Reuben Saltzman

Mold or suspected organic microbial growth?

Mold? Mold-like substance? Suspected organic microbial growth? Black fuzzy stuff? Unknown biological matter? Exactly what should we call this stuff?

Mold covered wall

I have come to the conclusion that there is no right answer. None. I’ll go through a bunch of potential descriptions for this stuff, and I’ll explain why there’s a problem with everything.

Mold? No.

We don’t always know that something is mold without testing it. I’ve seen many materials that I would happily bet my house on as mold, such as the stuff in the photo above. But other times, there can be black stains in attics that look like mold but are not really mold. So there’s a possibility of being wrong.

Not only that, but using the word mold can also get lenders whipped up. I specifically remember one situation where I mentioned some mold underneath a sink and recommended cleaning it up.

Mold under sink

The lender saw my report and made a huge stink about this. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I think the buyer ended up having to find another lender who didn’t request a copy of my inspection report.

In this case, I created a bunch of unnecessary hassle for the buyer over something that amounted to nothing. After that incident, I decided that I was probably doing a disservice to my clients to even call something mold in my inspection reports.

Black stains? No.

After I decided to eliminate the word mold from my reports, I started calling it “black stains”. My focus was always on fixing the cause of the “stains”. I’d tell my client there was a moisture problem and I’d usually tell them why it was happening.

Side note: I know that many home inspectors say that we shouldn’t determine the cause of moisture if we’re not qualified, but that’s not a problem with my inspectors. I’d conservatively estimate that inspectors in my company are qualified to determine the source of moisture problems about 95% of the time. My company specializes in moisture testing and moisture problems; we’re very good at this.

This worked fine for a while… until some contractor came out to fix an attic moisture problem that we had called out. The contractor who came out to fix the moisture issue expertly labeled the black stains in the attic “mold”, and proceeded to tell our client that we were incompetent for not calling it mold. That led to a complaint call.

After reviewing my inspector’s report from this home, I wouldn’t have changed a word. My inspector wrote everything up exactly the way that I would have done myself, but there’s a pervasive “last man in” syndrome that occurs, where homeowners always seem to believe the last person who was there. This really sucks for home inspectors, but it’s life.

So we need to be more clear with our wording than “black stains”.

Mold-like substance? No.

First off, I don’t like the way that this is phrased. It sounds stuffy and CYA-ish. My less-stuffy version of this is “looks like mold”. If something looks like mold, it looks like mold. It’s tough to argue with that, and it lets my client know that something is probably mold, but I didn’t test it. That’s what we at Structure Tech are currently saying when we see mold.

The problem with this language is the reason for this blog post, however. One of the inspectors on my team recently mentioned a bunch of black stains in the attic and said that it looked like mold, but we wouldn’t be testing the material to know for sure. Of course, the cause of the mold in the attic was attic bypasses. This is pretty much always what causes mold in the attic, and our inspector gave the client some very specific information on what it would take to prevent this from continuing to happen.

Our inspector also mentioned that we would put that information in our report, and the real estate agent who was at the inspection kindly asked us to not use the word “mold” in our report, even if we were simply saying that it looked like mold.

This agent said that if we even say that there might be mold, this becomes a material defect that must be disclosed by the seller, and that the buyer would need to disclose this when she turned around and sold the home in the future. Us saying it might be mold could only create problems for both the buyer and seller.

This sounded like a dubious claim to me, so I posted about this on a forum for members of a local Realtors® association. The responses were varied, but there were a handful of people who agreed; they felt that even the appearance of mold is something that must be disclosed.

I’m not a licensed real estate salesperson and I don’t know the rules about property disclosure, so I’ll defer to them on this one. Maybe this really is a thing. If you’re a licensed real estate salesperson in Minnesota, please feel free to weigh in on this topic by leaving a comment. I’d love to get more input.

Unknown biological matter that should be tested? No.

I don’t recommend testing for mold. The Minnesota Department of Health has a nice document explaining why it’s usually a waste of money to test for mold, located here: I think this is a great document that should be required reading for anyone wanting to test for mold.

Also, I agree with the Minnesota Department of Health. You won’t hear recommendations to test for mold from anyone at Structure Tech. Besides that link, check out my previous blog posts on mold testing:

Did I miss anything?

I’ve covered all of the weasely, non-committal terms that I can think of for mold, but surely there are plenty more. If you’re a home inspector, what do YOU call mold? If you’re not a home inspector, how would you want your home inspector to describe mold?

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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