New Lead Laws Will Lead to Increase in Home Improvement Costs

By Mary McCleary

Do you own a home?  If the answer is yes, then I have bad news for you.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has enacted new lead regulations which are going to make your home improvement projects more expensive.  Whether you want to simply paint a room or want to build an addition to your house, you should be prepared to fork over more money.  Why the increase in costs?  In a nut shell, the EPA has raised home improvement workers’ costs, which in turn raises service fees for homeowners.

How have the new lead safety regulations increased costs for home improvement workers?  First, the EPA requires that all home improvement workers become lead-safe certified in order to work in homes built prior to 1978, the year lead based paint was outlawed.  Home improvement workers must pay approximately $200 to take the eight hour certification course.  Then they must submit paper work to the EPA along with a $300 check to cover program administration costs.  If a Cincinnati painter wants to work in Indiana and Kentucky, his check must include another $70 to add the two states to his certification.  Every five years, all home improvement companies, including sole proprietorships, must repeat the certification process.

Unfortunately, the costs to home improvement workers do not end with obtaining certification. Once certified, home improvement workers must buy new equipment that meets the EPA’s standards.  All firms must purchase a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum, which costs roughly $450, not including the price of replacement filters.  Firms also must replace their power sanders with new ones that are equipped with HEPA vacuum attachments ($200).  Low temperature heat guns ($140) must replace traditional heat guns.  These are just several examples of big-ticket items that home improvement workers must buy in order to comply with the lead regulations.

In addition to the new equipment which is a one-time cost, home improvement workers are mandated to buy many smaller disposable items for each project.  They must purchase thick plastic sheeting ($200 per job) to prevent dust from leaving the work area, lead block encapsulate ($45 per gallon) to seal walls containing lead paint, heavy duty trash bags and dust wipes ($15 per job), and safety masks ($3 per person, per day). Again, this is not an exhaustive list of everything that home improvement workers must buy and use in order to comply.

The biggest expense home improvement companies face is increased labor costs.  Projects will take more hours to complete if workers comply with the EPA standards.  One lead-safe certified Columbus contractor estimates that the cost of labor on a small job will increase 10%.  For example, a bathroom remodel previously taking 240 hours will now take 264 hours.  If the cost of labor is $30 per hour, the price of the project will rise by $720.  When equipment, materials, and labor are all taken into account, the cost of the project will increase by $1,000.  Thus, a project originally costing $7,200 will now cost $8,200 (or 13.9% more) under the new regulations.

Why is so much additional time necessary to complete each project?  Preparing for the project takes longer.  Workers must test all surfaces for lead.  Then they have to seal off all vents, windows and doors where dust could escape.  Thick plastic sheeting must be hung over any openings and also must cover the floor.  Every time a worker leaves the work zone, he must make sure he is lead free.  The EPA suggests that all clothing and materials be wet-wiped and/or HEPA-vacuumed before laborers exit the work area.  Additionally, at the end of each day, the work area must be cleaned, and all wasted must be properly stored or disposed of.  The EPA also requires a thorough cleaning of the work area after the project is completed.  Complying with the lead safety regulations can add quite a bit of time to projects.

Rising costs for home improvement workers translate into rising costs for homeowners.  For contractors to pay for certification, buy new equipment and materials, compensate workers and still make profits, they have to pass along costs to homeowners.

Do not be mistaken though. The new EPA lead regulations will adversely affect home improvement workers as well. The president of one Chicago mold-removal firm estimates that his profits will decrease by 12% due to spending an additional $160,000 to $300,000 per year on equipment and labor.  Since fewer people will be able to afford their remodeling dreams, there will be fewer jobs for lead-safe certified workers. Also, lead-safe certified workers will have to compete with black market labor that homeowners will turn to in an effort to accomplish their projects more cheaply.  Already struggling home improvement companies could be put out of business, and seasonal home improvement workers, such as students and teachers, will be hard pressed to cover their certification and equipment costs and still make a profit in three months time.

Aside from the economic effects, the new EPA regulations could physically harm home improvement workers.  Due to lack of ventilation and the sun beating down through plastic sheeting, the work space could become quite hot, especially if the workers are wearing their coverall suits and safety masks.  With the physical activity that home improvement work entails, workers run the risk of overheating, fainting, and even heatstroke.  Workers performing outside tasks also are in danger of falling due to the mandated plastic sheeting ground cover becoming wet from dew or rain.

Even those who have taken the lead safety class have many unknowns that they will be working through in the near future.  There is not one simple checklist that home improvement workers can follow.  Instead they must make their ways through the handbook hoping that they don’t miss any safety precautions.  Because contractors are uncertain what compliance ultimately entails, they are uncertain how to bid on jobs.  They must bid high enough to cover costs, yet low enough to win jobs.  Until they have completed a few jobs in accordance with the lead regulations, they will not be able to accurately bid.

If home improvement workers are not certified or if they don’t follow the lead regulations, they can face fines up to $37,500 per infraction.  Contractors taking the lead safety course have been told that infractions are per day, not per job. Therefore, a person singlehandedly performing a small job lasting only a week could be fined $162,500, when the job is only worth $1,200.  The fines are purely punitive.  Very few home improvement workers can afford to pay the fines attached to noncompliance.  One fine could easily bankrupt a business and put a worker in severe financial distress.

The new EPA lead regulations are clearly harmful to both homeowners and home improvement workers.  While it is true that children should not be playing in lead dust or eating paint chips, many homeowners do not have children under six.  Those who do need to take responsibility for protecting their children from lead by keeping them out of work zones and should even consider hiring a contractor who specializes in lead safety if they so choose.  For the average citizen who does not have a child under six years old and just wants a new coat of paint on the walls, the lead regulations are excessive, costly, confusing, burdensome, and are simply not necessary.

This article was written by Mary McCleary while she was a policy analyst at the Buckeye Institute.