Tenant vs. Landlord: Who’s responsible for pest control?

Amanda Maher
Amanda Maher | 5 min. read

Published on April 8, 2016

With UCSC college students, families and vacationers all competing for Santa Barbara’s prime real estate, renters are sometimes willing to overlook an apartment’s faults. Leaky faucets, musty bedrooms and overgrown yards haven’t stopped people from doubling and tripling up in apartments if it means the rent is more affordable.

So where do residents draw the line? Apparently, (but not shockingly) at bed bugs and roach infestations.

Tenants from a West Valerio Street and Garden Street apartment complex had complained to their landlord, Dario Pini, time and time again about the bedbugs, cockroaches, fleas, rats and mice that had infiltrated their apartment. Ursula Garcia had more than a dozen bites on her legs; her 8-month-old son had bites on his ankles. Juan Martinez has had to take his children to the emergency room with fevers he suspects are related to bedbug bites, as evidenced by the scarring his 5-year-old daughter has from the bites on her arms.

Every time tenants complain, Pini turns the problem around on them by saying it’s their own fault for not keeping the apartments clean enough. “I clean all day and it still doesn’t help,” says Maria Hernandez of her $1,950/month two-bedroom apartment. Another resident, Liliana Sanchez, had to throw away almost everything in her apartment after cockroaches nested inside. Her 10-year-old son has been diagnosed with an illness that doctors have directly connected to the cockroach infestation.

Residents’ claims were not overblown.

After investigating, the City of Santa Barbara filed a lawsuit against Pini, alleging that his properties had become “public nuisances” that threaten the community’s safety. Pini later settled, and his 100+ units were placed under court-ordered operation and maintenance for at least the next five years. Troubling, though, is that since the settlement the apartments’ conditions have continued to deteriorate.

“We’ve complained so many times,” says Garcia during a community meeting. It would be easy to just up and leave, but a lack of affordable housing in the area limits tenants’ mobility. For many of Pini’s low-income tenants, cobbling together first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit makes leaving cost prohibitive. “That’s why we’re living with Dario,” Garcia says. “We have nowhere else to go.”

As a last ditch effort to stay put, 12 tenants have teamed up to file their own lawsuit against Pini on the grounds that he has failed to provide safe and habitable apartments.

Which begs the question—what is the responsibility of landlords and property managers when it comes to pest control?

Answer: It depends.

In some instances, the tenant may be held responsible if it can be determined that the actions of the tenant caused the pest infestation, such as leaving food out that attracts mice. Lease agreements may also specify that the tenant is required to maintain both inside the unit and the outside premises (e.g. in the case of a single-family home), in which case the tenant may be expected to pay for routine pest control and maintenance.

Otherwise, the property owner or manager should be expected to deal with unwelcome critters. Most states have a ruled called the “implied warranty of habitability,” explains Janet Portman, an attorney and author of Every Tenant’s Legal Guide. “This requires the landlord to offer and maintain pest-free rentals.”

If a landlord or property manager fails to address the problem, the majority of state laws allow tenants to pay for pest control out of pocket and then deduct those costs from their rent. “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,” suggests Portman.

Aside from the legal obligations, landlords and property managers should also consider the following:

  • Rental property is an investment. Dealing with pest, mold or other infestations is important to the long-term structural health of your property and therefore, your investment! Termites are particularly damaging and can wreak havoc on the roof, in walls and on support beams, destroying your property from the inside out.
  • Pest infestations can disturb cash flow. As we saw in Santa Barbara, there are many things tenants are willing to put up with but pests are not one of them. Unhappy tenants will only stick around for so long and may withhold rent until the problem is fixed. Pest control is a small upfront cost to keep tenants in place and reduce turnover.
  • Compromise is key. If you believe the tenants are responsible for the infestation, consider splitting the cost of pest control. This is a way acknowledge responsibility but require the tenants to accept ownership of the conditions as well, and serves as a reminder to tenants to keep the unit clean and tidy in order to avoid the costs of cleanup in the future. Along those same lines, some owners cover the cost of exterior pest control but require tenants to pay for interior pest control.

Pest control disputes can be tricky because usually by the time they arise, there’s already a problem that needs to be dealt with and should be done so immediately. Save future headaches—and pricy lawsuits!—by assigning pest control responsibility in the terms of your lease agreement. When all else fails, err on the side of protecting your investment by protecting it from unwanted intruders.

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Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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