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By Casey Mysliwy
MoneyMix Intern

Renters, it's happened to all of us: You're in your apartment, minding your own business, when the biggest, ugliest, most disgusting bug of all time races across the floor.

Most of us can take care of this crisis by simply squishing the unwanted visitor—or, if you're anything like me, by enlisting someone braver to do the dirty work. But what if you discover a bigger problem—like the little guy decides to crash your apartment with a hundred of his little friends?

If you discover an infestation in your rental unit, you first need to know your basic rights.

That's when you've got a serious pest infestation, and you'll need to take action right away to keep it from getting worse. But this situation leaves many renters stumped: Who is financially responsible for costly pest control treatments—tenants or landlords?

The answer depends on where you live, the circumstances of your pest problem, and the conditions of your lease, as well as other factors. But when it comes to getting rid of unwelcome creepy-crawlies, it pays to know your rights as a tenant.

creatures in your cupboard

If you discover an infestation in your rental unit, you first need to know your basic rights. Landlords have a responsibility to provide pest-free rentals, explains Janet Portman, an attorney and managing editor at NOLO, a publisher of do-it-yourself legal books and software in Berkeley, Calif., and author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide."

"In every state but Arkansas, there is a rule called the implied warranty of habitability," Portman says. "This requires the landlord to offer and maintain pest-free rentals."

This means that landlords typically will cover pest control—with one exception. "If the infestation is the result of a tenant's own poor housekeeping, then the responsibility for eradicating it can be placed on the tenant," Portman says. So if that three-week-old pizza sitting on your counter happens to attract a hungry family of cockroaches, get ready to crack open your piggy bank.

 Become a pest-prevention expert

 Learn about tenant rights in your state

 Find tips to keep the bedbugs away

If a pest problem isn't your fault, contact your landlord. "The first thing is to notify your landlord orally, but follow up with a written note, signed and dated," advises Portman. "That puts the landlord on notice that he needs to deal with it. Typically, they have to respond within a reasonable time—for a serious infestation, a day or two."

But if your landlord neglects to address the problem, or tries and fails, Portman recommends that tenants check state laws to see what options are available. "In about two-thirds of the states, you can take care of it yourself and deduct the cost from your rent," she says. "In some states, you can also withhold your rent or treat the failure of the landlord as justification for breaking the lease and moving out without [paying] the rest of the rent."

But Portman cautions tenants to do thorough research before using any of these strategies. "It depends entirely on state law—you must know what you are entitled to do," she advises. "You have to find out what your state lets you do and what procedures to follow to do it right. If you do it wrong, then you're looking at an eviction for nonpayment of rent."

Portman adds that even if a tenant wins an eviction dispute, it appears on the tenant's record and can prevent him or her from renting another apartment. "The stakes are very high if you do any of this wrong," she warns.

it came from under the bed

Don't let the bedbugs bite! Remember what your mom used to say when she tucked you in at night? Unfortunately, bedbugs actually exist, and they are wreaking havoc with existing pest-control rules.

Bedbugs are like minivampires. They hide in the crevices of your mattress, emerging at night to feed on your blood, leaving itchy red bites on your skin. Grossed out yet? Well, there's more: Bedbugs are one of the most difficult pests to eliminate because they are so elusive. Their small size (about a quarter of an inch) allows them to hide not only in your mattress, but inside picture frames, behind baseboards—even inside the vacuum cleaner you use to try to get rid of them!

So if bedbugs have been real all along, why only recently have they become such a problem? "Bedbugs have increased by 71% in the past five years," says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) Fairfax, Va. "Most people point to the rise of bedbugs as being caused by increased travel."

Ask a prospective landlord if there has been a bedbug or pest problem in the building, and ask the tenants themselves.

According to Henriksen, bedbugs often pop up in hotels and are particularly good at hitching a ride in your bags when you return home. And for this reason, a landlord may not be willing to foot the bill to get rid of them.

"You do not have any uniformity with respect to who is responsible for getting rid of bedbugs," says Portman. "That is because it's very hard to figure out how they got there, and quite typically they do get there because they've been brought in by the tenants."

It may seem impossible to avoid shelling out money for expensive bedbug treatments when the pests often end up in your apartment through no intentional bad behavior on your part. But the best way to steer clear of the financial headache is to take precautions before a bedbug infestation occurs.

The NPMA offers this advice for bedbug prevention:

  • When traveling, inspect hotel rooms before unpacking your belongings. Check for bedbugs behind headboards and along mattress seams. "They look like little apple seeds or lentils," says Henriksen.
  • Keep your suitcase off hotel room floors or store it in a closed large, plastic trash bag to prevent bedbugs from crawling inside.
  • When returning home, check your suitcase and its contents for bedbugs. Henriksen recommends washing all clothing in hot, soapy water and thoroughly vacuuming your suitcase, then disposing of the vacuum bag outside your home immediately afterward.
  • At home, inspect your living space regularly. Check bedsheets for tell-tale blood spots, and carefully examine mattresses and box springs.
  • If you do find evidence of bedbugs, do not attempt to treat the infestation on your own. "When people get bedbugs, they are embarrassed, so they don't bring a professional in right away," says Henriksen. "This is not a do-it-yourself pest. It has nothing to do with hygiene and has no socioeconomic bearing. You need to bring in a professional immediately."

attack of the lease

If dealing with a pest problem in your rental unit sounds like a real-life horror movie, both Portman and Henriksen have one crucial piece of advice for avoiding pest-control nightmares: Do your homework before you sign a lease.

"I advise tenants to always ask a prospective landlord if there has been a bedbug or pest problem in the building, and ask the tenants themselves," advises Portman.

Henriksen reminds tenants to carefully read over a lease, paying specific attention to provisions regarding pest control. "When they're signing a lease, people need to think about what they're accepting liability for," she says.

By doing your research, taking preventative measures, and using a little forethought, you can squash pests—before they squash your wallet.

Published March 16, 2010

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