There are many indoor air quality issues that can affect your decision to purchase a home, and radon is among these red flags.

Radon has long been documented as a health hazard when it is present in a house. A property inspection can help determine whether the gas is an issue in a home you're considering, and you'll be glad to have a professional review once you know how serious radon contamination can be.

What is radon?

Radon is an odorless, colorless and radioactive gas. It is formed when the radioactive element radium breaks down in the soil. As the element loses some of its particles, it becomes a noble gas - all noble gases are colorless and odorless.

The earth is the source of all radon in the atmosphere. The concentration of radium in the soil varies from place to place, which is why certain homes have more of a radon issue than others. Additionally, the amount of radon that escapes into the air depends on the depth and how permeable the soil is. If there's a large deposit of radium decaying far beneath the surface and the ground isn't very permeable, there's a chance you'll never have radon troubles. However, you can have a small radium deposit only a few feet beneath your house and have a serious issue on your hands.

Given that radon rises up from the soil, it can occur in higher concentrations in the lower levels of a house. If you're considering a finished basement for an entertainment space, for instance, the presence of radon can pose even more of a health risk.

Radon can also be found in water supplies. This is particularly true when a water source is underground. If a home has one of these sources, the gas can be released when you're showering or washing dishes.

What are the health risks?

Radon exposure has been linked to cancer, specifically lung cancer. As the gas is breathed in over time, it damages tissues in the lungs. Thousands of deaths result from cancer caused by radon exposure each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, radon is only second to smoking in regard to the biggest risks for lung cancer, which means the odds are less in your favor if you smoke and live in a house with radon issues.

What should you do as a home buyer?

Given the risks associated with radon, be sure to have a professional test for it before you close on the home. If you have a home inspection contingency, you may be able to get the seller to pay for the radon reduction if any issues are found.

Some sellers will conduct a radon test before they put their properties on the market. Request the paperwork to determine how much of the gas was detected and whether the homeowners have already taken steps to restore the indoor air quality.

You should also test for radon if you're purchasing a new home. Considering the builders will have disturbed the ground, additional radon could have been released into the air. If you're having a new house custom built, ask your builders about features that can reduce the amount of radon that can get into your house.

If you're trading up to a better property, you should also schedule a radon inspection for your current property. Given that you may still be at the house for some time while it's on the market, you don't want to be living with a health risk. Plus, the benefits are similar to getting a pre-listing inspection. The gesture shows buyers you are a trustworthy seller and gives them peace of mind, which could mean you can sell your house faster.