It's the nightmare that haunts every first-time home buyer, especially a young couple with a 2-year-old daughter about to purchase their first house: toxic mold.
Jason and Kerri Brown were thrilled when they found a five-bedroom, two-bath house that was in foreclosure for $75,000 in Greenville, S.C., a cozy town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on Aug. 16, 2005.
The next day, they started renovations on the fixer-upper and ordered new fixtures and furniture. Later that week, Kerri was at home when she and her uncle started to remove some bookcases in a bedroom and discovered a passageway that led to a hidden room.
Inside the room was a chilling note from the previous owner:
"You Found It! Hello. If you're reading this, then you found the secret room. I owned this house for a short while and it was discovered to have a serious mold problem. One that actually made my children very sick to the point that we had to move out."
"I just couldn't believe it," Kerri tells ABCNews.com. "The previous owner left his email address, so I got in touch with him and he said that he didn't want the same thing to happen to him, that the mold made his children very sick."
The note was the starting point in a long saga for the Browns, complete with hidden histories and lengthy legal complaints. And it served as a wake-up call to all the parties about the potential dangers of toxic mold, which has been shown to have damaging effects to the respiratory systems of young children.
The couple hired an environmental engineer who tested the air quality and found high levels of stachybotrys, which is known as toxic black mold, and other molds including aspergillus and penicillium, and told them that it was too dangerous to move in to the house.
"We found readings that were four or five times higher compared to outside levels," says engineer Steve Hendrix. "On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst, I would say this house was a seven."
So, the question remains: why didn't the previous owner tell the Browns about the mold before they bought the house?
The author of the note was George Leventis, who lived at 6 Whitten St. with his wife Tricia and their two daughters in 2004. About four months after moving into the house, the first-time home buyers noticed that the girls were getting sick.
"They started getting sicker and very lethargic and nothing seemed to be working to help them get better," says Leventis. The parents suspected mold but couldn't afford the repairs that would be required to clean up the house.
"So we moved out and rented a place. I wrote a letter to the mortgage company about the condition and they never wrote me back."
Leventis says he was forced to declare personal bankruptcy and ended up defaulting on his mortgage. But he was worried about the future of the hazardous house and occasionally drove by to check on its status.
"We drove by one day and saw the 'For Sale' sign," says Leventis. "And I called up the realtor that sold us the house and he called the listed broker and left her several messages about its condition, but he never heard back."