A smart landlord will try to prevent the conditions that lead to the growth of mold -- and you should be the landlord's partner in this effort. This approach requires maintaining the structural integrity of the property (the roof, plumbing, and windows), which is the landlord's job. You can help by following some practical steps and promptly reporting problems that need the landlord's attention.
These preventive steps will do more than decrease the chances that mold will begin to grow. If you have asked for them in writing and included the underlying reason for the request, you'll have good evidence to show a judge if a landlord refuses to step forward and your possessions are damaged or you are made ill by the persistence of the problem.
Take the following steps, which are especially important if you live in a humid environment or have spotted mold problems in the past:
Before you sign the lease. Check over the premises and note any mold problems; ask the landlord to fix them before you move in. Check with the prior tenant, if possible, and ask if there were problems with moisture and mold.
Practice good housekeeping. Recognize the factors that contribute to the growth of mold and take steps to discourage it. In particular:
Report signs of mold. Immediately report specific signs of mold, or conditions that may lead to mold, such as plumbing leaks and weatherproofing problems.
Ask for appropriate repairs or clean-up. Ask your landlord to perform repairs and maintenance needed to clean up or reduce mold -- for example:
To get more practical tips for discouraging the appearance of mold in residential settings, check out the Environmental Protection Agency's website, at www.epa.gov type "indoor air quality" in the search box).
Your first response to discovering mold shouldn't be to demand that the landlord call in the folks with the white suits and ventilators. Most mold is relatively harmless and easily dealt with. Usually, a weak bleach solution (one cup of bleach per gallon of water) will remove mold from nonporous materials.
You should follow these commonsense steps to clean up mold if the job is small. Use gloves and avoid exposing eyes and lungs to airborne mold dust (if you disturb mold and cause it to enter the air, use masks). Allow for frequent work breaks in areas with plenty of fresh air.
People with respiratory problems, fragile health, or compromised immune systems should not participate in cleanup activities. If you have health concerns, ask for cleanup assistance. You may want to gently remind your landlord that it's a lot cheaper than responding to a lawsuit.
For more information on how to clean mold, check out the California Department of Health Services' publication, Mold in My Home: What Do I Do? (you can get this publication from the DHS website at www.cal-iaq.org-- click on "mold" for a list of publications and helpful websites).
If you discover mold on the property, should you test it to determine the nature of the mold and its harmfulness? Most of the time, no. You and the landlord are much better off directing your efforts to speedy cleanup and replacement of damaged areas. Knowing the type of mold present and whether it produces toxins will not, in most cases, affect the appropriate method of cleanup.
Properly testing for mold is also extremely costly. Unlike detecting lead paint by using a swab kit, you cannot perform a reliable mold test yourself. (Over-the-counter kits, which cost around $30, provide questionable results.) A professional's basic investigation for a single-family home can cost $1,000 or more. And to further complicate matters, there are relatively few competent professionals in this new field and no state or federal certification programs for mold busters.
This said, it will be necessary to call in the testers if you contemplate suing the landlord. If you're suing for significant health impairment, you'll need a lawyer. In that event, the lawyer will have the mold tested as part of the "discovery" phase of the lawsuit -- that period of time when each side gets to ask for and examine the other side's facts. To locate an attorney in your area, visit Nolo's Lawyer Directory, where you can view information about each lawyer's experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law. By using Nolo's directory you can narrow down candidates before calling them for a phone or face-to-face interview.
If your possessions have been ruined by mold and must be replaced, contact your renters' insurance agent immediately. Your renters' insurance may cover the cost of replacement. Do not expect the policy to cover the costs of medical bills, however -- you'll need to turn to your own health insurance for that (or, you can sue the landlord).
For additional information on landlord responsibilities and tenant remedies (including preventative measures) for mold and other environmental toxins, get Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).
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