What Are the Best Practices for Environmental Site Assessments in Real Estate?

March 22, 2024

Real estate transactions, whether commercial or residential, often involve a key step: the Environmental Site Assessment (ESA). This assessment is crucial in identifying potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities. In layman’s terms, an ESA aims to determine if a particular property is environmentally "clean" or not. But what are the best practices for conducting these assessments? Let’s delve into the specifics.

Understanding the Environmental Site Assessment

Before you can follow best practices, it’s important to understand what an environmental site assessment is and why it’s essential in the real estate sector.

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An ESA is a report prepared for a real estate holding which identifies potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities. The analysis typically addresses both the underlying land as well as physical improvements to the property. This process helps potential buyers understand the environmental conditions associated with the property they are considering for purchase.

The ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, develops standards for ESAs. The ASTM E1527-13 standard practice for ESAs is widely recognized and utilized in the United States. However, this is not the only standard, and variations exist depending on the jurisdiction and the specific nature of the property.

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Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments

ESAs typically come in two phases. The Phase I ESA is the initial assessment, typically involving a review of records, a site inspection, and interviews with owners, occupants, neighbors and local government officials. If the Phase I ESA identifies potential contamination, a Phase II ESA may be conducted, involving laboratory analysis of soil, groundwater, and/or building materials.

Among the best practices in conducting Phase I and Phase II ESAs is to adhere to the ASTM standards. These standards provide comprehensive guidelines on the steps and procedures to be undertaken during each phase, ensuring a thorough and effective assessment.

In addition, it is also important that both phases are conducted by a qualified environmental professional (EP), as defined by the ASTM standards. The EP should have the appropriate education, training, and experience to assess a property’s environmental conditions and potential risks.

Role of the Licensee in ESAs

The licensee in an ESA refers to the individual or company that is licensed to conduct the assessment. They have the responsibility of ensuring the accuracy, completeness, and validity of the ESA report. This role should be taken seriously, as any mistakes or omissions in the report may lead to legal and financial consequences for the property buyer, seller, or both.

One best practice for licensees in ESAs is to thoroughly review and verify the information obtained during the assessment. This includes the historical use of the property, physical characteristics, and any prior or existing conditions that could lead to environmental contamination.

Another best practice is to openly communicate with the client throughout the assessment process. This includes explaining the process, discussing preliminary findings, and addressing any concerns or questions the client may have. Clear and timely communication can help ensure a smooth and efficient ESA process.

Importance of ESA Agreement

The ESA agreement is a crucial document that outlines the scope, terms, and limitations of the environmental site assessment. Typically, it is a contract between the client and the licensee, detailing what will be done during the ESA, the timeline for completion, and the fees for the service.

Among the best practices in drafting and executing an ESA agreement is to be as clear and specific as possible. The agreement should clearly state the roles and responsibilities of each party, the scope of the assessment, and the applicable standards to be followed. It should also include provisions for any unforeseen circumstances, such as the discovery of previously unknown environmental conditions.

Commercial and Real Estate Transactions

ESAs are especially critical in commercial and real estate transactions. A thorough environmental site assessment can reveal potential environmental liabilities that could significantly impact the value and usability of the property.

For buyers, a detailed ESA can provide valuable information that can be used in negotiating the purchase price or terms. For sellers, it can help assess and manage potential risks, and provide assurance to potential buyers about the environmental condition of the property.

In both cases, the best practice is to conduct an ESA early in the transaction process. This allows sufficient time to address any identified issues, whether it involves remediation, negotiation of terms, or even reconsideration of the transaction altogether.

In summary, best practices in environmental site assessments involve conducting a thorough and systematic evaluation following ASTM standards, fostering clear communication, ensuring a comprehensive contractual agreement, and timely execution in the context of commercial and real estate transactions. By adhering to these practices, stakeholders can navigate the ESA process with confidence, leading to informed decisions and successful property transactions.

The Necessity of Appropriate Inquiries in ESAs

Appropriate inquiries play an essential role in an environmental site assessment. Such inquiries refer to the systematic documentation and evaluation of information related to a property’s environmental conditions and history. They are vital in assessing potential environmental risks and liabilities associated with a subject property.

In every phase of an ESA, appropriate inquiries must be conducted meticulously, guided by the ASTM standard. The inquiries typically involve the review of historical and current records of the property and its vicinity, interviews with knowledgeable persons such as the property owner, occupants, neighbors, and local officials, and a thorough inspection of the property and surrounding area.

Appropriate inquiries aid in identifying recognized environmental conditions (RECs) such as the presence of hazardous substances or petroleum products, any violations of environmental regulations, potential for contamination, and any historical uses of the property that could have led to environmental harm.

Accuracy and thoroughness are paramount when conducting these inquiries. Failure to conduct appropriate inquiries can lead to incomplete or incorrect results, potentially leading to unrecognized environmental risks, legal issues, and considerable financial losses.

Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure that these inquiries are conducted by a qualified environmental professional. An environmental professional with the right education, training, and experience can competently assess the environmental conditions associated with the property, and effectively identify potential environmental risks.

The Role of Authorized Users in ESAs

The term authorized users generally refers to prospective buyers, lenders, or property owners who commission an environmental site assessment. They play an essential role in the entire ESA process, particularly in communicating their needs and expectations to the environmental professional conducting the assessment.

In the ESA process, authorized users are responsible for sharing essential information about the property with the environmental professional. This may include any known environmental issues, the intended use of the property, and any specific areas of concern. Their involvement and openness are crucial in shaping the scope of the assessment and ensuring its effectiveness.

It is also the responsibility of authorized users to review the ESA report carefully. They must understand the findings, conclusions, limitations, and any recommendations provided by the environmental professional. In case of any uncertainties or concerns, they should engage in open dialogue with the environmental professional for clarification.

Best practices for authorized users include selecting a competent licensed professional for the ESA, being open and honest about any known environmental issues, thoroughly reviewing and understanding the ESA report, and taking prompt action based on the report’s findings. By actively participating and engaging in the ESA process, authorized users can effectively manage environmental risks and make informed decisions about the property transaction.


In conclusion, environmental site assessments are a crucial aspect of real estate transactions, enabling parties to identify potential environmental liabilities and make informed decisions. Best practices in conducting ESAs involve conducting thorough and systematic evaluations in accordance with ASTM standards, conducting appropriate inquiries, effectively managing the roles of authorized users, and fostering clear communication throughout the process. By adhering to these practices, stakeholders can navigate the ESA process with confidence, leading to successful property transactions and enhanced protection of the environment.