Bed bugs spread easily and quickly, arriving in rental properties via tenants' (or guests') clothing, furniture, or vehicles. Once they've made their home in one rental unit, bed bugs in a multiunit building can spread from unit to unit, making it extremely difficult for pest control experts to completely remove them. Because infestations are so hard to prevent and control, bed bugs are a major problem for both landlords and tenants.
Many renters want to know the bed bug history of a property before they sign a lease or rental agreement, and, depending on state or local law, landlords might be required to provide prospective tenants with information about a rental's bed bug history—even when the prospective tenant hasn't asked about it.
Do Landlords Have to Disclose Bed Bug Problems?
Some states and cities have bed bug-specific laws requiring landlords to disclose a property's history of bed bugs if a prospective tenant asks; others require disclosure even if no one asks. Nearly all the laws prevent a landlord from renting or advertising a unit with a known current infestation. Beyond disclosing the history of bed bugs and prohibiting the rental of infested properties, some local laws also require landlords to:
- Provide tenants with information about bed bugs. This disclosure could include anything from what a bed bug infestation looks like to how to prevent bed bugs.
- Require tenants to report possible infestations. Depending on local law, landlords might have to give tenants guidelines on how and when to report a suspected infestation.
- Investigate potential infestations as soon as possible. Some laws give landlords a certain time frame—often 24-48 hours—to investigate after they receive a complaint about possible bed bugs. Even if there's no legal requirement, landlords should investigate complaints about bed bugs as soon as possible, to ensure that they are providing tenants with habitable premises.
- Hire qualified exterminators. Exterminating bed bugs is not a do-it-yourself project. Landlords need to hire competent and insured pest control experts who can take care of the problem on the first try. If an exterminator needs to access your unit, your landlord must still give you proper notice before anyone enters.
- Notify tenants of any bed bug problems. Landlords might be required to provide tenants with a written report of any bed bug inspections. If there's no law requiring a written report, tenants always have the right to ask for—and receive—at least an oral summary of what was discovered during the inspection.
But if there's no local law requiring disclosures, how will you know if a rental property has a current or past problem with bed bugs? You can start by asking the current tenants or neighbors in nearby buildings, and you can point blank ask a potential landlord or manager. Hopefully, you'll get useful answers to your questions.
Tenants' Options When a Landlord Fails to Make Bed Bug Disclosures
If your landlord doesn't make the bed bug disclosures required by local law, or lied when you asked about the property's history, you might have several options, including:
- Breaking the lease and leaving without responsibility for future rent. Some bed bug laws specify that tenants may break their lease when a landlord fails to make the disclosures the law requires. If there's no applicable law, you might be able to break your lease based on the argument that the landlord used fraud to induce you to move in. You should check with a local landlord-tenant attorney before breaking your lease, as local law might prohibit this self-help measure.
- Withholding rent or using the repair-and-deduct remedy. Check your state rules on rent withholding for the specific the conditions under which you may use these options. Some laws do not allow tenants to withhold rent or deduct rent when they make repairs. When it comes to bed bugs, you really shouldn't try to exterminate them on your own—bed bugs are extremely difficult to eradicate, and, if you live in a multiunit property, your chances of completely eliminating them are near zero.
- Suing the landlord for damages. In the event that a bed bug problem reappears in a building with a history of bed bugs, and you sue over lost or damaged possessions, costs of moving and any increased rent, and the psychological consequences of having lived with bed bugs, your changes of recovering will be enhanced by the property owner's lack of candor about past problems. A lawyer could argue that the landlord's failure to disclose a potentially dangerous situation set you up for financial and other costs that could have been avoided had the landlord been truthful.
All of the possible tenant remedies above are considered self-help measures, and might not be allowed under your local laws. Before you take any of these steps, consult with a local landlord-tenant attorney. If you take one of these actions in violation of state law, you could be responsible for paying rent for a unit you've left, have to pay interest and fees, or your landlord could end your tenancy early. One other point to keep in mind when meeting with an attorney is that some laws require tenants to take certain measures if they suspect bed bugs—ask your attorney if any such local laws apply and whether there's anything you need to do to be in compliance.