In an industry where tenants have won multimillion dollar lawsuits against property managers for serious health problems caused by mold, it’s a good idea to be cautious. But how do you determine who is at fault and liable for repair costs?
How you should handle mold in rental units is a somewhat fuzzy, gray area (pun intended), as there is no federal law outlining landlord responsibility. And only a few states actually have set forth guidelines for regulating indoor air and mold standards. Some mold can be caused by landlord neglect’not repairing water leaks. And mold can also be caused by the tenant’failing to maintain a clean environment, keeping the apartment shut too tightly, or not running exhaust fans.
Some leases may have mold clauses incorporated in them, but what’s the best practice when yours doesn’t outline a clear plan of action? Property managers/owners are required to maintain habitable premises, after all, but how should you establish liability and remedy the problem?
Regardless of whose fault you consider the mold issue to be, you should take any mold claim seriously and investigate it. Never dismiss or shrug off a resident’s concerns about mold. Document your findings. Promptly agree to identify and fix the problem causing the mold. If the mold is caused by a water leak or excessive humidity, stop the source immediately. Mold cannot be eliminated unless the source of moisture is halted.
Even if you believe the tenant to be partially at fault, it’s wise to clean up the mold ASAP. If you’re incorrect in your theory and it’s determined at a later time that the cause of the mold was something you were responsible for fixing, you could incur damages asserted by the tenant for loss of property or housing. Not to mention, this eliminates the blame game and is a better route for resident relations.
Then if you determine after fixing the problem that the origin was due to tenant neglect, you can file suit against the renter (if needed) to recoup the cost of cleanup. But waiting and finger-pointing will only prolong the repair, and delaying the remedy by weeks or months could potentially multiply the initial expense.
Here’s a quick Dos and Don’ts list to outline the steps you should take:
Do: Bring in professional help to diagnose the problem.
Do: Act quickly in fixing the root cause.
Do: Conduct periodic inspections… especially if you notice any musty or mildewed odors.
Don’t: Tell the renter that “it’s not my problem”, it’s your problem before the situation is fully assessed.
Don’t: Interpret the law and argue lease provisions without first consulting an attorney.
Don’t: Get smart with the tenant and say Sue me, (because they just might).