Every landlord should take mold seriously. A top environmental hazard, mold thrives in warm, damp places, and often grows quickly in basements, attics, and other parts of buildings with poor ventilation and humidity problems. Although mold is often associated with buildings in wet climates, no rental property is immune from a mold outbreak, as one can occur following an unattended spill, faulty plumbing, or even a misdirected lawn sprinkler.
If you own or manage a rental property in Maryland, a mold problem could present you with costly cleanup and repair bills as well as lawsuits from tenants claiming that the mold made them ill.
Read on to learn about landlord responsibilities and tenant rights when it comes to mold in Maryland rental properties.
Courts have recognized two common legal self-help strategies that some tenants choose to pursue following a mold outbreak in their apartment or rental home. The first, known as "rent withholding," is when tenants decide to stop paying rent, claiming the mold has made their apartment uninhabitable. (Note that regardless of what may appear in a written lease with tenants, landlords in Maryland are bound by the "implied warranty of habitability," a legal doctrine that requires providing tenants with apartments in livable condition.) The second strategy, known as "repair and deduct," involves tenants taking care of mold cleanup on their own and then subtracting the cost from their rent.
See Maryland Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent for more information about these strategies, including their limitations.
There is currently no federal law covering a landlord's responsibilities when it comes to mold. Also, Maryland doesn't have any laws that specifically address a landlord's duties or liability when it comes to mold prevention and remediation.
However, tenants who believe they have been harmed by the presence of high concentrations of mold in their apartment can try to recover damages from their landlord in court to compensate them for their loss. If a judge or jury agrees that the landlord negligently created a mold problem or allowed one to continue at a property, the landlord could be on the hook for any harm.
For example, a Montgomery County, Maryland, tenant complained to her landlord about high levels of mold in her apartment shortly after she moved in. According to the tenant, the landlord failed to respond, causing illness to the tenant's family and damage to her personal property, forcing the tenant to break her lease before the one-year term expired. After refusing to make further rent payments, the tenant sued the landlord for breach of contract, claiming that the landlord failed to maintain her apartment in a reasonably safe condition. A jury found the landlord liable and awarded the tenant $19,400 in total compensatory damages, and an appeals court ruled that the tenant is also entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees (Beverly Allen v. Breck Ridge Partners, LLC, No. 0758/14 (Md. Ct. Sp. App. 2014)).
Maryland doesn't have any statutes or regulations that require landlords to disclose high concentrations of mold in rental properties to prospective tenants or buyers. Also, while federal law requires disclosures about lead paint, it doesn't impose a similar duty on landlords when it comes to mold.
Aside from any affirmative disclosure requirement, however, if you decide to list a property for sale, you should be ready with responses to questions potential buyers might ask about plumbing, humidity, and ventilation issues in your building.
To learn more about landlord disclosure requirements in Maryland, check out Maryland Required Landlord Disclosures.
If you believe a departing tenant caused a mold problem (beyond ordinary wear and tear) in an apartment or rental unit, you may wish to deduct the cost of cleaning from that tenant's security deposit. Maryland law allows landlords to do this, provided they give the tenant a written explanation of the mold damage costs (along with any other claimed damages) within 45 days of the tenant's lease termination. If this amount is less than the security deposit, you must return the remainder of the deposit to the tenant along with the written documentation of damage deductions (Md. Code Ann. [Real Prop.], § 8-203).
For more information about security deposits in Maryland, check out Maryland Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.
Because so much is at stake, it's important to try to prevent a mold problem from growing in your rental property in the first place, as well as take prompt, effective action to remove excess mold that you discover. For more advice on this, see Mold and Your Rental Property: A Landlord's Prevention and Liability Guide, by Ron Leshnower (Nolo).