In recent months, there has been an increase in properties being put on the market which have intentionally not been disclosed as fibro homes, writes real estate guru Henny Stier.
Last year, I inspected a property in Normanhurst which had a survey on display clearly stating that the house is a fibro cottage. The house has since been cladded and painted over so most buyers would automatically assume the house is weatherboard. Yet a vendor-paid building and pest report which was disseminated to interested parties conveniently did not address the construction material of the house. Unfortunately, when I confronted the agent about this, and the fact that I saw a survey at the first Open House stating the house is definitely fibro, the agent just brushed it aside and the survey mysteriously went missing. The property was sold at auction and, to this day, I wonder if the purchaser knew she was buying a fibro house and not a weatherboard one.
In another instance last year, I inspected a house in St Ives which my clients really liked. It did not take very long for me to figure out that the house is actually fibro which has been rendered on the outside. Again, the agent did not disclose this information. They claimed to not know about the fibro, which may or may not be true because some savvy agents intentionally avoid finding out information that would make it difficult to sell a property.
This week, yet another house was up for auction on the North Shore, which is definitely fibro but has been cladded in aluminium. The agent claims she does not know what is underneath the cladding and neither does the vendor. However, there was a significant renovation done to the property, so the vendor must know because asbestos removal is a very specific procedure. The vendor commissioned their own pest and building report which, once again, avoided the entire issue of the construction of the house except to say that the external is aluminium cladding. We conducted our own investigation and our independent pest and building inspector concluded very quickly that it is most likely a fibro house. This house presents beautifully, but I just hope that the purchaser knows they bought a fibro house and hasn’t overpaid thinking it is something else.
So what is a fibro house anyway?
Fibro houses are extremely common on the North Shore, particularly in postwar neighbourhoods when people were poorer and fibro sheeting containing asbestos (referred to as fibro in this article) was considered cheap and durable.
The most likely form of fibro that you would have come across is the flat sheet type of fibro which is often used for the cladding of houses, sheds and garages. However, it is also often found inside the house, especially in the laundry, or in a rumpus room or even as the walls between rooms. This flat sheeting was simply nailed to the wooden framing, thus making construction quick and cheap.
Note that many newer houses of the last two decades also use fibrous cement sheeting (sometimes referred to as FC). This material does not contain asbestos, but the jury is out (for some) on whether there are other health risks involved in using it.
Fibro sheeting can present a health risk if the sheeting is cut, nailed, sanded or disturbed in any way, causing the physical release of the asbestos fibres. It has been proven that asbestos fibres, when inhaled, can cause asbestosis (chronic lung disease), lung cancer and mesothelioma (an aggressive form of lung cancer). However, if not touched and is in good condition, then fibro is actually not harmful per se. The issue becomes a concern if you were to buy a fibro home and you want to put a nail up on the wall to hang a painting; or perhaps you want to renovate the kitchen or bathroom one day. This would cause asbestos fibres to be released into the air and be harmful to health.
Many houses have some element of fibro somewhere. Houses with fibro eaves is extremely common, though not really an issue as they are out of the way. It is more of a concern if the entire house or a significant portion (such as all the internal walls) is made of fibro. If you want any asbestos removed, it is a costly exercise and must be done by qualified professionals only.
How can you tell if a house is a fibro?
Any structure, such as a house or shed built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, is a candidate for containing asbestos fibro. Try to find out the date when the house was built by consulting local authority records, the builder, past owners or even the neighbours.
Check out the neighbourhood. If many houses in the street and area are fibro, then this is a very strong clue. It is not always easy to visually identify fibro homes, especially if they have intentionally been cladded or rendered over and then painted. There are visual clues but you do need to be somewhat trained to identify them. This includes the type of joints in the materials, the texture, the visible fibres, the type of cornice, etc. The only way to be absolutely sure is to take a sample for laboratory analysis. A list of laboratories can be found on the NATA (National Association Testing Authorities) website.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether a house is fibro because the external walls could be brick veneer while the internal walls are fibro.
If the house has been cladded, you can often tell what is underneath the cladding if you go underneath the house. In the below photo, you can clearly see the fibro sheeting that has been covered with cladding.
Usually, if a house is definitely NOT fibro, the vendor and selling agent will be jumping up and down to emphasise this. If the agent keeps skirting the issue and won’t say conclusively either way, then that is a hint that they are perhaps not being forthcoming. Don’t rely on a vendor-paid building and pest inspection report because it will often intentionally avoid the topic.
Does that mean you should avoid fibro houses?
Whether or not you should buy a fibro house depends entirely on your plan for the property. If you intend to bulldoze it and build a brand new house then, of course, this is not an issue. You just need to be cognisant of the premium cost involved with the removal and disposal of asbestos and budget accordingly. You should not buy a fibro house if you think the house needs renovation which would cause the asbestos fibres to be disturbed and released into the air.
If you choose to buy a fibro house, then at the very least make sure the fibro sheets are in good condition and you are paying a price which is commensurate with a fibro house.
The main thing is, you need to be knowledgeable about all the facts of the home you are intending to buy so that you don’t ever buy a fibro house by mistake.
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