Most of us heard the nursery rhyme warning “don't let the bed bugs bite,” but grew up without even knowing what this mythical bed bug was. Unfortunately, bed bugs have made a rampant return, and are proving to be a major nuisance in many urban areas for Landlords and Property Managers.
Bed bugs are reddish brown in color, have an oval shape, and are about a quarter inch long. They like to live within five feet of their host, which means mattresses and clutter around the bed are the most likely place for them to gather and breed. While they don't breed nearly as fast as some other parasites, they are extremely resilient, resisting both chemical treatments and starvation (they can live up to eighteen months without feeding).
One of the few consolations is that bed bugs do not carry any known pathogens or diseases. That said, they can cost landlords and property management firms in lost rent, battered reputations, and lawsuits, despite the fact that it is usually the tenants who bring the bed bugs into apartments and rental homes.
As a Landlord or Property Management firm, you'll need a comprehensive bed bug policy to prevent infestations, eradicate colonies if they arise, and prevent lawsuits and other risks caused by bed bugs.
Step 1: Before Signing a Lease Agreement with New Tenants
When your rental unit is vacant, have it inspected and certified bed bug-free by a licensed pest control company. Train your staff to recognize bed bugs and signs of their infestation, so that you are better equipped to catch an infestation early on, when it's still relatively easy to treat.
Step 2: The Lease Agreement Itself
Your lease agreement should contain language that makes it clear that the tenant is responsible for paying all pest control services necessary, including bed bugs treatment. It should also require tenants to report all pest sightings – including bed bugs – to the landlord or property management immediately.
It's recommended that the lease agreement require synthetic encasements around the tenants' mattress and box spring, to prevent bed bugs from creating a home there, and be sure to prohibit tenants from obtaining furniture from dumpsters or other unknown sources. There are some states where the landlord or property management company are automatically responsible for bed bug treatment and damages, such as New Jersey, Maine, and Massachusetts, so be sure your lease agreement is state-specific and complies with all state laws regarding bed bugs and pest control.
Step 3: Include a Bed Bug Lease Addendum
Tenants should be given, upon signing the lease agreement, a copy of the bed bug certification, and should sign an addendum acknowledging both receipt of the certification and that the rental unit was bed bug-free upon move-in. Specify that the tenant is contractually obligated to allow entry to pest control exterminators to treat a bed bug infestation if it arises, and to cooperate fully in eradicating any bed bug infestations.
Additionally, indicate that failure to report bed bugs or to cooperate in their treatment is a breach of the lease agreement, and is cause for lease termination.
Step 4: Include Bed Bug Information Along with your Lease Agreement
Educate tenants about what bed bugs look like, how to identify signs of their presence, where they like to live, how to prevent their entry to the rental unit, and that reducing clutter in the apartment reduces the number of places they can live. It's also worth mentioning that often tenant furniture must be burned or otherwise destroyed once an infestation occurs – an outcome that most tenants will go to lengths to avoid.
Step 5: Bed Bug Treatment
First of all, the earlier you treat a bed bug infestation, the easier it is to contain and eradicate. Contact your pest control company immediately upon evidence of an infestation. Second, inform tenants not to move any of their furniture or belongings before the pest control exterminators arrive – moving belongings can spread the infestation.
The items that can be washed, such as linens, blankets, sofa covers, and clothes, should be washed in the hottest possible water, with detergent, and dried with high heat. Furniture may need to be destroyed, depending on the recommendation of the pest control company.
The pest control company has a variety of treatments available at their disposal, including the use of steam, extreme heat or cold, chemical carpet treatments, and fumigation. These treatments should only be performed by a licensed professional.
The legal liability for bed bugs is primarily legislated on the state and local levels, so it's important to check the laws in your area. That said, landlords and property management companies can minimize the risk of bed bugs, and their legal liability, by following the directions above, and therefore creating a paper trail of their diligence. A proper lease agreement that outlines the tenant's responsibilities is incredibly valuable, and can prevent many disputes before they devolve into litigation. By adhering to the guidelines above, you can document your diligence, and can both prevent bed bug infestations before they happen, and catch infestations early before they become an expensive problem.
The most important thing that you, as a Landlord or Property Manager, can do is to be proactive in preventing bed bug infestations and litigation. Establish a relationship with a local pest control company, have your vacant rental units certified, establish a bed bug policy that includes your lease agreement and addendums and/or disclosures, and act as quickly as possible when treating bed bugs, and you'll avoid the worst of the bed bug-related headaches.