Rules on breaking lease over bedbugs
Friday, July 15, 2011
Q: We've discovered a few bedbugs in our new apartment,
crawling out of the seams along the floor. We're freaked out! The
landlord says it's no big deal, and that he'll have an exterminator
come by early next week. We haven't even unpacked; we're tempted to
move out, but that would be breaking a yearlong lease that has just
started. Is there any legal justification for us to do
A: Because you don't mention any encounters before moving to
your new home, those bugs were probably in the apartment before you
moved in. Although it's possible that they came with you and your
boxes (perhaps they hung out in the mover's van and hitched a ride
on your stuff), the more reasonable explanation is that they have
been waiting in the walls of this apartment since the last resident
left. Or, they've migrated to your apartment from an adjoining
unit. The point is, the stronger your argument that you didn't
bring the critters into the apartment, the stronger your right to
Tenants in every state but Arkansas are
entitled to "fit and habitable" housing, which includes the absence
of vermin. Bedbug infestations are unquestionably vermin. Most of
the time, however, it's difficult to determine who (landlord,
tenant, neighbor, or some other visitor) introduced the bugs. But
when it's clear that they were there from the outset of your
tenancy, you're in a good position to claim that the rental was not
initially fit and habitable, through no fault of yours. In that
event, tenants can refuse to move into a substandard rental and
should not be held to the lease.
It's no different than if you were to hand the landlord a rubber
check for the first month's rent: Upon discovering that the check
bounced, the landlord would not have to hand over the keys. So too
with an unlivable apartment. If it doesn't pass habitability
standards, you don't have to take it, and the deal's off.
But you have moved in, even though you're sitting amid boxes.
This changes things a bit. Once you've taken possession, you have
to give the landlord a reasonable time to fix the habitability
problem, if possible. Bedbug infestations can be addressed, and
aggressive approaches often solve the problem. The key question
here is: What is a reasonable time to give the landlord? Will
sending in the professionals "next week" suffice?
Until recently, bedbugs were not considered a serious problem.
Yes, they are annoying, creepy and uncomfortable, with the ability
to inflict unsightly and itchy bites, but not a serious health
threat. Unlike lead paint, asbestos and the mycotoxins from a few
molds, they were thought to be relatively harmless. Indeed,
the Centers for Disease
Control(cdc.gov/parasites/bedbugs) still tells us, "Bed bugs, a
problem worldwide, are resurging, causing property loss, expense,
and inconvenience. The good news is that bed bugs do not transmit
But this common wisdom may be evolving. In an advance electronic
publication of an article slated to appear in Emerging Infections
Diseases, researchers in Vancouver, Canada, reported the discovery
of particularly nasty bacterium on bedbugs that were taken from
patients admitted to an inner-city hospital. The bugs were carrying
methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and
vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE). These bacteria
cause serious staph infections that are very resistant to
The study's authors concluded that they might have discovered a
new pathway, or vector, for the transmission of these bacteria.
Much like the mosquito carries malaria, perhaps the bedbug carries
these bacteria, dropping them off as it bites its human host.
However, further study is needed to determine whether the bugs are
simple transmitters or have the staph infection themselves, and
even whether the bugs infected the humans or the other way around.
The researchers also noted that their findings occurred in an area
of dense, poor housing, whose residents already had a high
incidence of MRSA infections.
The implications of this study for landlords and tenants are
significant. A widespread bedbug infestation has always qualified
as a habitability problem, but these findings make the bugs'
appearance potentially much more dangerous than previously thought.
If they are capable of spreading disease, the speed with which
landlords should deal with them goes up. Maybe sending in an
exterminator "next week" is no more reasonable than saying, "I'll
deal with that gas leak tomorrow."