One of the most popular shows on TV ended last September — Breaking Bad, a show about a teacher who gets into such dire financial trouble that he resorts to cooking meth for cash.
While a lot of people were sad to see the show end, those of us who rent out property in less-than-sterling neighborhoods have been on high alert for morons tenants that might take a cue from the popular show and try their own hand at drug making in our properties.
Rental homes are the primary target of meth lab builders, because there’s a significant chance of fire and a significant chance of explosions and even if you avoid both of those fates, the residue that meth cooking leaves behind is both toxic and almost impossible to get rid of.
Moreover, insurance almost never covers the costs, so it’s a massive remediation that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and it’s going to come entirely out of your pocket.
Clearly, then, catching this practice before it gets started is absolutely critical. Fortunately, there are some habits and items that are fairly dead giveaways. If you’re visiting your properties regularly — and especially if you have a relationship with a neighbor who is willing to keep an eye on your property in exchange for a financial reward should they catch anything illegal going on — you should be able to keep people from “breaking bad” on your properties.
First of all, there’s the ingredients needed to cook meth:
- Ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — that is to say: cold, diet, or allergy medicines in large quantities.
- Lye, or as it’s occasionally sold, sodium hydroxide.
- Anhydrous ammonia — generally kept in coolers.
- Iodine, in large amounts: it takes some 4 typical bodies of iodine tincture to make 3 grams of meth.
- Red phosphorus, almost always in the form of massive boxes of matches. It takes about 4 of the super-sized boxes of strike-anywhere matches for that same 3 grams of meth.
- Ether — yeah, that stuff they use to anesthetize people in third-world countries…or kidnap people right here.
- Drano. Nuff said.
- Brake fluid. This is the part that causes explosions; if enough vapor from brake fluid gets exposed to any of several common household cleaners…BOOM.
- Butane, a.k.a. lighter fluid. Did we mention BOOM?
- Hydrochloric acid — the same stuff your body uses to digest food and the industrial sector uses to clean the rust off of steel.
Obviously, there’s no need to get alarmed if you see someone carrying a box of matches, some Draino, and some brake fluid in from their car. But if they’re carrying a box full of boxes of matches, or several boxes of Sudafed, or even a little bit of raw hydrochloric acid or ether…schedule a visit pronto.
Signs of the Cooking Process
In addition to the ingredients, there are some common signs of meth cooking you can spot if you’re alert.
If you see a patch of seemingly-random dead grass or plants outside the front door, it often means that the cookers dumped a bit of their toxic byproducts outside. You may also find large amounts of sheets or other potential filtering material covered with a white, powdery residue in the trash or stuffed into the corners of the home.
Because of a meth lab’s several distinct chemicals, you or a neighbor might notice any of several smells coming from a meth lab. Ammonia (often described by neighbors as ‘cat piss’), lighter fluid, sulphur (from the matches), and ‘sweet syrupy smell’ (from the ether) are all common reports.
Meth lab cookers are generally pretty cagey on avoiding getting caught, but you should be suspicious if a neighbor reports that your tenants are throwing things away in their trash cans, or are driving some trash away in their vehicle. Another reason to be suspicious is having a tenant that the neighbors report as shady and secretive, and yet who seems to entertain a lot of guests for short periods of time.
What to Do If You Suspect a Meth Lab
If you suspect that your tenant has built a meth lab on one of your properties, do NOT inspect the property yourself, and do NOT confront the tenant alone.
There are dozens of nasty chemicals that you don’t want to get anywhere near you inside a meth lab — and meth cookers tend to shoot first and not ask questions at all.
Instead, call the local narcotics division and share your concerns with them. Let them make the determination as to whether it’s actually a meth lab; it’s not like they’re going to charge you if you’re mistaken.
What to Do If You’re Right
If it turns out that your property actually was used as a meth lab, we apologize.
There’s nothing you can realistically do to avoid the cleanup costs other than sell the property, and most state laws require you to disclose the existence of all environmental hazards pertaining to a sold property. Meth certainly counts as several of those, so selling a former meth lab is very challenging.
How do I Keep This From Happening In the First Place?
An ounce of prevention yadda, yadda.
Screening your tenants is vital; having a property manager in place is a good start because meth cookers tend to seek out self-managed rentals without a standardized and rigorous screening system.
Either way, call their previous landlords to establish a pattern of good tenancy (and keep a wary eye out for fakes!) Check their references, verify their source of income.
If your tenant switches to paying rent in cash, schedule a visit. If you cruise by and notice that they’ve boarded up or otherwise obviously blocked the windows, schedule a visit. If you talk to the neighbors — which you should be doing anyway — and they’re at all suspicious, schedule a visit.
(Obviously include in the lease/rental agreement that regular inspections will be occurring, with notice given as per your state’s statutes.) If you go in for a visit and they’re absent, look for the signs listed above and don’t hesitate to call the cops — it really is a very genuine case of ‘better safe than sorry’ on this issue.
How can I Avoid Purchasing a Former Meth Lab?
Fortunately, this one is easy: there’s a ten-pack of meth residue test kits available from Amazon.com for around $30.
Buy one, and don’t purchase a property without testing it first, no matter how clean it looks and how good of a neighborhood it’s in. The $30 isn’t going to hurt you, and it could save you hundreds of thousands — because in most states, once you buy a meth house, the responsibility for the cleanup is yours, even if the seller didn’t tell you about it.
No one wants to have to deal with the horrible reality of a Breaking Bad situation in their rentals — but hopefully, with a bit of knowledge and a little proper prior planning, you can head it off before it becomes a ten thousand dollar problem.
Do you have experience with tenants cooking meth within your property? If so, how did you handle it?
Be sure to leave your comments below!
Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.