Bed bug problem? It happens to even the best of apartments. Bed bugs can catch a ride in your suitcase or used furniture (beware of second hand mattresses!) or on your clothing. The critters can even travel from another apartment in your building. Positively identifying bed bugs is best left to a professional, but if you want to learn more, there are many resources about bed bugs available (the Environmental Protection Agency has a particularly good bed bug website).
Here’s how tenants should deal with a bed bug infestation in their rental. (Hint: A can of Raid is not going to do the job.)
If you suspect a bed bug infestation in your unit or building, contact your landlord or manager right away. Your landlord should hire a qualified exterminator to inspect for and measure the concentration of bed bugs in your rental (and also adjoining units). Before any exterminator enters your unit, your landlord should give you proper notice of entry for the exterminator’s inspection, or work with you to come up with a plan for accessing your unit that works for both of you.
Some states have specific laws on the books about landlords’—and tenants’—duties regarding bed bug infestations. For example, state laws might require tenants to take steps such as:
Ask your landlord what to expect from the bed bug inspection. Typically, a pest management professional will examine the main bed bug site (such as your mattress and bedding), as well as other common bed bug hiding places, such as drawers, closets, and shelves. A professional will also attempt to determine where the bed bugs came from, and learn whether and how the problem has spread. Mapping the infestation might also help determine when a particular rental unit became infested, which the landlord may use to apportion financial responsibility for the extermination—some states allow landlords to charge the cost of extermination to tenants who willfully or recklessly cause an infestation, or who fail to timely report an infestation.
Exterminators usually recommend that tenants in bed bug-infested units take the following steps:
Keep in mind that if you don’t follow the exterminator’s advice, and the bed bugs reappear, you’ll have to start the whole process all over again. Also, in some states, you could face fines if you don’t follow or cooperate with your landlord’s bed bug control measures.
Most states require landlords to provide habitable housing, and most courts don’t consider bed bug infested units to be habitable. So, as long as the tenant didn’t introduce the bed bugs, the landlord is usually responsible for extermination. However, determining who introduced the bed bugs (and who must foot the bill) is often very difficult in multi-unit buildings: Many tenants may be moving in and out, some might have recently traveled abroad and brought home bed bugs, and others might have brought home furniture that contained bed bugs. As a result, landlords (or their insurers) often end up footing the extermination bill and (possibly) tenant relocation costs in properties with several rental units.
If you live in a single-family home—especially if you’ve lived there a long time—it’s more likely that the landlord will hold you responsible for the infestation and its extermination costs, simply because there’s no other tenants to blame.
Note that renters’ insurance typically will not pay for eradication of bed bugs or bed bug-related damage. If a qualified party—such as a professional exterminator—determines that you caused the infestation, it’s likely that you will be paying the costs of extermination out of your own pocket.
Depending on your state’s law, if your landlord fails to take care of a major bed bug problem, you might have options such as:
Before you take any of these steps to deal with an unresponsive landlord, though, you should consider consulting with an attorney or local housing resource to see what options local law allows. Some states don’t allow tenants to withhold rent or move out without penalty, and others might even put the responsibility on the tenant to exterminate bed bugs. Tenants who improperly take one of these steps to solve their bed bug problem might face serious consequences, such as owing rent on a unit they’ve moved out of or having their tenancy terminated for wrongfully withholding rent.
Many tenants don’t want to live in a property with a history of bed bugs—even if the landlord has taken proper extermination measures. Some states require landlords to disclose past or present bed bug infestations, and even more states require landlords to disclose general issues with the property. Tenants who are concerned about a property’s bed bug-related past should ask the landlord outright about any prior infestations. Even if the law doesn’t require disclosure, landlords should answer such questions truthfully. When a landlord misrepresents the property’s history, the tenant might have grounds for a lawsuit or other remedies—such as breaking the lease without penalty—later on if the tenant suffers harm from a bed bug infestation.