Bed bugs. I challenge you to think of a topic more cringeworthy than tiny parasites that hitch a ride into your home from just about anywhere, so that they can then settle into the crevices of your mattress before proceeding to feast nightly on your very blood. Equally unnerving is the realization that once bedbugs have arrived, the only way to uninvite them is with costly, strong-handed methods. So, who gets stuck with the bill?
Generally speaking (the laws vary state to state), the responsibility for extermination will fall upon the property owner’s shoulders. Unless a landlord has taken careful steps to protect themselves from this liability, landlords are legally obligated to provide pest control for their tenants in New York.
In order to understand why landlords are responsible, rather than tenants, it helps to understand the history of bed bug infestations in the United States. From the early 1700’s until about WWII, bedbugs were commonplace in the United States. The 1908 case of Jacobs v. Morand ruled that tenants were responsible for paying their rent, even if their apartment was infested with bed bugs. There just weren’t any options at the time other than learning to live with them. It made sense for a court to rule in favor of the landlord, because, hey what are they supposed to do about it? Then, around the time of WWII, the synthesis of broad pesticides (like DDT) helped to nearly eradicate bedbugs from North America’s cities. Also eradicated: the need for legislation about bedbugs. But once the harmful effects of DDT became known, and people stopped using it, the population of bedbugs has been on the climb again. The highly mobile nature of society is another contributing factor. The game changer for landlords happened in 2004 with the case of Ludlow Properties LLC v. Young, when Judge Cyril Bedford ruled in favor of a bedbug afflicted tenant who had refused to pay six months of rent. The court noted that unlike other vermin, bed bugs feed “upon one’s blood in hoards nightly, turning what is supposed to be bed rest or sleep into a hellish experience.” The court also factored in that because the only previous legislature regarding bed bugs was from the early 1900’s, it predated the Implied Warranty of Habitability, which in modern days is commonly cited in tenant v. landlord disputes.
Understandably, landlords can find it unfair that they are held responsible for eradicating an issue that they may not have had any control over causing in the first place. Unlike other vermin infestations, such as cockroaches or rat infestations, bed bugs do not discriminate based on cleanliness. Even properties in nice areas, that are well-managed, clean and sanitary, can be infested with bed bugs if somebody brings them into the home. Bed bugs are insects of convenience, like lice and fleas. You can get them from contact with another infected individual by brushing their clothing, or borrowing their belongings, or even by just standing next to them. You can get bed bugs by sitting on a seat in a park, on a bus, in a taxi, or airplane that was just vacated by somebody infected with them. They crawl into your luggage when you’re staying in an affected hotel. They hop onto the pizza boy who delivers pizzas to buildings with bed bug infestations, and from there to the next house he delivers pizza to. With so many possibilities, its difficult (and pretty much pointless) to figure out who is to blame for an infestation. Landlords point the finger at tenants, while tenants retort that they cannot be sure that the bed bugs weren’t already there in the first place.
After the problem is discovered, the difficult, costly process of treating the infestation begins. This process is not a walk in the park for anyone involved. While the landlord must cover the expense of hiring an exterminator, it is a tenant’s responsibility to comply with all measures determined necessary by the exterminator. Usually this means that renters must provide complete access of their belongings to the exterminator, allowing them to inspect clothing in closets and dressers, mattresses and box springs, and all of the upholstered furniture. Sometimes it is necessary for the renter to empty their apartment of many of these items, or even discard them completely. For many renters who cannot afford to replace these items, eradicating bed bugs can be nearly as devastating as living with them. Emptying the apartment and allowing access to an exterminator can also render an apartment temporarily unlivable, despite the fact that the tenant must still pay the rent during this time period, causing the tenant the extra expense of finding another place to stay during this process. Landlords and renters should be extremely wary of efforts to treat bed bug infestations themselves. Hiring an exterminator is the best way to solve a bed bug problem. They are a very resilient pest, that is best left for professionals to deal with.
By taking careful steps when leasing their apartment, landlords can minimize their liability where bed bug eradication is concerned:
First, when the rental unit is vacant, have it inspected by a licensed pest control company. Once the pest control company has verified that your rental unit is indeed bed bug free, ask them to issue a certification stating so. Remember, when showing your apartment, it is required by New York State law that you disclose a one year history of bed bug status to your potential renters. If you have had bed bugs in the past year, but have eradicated the issue, the certification from the pest control company will go a long way towards convincing your potential tenants that you’re an honest and responsible landlord, and that the unit is safe to occupy. When signing the lease, require that tenants also sign an addendum acknowledging both the receipt of the certification and that the unit was bug-free upon move-in.
Where it is legal, your lease agreement should contain language that makes it clear that the tenant is responsible for paying for all pest control services necessary, including bed bug treatment. In some states, such as New Jersey, Maine, and Massachusetts, clauses that pass the expense of pest control onto the tenant are illegal, and landlords are always responsible for bed bug treatment and damages. Therefore, it is important to know the laws in your area before using such language in your lease.
It is recommended that the lease agreement require tenants to use synthetic encasements around their mattress and box springs, to prevent bed bugs from creating a home there. It is also recommended that lease agreements prohibit tenants from obtaining furniture from dumpsters or other unknown sources.
Your lease should always require tenants to report all pest sightings. Sometimes, fearing the expense of treating the bedbugs, tenants will withhold this critical information, causing the problem to grow and become exponentially more costly for the landlord. Specify that a tenant is contractually obligated to allow entry to pest control exterminators to treat a bed bug infestation if it arises, and that they must fully cooperate with any measures necessary in eradicating any bed bug infestations. Indicate that a tenant’s failure to report bed bugs immediately, or to cooperate in the treatment, is a breach of the lease agreement, and is just cause for termination of their lease, and eviction.
Educate yourself and your tenants about what bed bugs look like, how to identify signs of their presence, where they like to live, and how to prevent their entry to the rental unit. Teach them that reducing clutter in the apartment reduces the places that they can live. By teaching tenants about how difficult and costly it is to eradicate bed bugs, often forcing them to burn or otherwise destroy their clothing and furniture, you will reduce the likelihood of an infestation, as most tenants will go to great lengths to avoid having to destroy their property.
Creating this paper trail, from the certification, to the lease agreement, to the educational materials you have provided your tenant, can minimize your legal liability as a landlord, and in case of litigation, help prove diligence. Writing a proper lease agreement that outlines the tenant’s responsibilities is incredibly valuable, and can prevent many disputes from turning into a litigious situation.