As if finding a suitable rental home wasn’t hard enough, you then have the constant challenges that living in someone else’s property inevitably brings.
It can be hard to know where one responsibility ends and another begins; namely in the general wear and tear of our everyday lives. But what of mold? Who should be left to deal with this if the unthinkable were to occur?
Dampness and Moisture
I suppose we must – first and foremost – look at dampness and moisture – the predecessor to mold. And your home could be affected by one of the three most common types:
- Enemy numero uno, condensation is the most likely culprit in a rental property, appears when excess moisture in the air comes into contact with a cold surface, such as a window, and is made worse in the winter and by inadequate ventilation, heating or insulation. You can spot signs of condensation by streaming windows, damp patches on walls, carpets and furniture, peeling wallpaper, a musty damp smell and – of course – mold.
- Penetrating damp, caused by structural failures which allow water to come in through the roof, guttering or external walls, or through an internal leak or plumbing problem.
- Rising damp. Commonly affecting the ground floor or basements of older buildings, rising damp occurs when moisture is soaked up through porous materials, such as bricks or concrete. A layer of waterproof material – known as the damp course – should be put in the building’s wall near the ground to prevent this.
If you suspect your property has a moisture problem, your landlord should try to find the cause of it – even if this means calling in an expert. Otherwise, if left untreated, mold can – and most probably will – worm its way in.
That means that it is your responsibility – as a tenant – to report it to the landlord as emphatically as possible – following up with a letter or email so that you have evidence of the complaint in writing. The landlord should then organize an inspection and carry out any repairs that they are responsible for but may (if they’re that way inclined) prefer to evict you instead. Find out your rights.
A landlord’s responsibility to a tenant when it comes to mold has not been explicitly spelled out in building codes and regulations. As of January 2016, no federal law had been set outlining permissible exposure limits or building tolerance standards for mold in residential buildings, and only a few states and cities have taken steps towards doing so (Virginia, deserving a special mention: We applaud you!). Some landlords will even try to include a clause in the lease agreement that removes any responsibility for mold whatsoever, but at least one court has refused to enforce it. Check out the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a list of mold rules and regulations in your state.
Having said that, your landlord may still be liable for a mold problem in your rental if they have failed in their duty to provide safe and habitable housing. This is because all landlords – in all 50 states – are required to outline any hazardous living conditions at the time of rental (which toxic mold is most definitely), as well as making good on anything that compromises your living condition.
If moisture is caused by an underlying repair issue, such as leaking internal pipes, cracked walls, rotting window frames, missing roof tiles or faulty guttering, your landlord has a responsibility to fix it as part of a duty to maintain fit and habitable housing (except for Arkansas – boo!). They should, therefore, arrange for this to be repaired or replaced within a reasonable time frame. Damp proofing the building is another must. They should also replace any damaged plaster, skirting boards or flooring and redecorate if necessary once fixed. Keeping up with property maintenance should keep damp – and mold – at bay. As ever, prevention is key.
If moisture is caused by a condensation problem, such as a broken heating system or faulty extractor fan, your landlord should endeavour to fix this as soon as possible, and if the problem still isn’t resolved they should consider improving the various systems that control air flow within the property, such as ventilation and insulation. It may be that they choose to provide a dehumidifier instead, and depending on how severe the problem is, this may suffice if it improves your living condition sufficiently.
Whilst it is not currently a responsibility for landlords, they may do well to consider regular mold inspections – either paying out of their own packet or including it in the lease agreement.
Landlords should also encourage their tenants to notify them immediately of any problem – even telling them what to look for from the outset. And, in turn, landlords should always respond immediately to any damp or mold that is brought to their attention, too.
If a tenant has to be relocated temporarily due to mold that was not caused through any fault of their own, a landlord should compensate any additional rental fees to avoid being taken to court.
Landlord blaming me for mold?
Like with much else in life, it’s never as simple as laying the blame entirely in one camp. As such, there are things that – as a tenant – you can also do to ensure that damp and – by extension – mold, doesn’t encroach your living accommodation. In fact, if it can be proven that the problem was caused by your own domestic negligence, you’d probably (and quite rightly) be liable to fix it yourself. A landlord may even sue their tenant if they feel that they have created or worsened a mold problem in their property – either by their living standards or by failing to notify the landlord early enough. (Note, however, that there are sometimes gray areas, for example, a clogged drain filled with your hair.) It would be prudent, therefore, to take the following steps in keeping your home as mold-free as possible:
- Reduce condensation. Everyday activities, such as cooking and showering, create moisture in the home. You can take steps to reduce this by opening windows as much as possible, covering pans while cooking, using an extractor fan in the kitchen and bathroom, closing the bathroom door when in use, hanging clothes to dry outside or using a vented dryer (drying clothes over a radiator is a big no-no!) and leaving a gap between furniture and external walls. Read about mold-killing laundry detergent here.
- Consistent temperature. All rooms should be heated to at least 15 degrees.
- Clean regularly, especially vulnerable areas, such as the bathroom. Landlords aren’t required to provide a cleaning service, and to insist on it would probably constitute an invasion of privacy.
- Clean up water spills immediately.
And if you do find mold?
- Notify your landlord immediately. The longer you leave it, the worse the problem will become and the costlier the bill, which you may be left picking up.
- Depending on the extent of the problem, you can try to tackle the mold yourself. The quicker you try to deal with it, the more manageable it will be in the long run. Read more about how to do so – and when to call in the experts.
- Call for help. If your landlord won’t fix the mold problem, find a new one! In the in between stages, however, you can contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and/or a mold remediation expert to stop it from getting worse. After all, you’re the one that still has to live there – not your landlord.
- Consider legal action. You may be able to order your landlord to carry out necessary repairs – or get compensation – through the courts, but this can be costly and is not an overnight fix. Across the country, however, tenants have won multimillion-dollar cases against their landlords for significant health problems associated with toxic mold (a Texas family won $32 million back in 2001!) so it may be something to keep in mind if this sounds like a familiar scenario.
As mold litigation makes its way through the courts, the landscape is set to change over the coming years. When it comes down to it, it should be less about who is to blame and more about creating a simultaneously healthy landlord-tenant relationship and living environment. Both landlords and tenants, therefore, should work together to ensure that an already-messy problem doesn’t get a whole lot messier!