No longer are bedbugs just a problem in foreign countries, New York City or Las Vegas. Bedbugs are alive and crawling in Wisconsin rental housing units. They have been found in single family rental homes and duplexes in addition to large multi-unit facilities. Unlike many other insects, bedbugs are not attracted to dirty living conditions or spilled food. So you may have a perfectly clean tenant with a spotless apartment unit, and they could still have bedbugs.
Bedbugs are attracted to the carbon dioxide that we emit when we breathe and they dine on our blood. They are the ultimate hitchhikers and enter apartment units on furniture, clothing, suitcases and many other objects. Unfortunately, the eradication of bedbugs is difficult at best and is often quite expensive. Your best defense against bedbugs in your rental properties is to prevent them from arriving in the first place.
I have worked with several landlords and property managers over the last few years on bedbug issues. Although I cannot prevent you from ever experiencing a bedbug infestation, there is some information I can provide that should be of assistance if you ever have several hundred unwanted crawling tenants move into your rental property.
First, you need to educate yourself about what is required of a landlord with regard to providing your tenants with a habitable rental unit. This includes both at the time of initial occupancy and in the middle of a lease term (such as after a tenant contacts you about a bedbug infestation in their rental unit). In the city of Milwaukee there is a local ordinance requiring a landlord to exterminate any bug infestation in their rental properties, regardless of who caused the problem. Practically speaking – and in order to protect your real estate investment – you should never allow your tenants to be in charge of the bedbug extermination process. This process should be solely your responsibility. Later, after the bedbug eradication efforts are underway, you can speak with your tenant about who is responsible for paying for the extermination costs.
Second, educate your tenants about bedbugs. Teach them about the signs of a bedbug infestation. Caution them against buying used or second hand furniture. Advise them to take basic preventative measures when they travel. Inform them to contact you immediately if they think they have bedbugs in their rental unit. And explain to them that if they do not cooperate 100% with your bedbug eradication efforts, their new co-tenants will continue to share their bed.
Third, make sure that any written rental documents you are using are up to date, do not contain any provisions that will cause them to be void in the state of Wisconsin, and address bedbug infestations and the costs of eradication.
Finally, understand the special issues that arise when prosecuting or defending against bedbug litigation. Litigation involving bedbugs can arise in many different contexts, including: tenants suing landlords for health care bills related to bedbug bites, tenants suing landlords for reimbursement of rent the tenants paid during a bedbug infestation, tenants abating rent due to a current bedbug infestation, tenants moving out and breaking their rental agreement due to a bedbug infestation, tenants suing a landlord for making (allegedly) improper deductions from their security deposit to cover the cost of bedbug eradication, landlords suing tenants for unpaid rent after the tenants have vacated due to a bedbug infestation, and landlords suing tenants in an attempt to recoup costs advanced for bedbug extermination treatments.
If you are a landlord or a property manager, the question is no longer if you will be confronted with bedbugs, but rather when you will be confronted with them. Make sure that you have taken all the necessary precautions before it happens so that when it does, you will be in the best possible position to respond quickly and appropriately.
If you are interested in learning more about the legal aspects involving bedbugs and how you can better protect yourself legally if you should encounter bedbugs in your rentals, I will speaking on this topic at the upcoming Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin’s (AASEW) Annual Trade Show at Serb Hall on Wednesday, September 28, 2011.