How to Tell If a Home Has Lead Paint

paint can colorsIf your buyers are looking at older homes, remind them to check whether any lead paint is present inside the home and still needs to be removed. Lead was a popular ingredient used in house paint for years until scientists discovered that it could lead to a range of health problems, particularly in children, including anemia, seizures, and even death.

Since 1978, the federal government has banned the sale of lead-based paint. But even homes built after 1978 may contain lead-based paint. “Many painters loved lead-based paint” because it tends to be glossier and hold color better, says home inspector Welmoed Sisson with Inspections by Bob in Maryland. “Once they learned the ban was going into effect, many of them stocked up on a cache of lead-based paint.” Sisson says he knows of inspectors who have found lead-based paint in homes built in the 1990s.

So, are there any telltale signs of lead paint? The naked eye won’t detect anything definitive, but “when the paint deteriorates, it creates a pattern that looks like scales,” Sisson says. “It’s actually called ‘alligatoring.'” Also, Sisson urges buyers to investigate closets, along baseboards, and basement window sashes to make sure painters didn’t try to cover up the peeling paint with a new coat.

A better way to know for sure is to test the walls with a paint testing kit available at local hardware stores. The kit prompts you to rub a solution on the walls. If the solution turns pink, it’s an indicator you have lead. (Note: The solution stains walls if it turns pink, so don’t do this if you’re just looking at a home for sale.) But the tests only discover lead at the surface, and it may not reveal if the lead-based paint had been covered up by new paint.

A home inspector can provide a thorough, more precise test for that. But you may have to request it. Certified lead inspectors also can be found in your location on the lead abatement page of

“When lead is suspected, inspectors use an X-ray to look through the paint layers to the base wood of the wall,” Sisson says. “X-rays can’t pass through lead, so it is easy to spot.” If lead is discovered in a home, a certified inspector will need to remove it. The cost could be about $8 to $15 per square foot, or an estimated $10,000 on an average-size home.