Should I Try DIY Mold Testing and Removal?

Updated February 11, 2013
Senior project manager Austin Reid of Mold Masters uses a moisture meter to test moisture content in the wall to find potential demolition areas that contain mold. (Photo by Sara Cozolino)

Mold can be a scary thing for homeowners to tackle. Hiring reputable companies to handle the mold testing and mold remediation can help alleviate the stress.

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When his wife and daughter started complaining of a musty smell in their home northeast of Orlando,  Charlie Stein began investigating potential causes. Suspecting mold, Stein looked around the house and pulled back carpeting — nothing. He then cut a small hole in the drywall and got hit with a stronger, musty smell he immediately sensed was the culprit. After searching online, he started calling mold companies. “Protective Solutions was the first one to call me back,” he says.

Stein, who joined Angie’s List only after his experience with Protective Solutions, says he knew next to nothing about mold or how to treat it. The owner, Thomas Costa, advised him to tape up the hole right away, he says. “He told me ‘if you open up the wall, the mold spores will infect your whole home,’” he says. “In retrospect, he used this as a scare tactic to get into my house.”

The scare tactic worked, he admits. Stein hired Costa’s Orlando-based company and paid him $1,569 to test the house and remediate the affected areas. “He did the test himself and gave us the results,” Stein says, adding that Costa then proceeded to remove the drywall and paint inside the wall, a procedure he assured the Steins would eradicate the mold. “The problem was, it didn’t work,” Stein says. “And [Costa] never returned to follow up or fix the issue.” Stein, who now lives in Hampton Cove, Ala., points to a Florida hurricane as the probable cause of the mold growth, with the rain penetrating the exterior of his stucco house. “I didn’t have a good feeling about [Costa],” he says. “If I hadn’t been afraid of mold spores contaminating my whole house, 
I would’ve taken care of it myself.”

When mold attacks

Mold can be a scary thing for homeowners who are unfamiliar with its effects and how to get rid of it — especially if mold growth is the result of an unexpected weather-related incident. Although more than half of the country experienced drought conditions last summer, the first half of 2012 saw $9.3 billion in insured catastrophic losses — $8.8 billion of which were related to thunderstorm activity, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says floods — which can result from hurricanes, tropical storms, heavy rains, winter storms and spring thaws — are the most common natural disaster in the country. “Weather absolutely plays a factor [in mold growth],” says Bob Ederer, owner of Mold Inspection Consulting and Remediation Organization, a mold professional certification organization in Redmond, Wash. “From flooding to excessive rain … when moisture intrusions take place, you can have the potential of a problem.”

Whenever unanticipated water damage occurs, finding a qualified mold expert is key. “It’s not unusual for floodwaters that enter a home to be contaminated with sewage and that can have a significant impact on the health of the occupants,” says Dan Bernazzani, certified indoor environmental consultant and spokesman for the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, the accreditation body that helped set the industry’s standards. “You really want to get someone professional in there.”

In Stein’s case, he didn’t know the 61-year-old Costa was under investigation for allegations of fraud and theft by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection Division of Law Enforcement at the time he hired Protective Solutions in late 2009. The DEP officers arrested Costa in February 2011 on charges that he violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and other charges, including 24 counts of felony grand theft. According to the DEP, Costa victimized more than 29 people crossing four jurisdictions.

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The DEP and the Florida attorney general’s office say Costa responded to clients’ calls about possible mold problems and obtained air and mold samples for testing. However, no testing took place, the DEP says, and Costa provided fictitious, extremely technical lab reports to clients before offering his services to remove the mold, which involved tearing out walls, carpet, flooring, tile and cabinets. Investigators say he failed to remove the mold properly, leaving his customers with a continuing mold problem and financially responsible for the repairs to the affected areas.

In November 2011, Costa pleaded guilty to the felony racketeering charge, and a judge sentenced him in February to eight years in prison and ordered him to pay $44,532 in restitution to victims. However, Costa’s attorney, O. Gustavo Padron, negotiated a reverse split sentence, which keeps Costa — who claims medical problems — out of prison, but on probation. “He dodged the bullet,” Padron says. “But anything that that guy does from now until the day he dies is under the microscope.” According to the Orange County clerk’s office, Costa still had not paid restitution or more than $83,000 in legal fees as of press time.

Who to hire to remove mold?

Hiring a certified and reputable team for mold testing and remediation can help homeowners avoid a situation like the Steins. Unfortunately, few states require mold professionals to obtain a trade license — those that do include Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Virginia, and starting this July, Maryland. In the absence of licensing requirements, homeowners must check out an individual’s credentials. Brandon Jones, owner of highly rated Midwest Restoration Technologies in Lee’s Summit, Mo., says his IICRC certification reassures his customers. “With all the different companies around, this helps set us apart from those that aren’t licensed, insured or participating in continuing education,” he says. Ederer says mold professionals with MICRO certification also follow the standards set by IICRC. “The standards that IICRC developed are regarded as the ‘Bible’ in the industry,” he says. IICRC offers two mold remediation certifications for an individual or a company that can be obtained after taking courses, passing an exam and maintaining continuing education.

While the initial discovery of mold might alarm homeowners, the Environmental Protection Agency points out that there’s no practical way to eliminate all mold in the home. Barney Thompson, vice president of highly rated Thompson’s Basement Waterproofing in Pine Grove, Pa., agrees that there’s no reason to panic. “But by the same token, we have so many diseases we didn’t have years ago and people’s immune systems are breaking down … mold is something you really have to be careful with.”

Member Jonathan Doose says he and his family’s health suffered due to mold growth. When he moved from the dry climate of Southern California to Cary, N.C., Doose couldn’t understand why his 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son became sick with upper respiratory problems after a few days of living in their new rental home. “I was in a bit of a panic,” he says. “It’s very scary, seeing your family get sick.” Doose examined the air ducts in the house and found a dark green, fuzzy mold growing on a few of them, then quickly relayed his discovery to the property manager. The company hired by the property manager found no trace of mold, Doose says, but he questioned the results and paid highly rated Indoor Environmental Systems $650 to conduct another evaluation. “Steve [McLeod, owner] found quite a bit of mold in the crawl space.” Armed with McLeod’s report, Doose says he made his case to the property manager, who allowed him to end his lease and move. “As soon as we moved out of there, everyone made a full recovery,” he says.

What’s the cost to remove mold?

If remediation is needed, homeowners should brace for the expense. “In most cases, the average size remediation can be completed for a couple thousand dollars,” Jones says. “But we’ve also completed jobs that cost well over $20,000.” Factors influencing cost can include the size of the affected area and whether the basement is finished. “The smartest people are the ones who called a waterproofing company before they finish the basement,” Thompson says. “They take the precaution.”

Standard homeowners insurance policies rarely cover the cost of mold testing or remediation unless it’s a covered peril, says I.I.I. vice president Loretta Worters. “For example, the costs of cleaning up mold caused by water from a burst pipe are covered under the policy because water damage from a burst pipe is a covered peril.” But mold caused by excessive humidity, leaks or flooding is a maintenance issue, she says. However, nearly a third of the states require insurance companies to offer some sort of mold coverage, either as an addition or provision in the homeowner’s policy, according to State Farm spokesman Dick Luedke. Mold coverage costs vary depending on where you live, as areas prone to water-related natural disasters tend to experience higher premiums.

Regardless of who pays, it’s important to verify a company’s credentials before hiring. “Unfortunately, every industry has a certain amount of unscrupulous individuals, with the mold abatement business being no exception,” says Austin Reid, senior project manager for highly rated Mold Masters in Los Angeles. “Make sure that anyone performing services has verifiable references and industry certification.” Reid also stresses the importance of checking the company’s liability and workers’ compensation insurance, if applicable. Ederer says homeowners should ask for a thorough contract. “There should be some sort of containment set up to prevent cross contamination,” he says. “If some guy says ‘we don’t need containment,’ I’d avoid using him.”

Member Debbie Cuomo of Holiday, Fla., says she hired Ted Sanchez, owner of highly rated Reliance Inspections in Palm Harbor, after a different company told her the small amount of black mold on her window would make her sick. “It was scary,” she says, adding that Cuomo confirmed it was mold, and advised cleaning it with vinegar. “The first guy seemed to be a shyster,” she says. “Thanks to Ted’s honesty, I was able to get rid of the problem myself. I just wish I had joined Angie’s List before I gave the first guy $400!”

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