Bed Bug Woes

Over the course of three years, one tenant has had three bed bug infestations. Each time, I remedied the situation with a vetted professional. But these treatments are costly. Is there a way to have the tenant pay since it keeps happening? No other unit in the twelve-unit building has ever reported bed bugs

Perhaps the most expensive legal battles this author has seen in 30 years of practicing law occurred when a property manager modified the CAA Bed Bug Notification Addendum to pass the cost of bed bug remediation onto the resident.  An ambitious tenant attorney argued that by making this change and shifting the expense burden onto the resident, the housing provider was illegally imposing the obligation to maintain habitable rental premises onto a renter.  In California, the lessor, not the lessee, is always responsible to ensure that the leased dwelling satisfies what is known as the warranty of habitability.  This duty may never be shifted from the landlord to the tenant, period.

One important component of this warranty, which is implied in every California residential lease, is that the building and rental unit be reasonably free from pests.  Bed bugs are, without a doubt, nasty pests, and, as such, housing with a bed bug infestation is not fully habitable.  By changing the Bed Bug Notification Addendum to burden the lessee with this bill, the property manager arguably engaged in an unfair business practice.  The hard lesson learned from this debacle is simple:  Always move quickly to rectify conditions that threaten habitability, and do not predicate these efforts on the tenant paying for any of the incurred expenses.

The industry attorneys have for years lamented over the very situation presented here.  What, if anything, can we do in situations where the residents are clearly and repeatedly contaminating the property with bed bugs?  Incidentally, certain lifestyles such as frequently traveling or entertaining guests increase the likelihood of bed bug invasions.  The consensus is that, as highlighted above, you as the housing provider must always act with utmost diligence to eradicate the critters on your dime regardless of how often the problem reemerges, but, should you have reason to suspect that the renter’s careless conduct is the root cause, you may pursue cost reimbursement in a venue such as small claims court after you have paid to properly quash the latest infestation.  So never alter the Bed Bug Notification Addendum that should be a part of every lease, and always pay upfront to remedy the outbreak.  Only after these two steps are completed may you contemplate making a demand for reimbursement if you have a good faith belief that the tenant has acted carelessly and recklessly to repeatedly infect the building.

Another related question pertains to a tenant’s obligation to prepare their home for treatment.  For example, many types of remediation require the packing and moving of personal effects.  Heat treatments may entail extensive measures to protect furniture and appliances.  Please understand that we cannot condition pest control measures on a renter’s efforts to “prep” the living space in accordance with the pest control company’s guidelines.  Thus, if the tenant won’t do what is required, you need to step in and provide this service.  Indeed, some folks are disabled and may be unable to help.  Regardless, the onus to prepare for the treatment and to carry it out to completion lies with you, not your renter.  Lastly, be mindful that some occupants may be allergic to certain types of chemical treatments.  Do not ignore requests to use non-toxic or alternative methods of eradication.  And always remember that, at the end of the day, the responsibility is yours to make sure that the bugs go away even if the treatments are reoccurring and costly.

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