperson M. Daniel Roukema in an e-mail.

A concerned buyer can still have his or her realtor ask the seller's agent specifically about grow-up activity, Blair said. The seller is not permitted to lie in response to a direct question. Buyers can also talk to neighbours.

Blair knows first-hand about the information neighbours can offer. She lived across the street from a grow-op herself, and said she and the home's other neighbours in Westboro had suspicions long before police turned up, thanks to clues such as curtains that were always drawn, and the resident's oddly panicked reaction to a temporary break in water service on the street.

Tear it down, home inspector advises

Home inspector Peter Weeks seconds Peggy Blair's advice to talk to neighbours.

Even home inspectors don't always spot the signs of a former grow-op, Weeks said, because a typical inspection doesn't entail breaking into walls.

And while he's taken a specific course on identifying former grow-ops and drug labs, many others haven't, he said. That situation is unlikely to change even with upcoming licensing requirements from the province.

If interviews or an inspection do turn up evidence of a grow-op, Weeks said he recommends moving on — even if the property has been remediated.

"The guys who fix them up do it in all sincerity, but there's still problems," Weeks said. "There's mould behind the walls that you can't see."

He recently advised a young couple against buying a home that was formerly a grow-op, he said. Their realtor hadn't alerted them to the fact, but they called him for an inspection after their own Google search of the address turned up the history.

"If that house has been a grow-op, there's really in my opinion only one solution," Weeks said. "Tear it down. Start again."

Think about resale: realtor

If a break in price makes the purchase tempting anyway, then consider the resale potential, Blair said.

Removing the home from the police list of dismantled grow-ops doesn't magically erase its reputation with the public, she pointed out.

So a deal on the property now may not seem so sweet later, when a future buyer comes looking for a similar break, armed with the same bad news about its history.