The owners of Homestead Studio Suites, a small hotel in Baymeadows, near Jacksonville, Florida, had a huge problem: Someone renting one of their rooms had been using it to run an eight-pot meth lab. Local building officials didn’t just shut down the one unit—they immediately shut down and cordoned off the whole place. Other hotel guests couldn’t even access their rooms to retrieve their property.
For the meth lab decontamination, the hotel was forced to hire a series of specialized contractors and industrial cleaners with HAZMAT certifications, as well as licensed environmental hygienists. On top of that, the owners lost weeks of revenue.
The suspect, Heath Coffield, age 25, was arrested and released, and turned up a few months later in North Carolina, where authorities say he was running a meth lab with his father.
Meth labs may make for gripping television. But also they make for real-life property management nightmares. Marijuana grow houses and cocaine houses are bad for owners and managers, too—but they don’t require the same toxic witches’ brew of hazardous chemicals that crystal methamphetamine manufacturers use in meth labs. Your average plain-Jane Mary Jane grower isn’t going to contaminate your property so severely that health department inspectors will condemn the building, which means you’ll have to tear it down or abandon it.
There are no good outcomes if your tenant uses your property as a meth lab. At best, you can expect your rental unit to be declared uninhabitable until your county health or housing inspectors visit the dwelling and declare it to be free of hazardous chemicals.
And don’t count on recovering damages from meth manufacturers. Most of their assets are in cash and untraceable, and probably uncollectable in the event of a lawsuit. Your best bet to protect yourself is a combination of smart prevention and insurance.
Paying the Heavy Costs of a Meth Lab Cleanup
The specialized HAZMAT cleaning crews and equipment don’t come cheaply. In some cases, you’ll have to rip out all the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and install new ones. Additionally, you may have to replace sinks, drains and showers/bath tubs, and even tear out and replace all the plumbing.
Every situation is different, but if your property is declared a hazard thanks to meth production it’s easy to spend $20,000 or more to decontaminate even a basic dwelling.
Preventing Your Units from Becoming Meth Labs
Don’t skip the criminal background check. People deep in the meth world have frequently committed other criminal offenses, too—meth-related and otherwise.
Here are some more tips:
Call previous landlords – Even better, check out the landlord in person, if possible. Criminals often have their friends pose as previous landlords, counting on new landlords not to check.
Reach out to the neighbors – If you’re off-site, neighbors can be your eyes and ears and help you identify any problems or possible criminal behaviors and patterns.
Use outside vendors to help with your tenant screening – Buildium, for instance, has a screening capability in its software that can help property managers and owners of multiple rental units.
Provide for regular inspections in your lease – You’ll have to provide notice per state law, except in emergencies.
What Are the Telltale Signs of a Meth Lab on Your Property?
Become familiar with and watch out for the signs that a meth lab may be operating in your building or community. They include:
- Lots of medicine boxes littering the property or in the trash
- Duct tape, copper tubing, and hosing
- Blacked-out windows
- Unusual activity around the property at night
- Respiratory masks
- Stained or discolored carpet or flooring
- Stained soil
- Dead plants or dead grass
- Unusual amounts of household chemicals over and above what is normally expected, such as:
- Paint thinner
- Mineral spirits
- Starter fluid
- Liquid Plumr and similar products
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Hydrogen sulphide
- Phosphoric acid
- Propane tanks
- Ammonia tanks
- Anhydrous ammonias
In theory, most property insurance policies will provide some protection from damages due to meth lab activities. However, some insurers occasional try to deny claims under their catch-all “criminal activity” exclusion, warns Indiana attorney Greg Gotwald, an insurance law specialist and partner at the law firm of Plews, Shadely, Racher & Braun, LLP. Gotwald asserts that as long as the landlord or property owner isn’t implicated in the criminal activity, the exclusion shouldn’t apply and the claim should be paid.
While insurance laws differ from state to state, carriers routinely pay claims resulting from common perils like smoke damage, fire damage, and vandalism or “criminal mischief.” If your policy covers these hazards explicitly, you are in good shape.
Disclosure: In most states, you must disclose the status of the property as a former meth lab to future renters and/or buyers. Specifics vary by state. For more information, see this resource from Scripps Howard News Service.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What tips do you have to prevent tenants from setting up meth labs or engaging in other criminal activities on your property? Please let us know in the comments section below.Read more on Maintenance & Improvements