A simple notice taped to an apartment door can cause a creepy-crawly sensation in any renter.
“Your unit is above or below a suspected bed bug infestation.”
Tony Haigh of Seattle’s Best Pest Detective said his call volume is always increasing. “We typically do 20 to upwards of 100 units a day, about six days a week for most of last year,” he estimated.
Orkin ranks Seattle 13th on the list for most beg bug treatments nationwide.
Since Seattle is a major port city and hub for travelers, it doesn’t help the situation. Neither does the weather. Colder weather extends the life cycle of bed bugs.
Haigh uses specially trained canines to sniff out bed bug pheromones.
There are also visual clues.
“You’re looking for little black specks in your bed, sheets, pillows, bed frame. They don’t move. They’re not like dust, you can’t brush them off,” Haigh described the telltale sign of bugs’ fecal matter.
Renters who find such evidence might immediately begin throwing out belongings like clothes and mattresses. But who is on the hook for the considerable cost of getting rid of the bugs and replacing ruined possessions?
The Insurance Information Institute says getting rid of bedbugs is usually not covered by homeowners’ policies. Generally, losses caused by creatures including birds, vermin, rodents or insects aren’t covered by renters’ policies either.
Apartment dwellers can sometimes end up battling a full-blown infestation and reluctant apartment managers, said Christopher Rao, a landlord and tenant attorney in Seattle.
“The basic duty that landlords have is habitability,” he said.
In Washington State, the liability for the infestation falls on the landlord unless they can prove that one tenant caused the pest invasion.
And that’s a difficult case to make. Rao compares it to toxic mold, an issue many renters face.
“It’s very hard to prove that the landlord is responsible. The landlord will usually blame it on another tenant.”
Rao said that first, renters need to know how to make the right kind of complaint to their landlords. It has to be in writing, in an e-mail or letter. Speaking to the on-site manager is not good enough.
“If it’s not in writing, it’s very easy for the landlord to say, ‘we didn’t promise you anything’,” he said. “Write in exactly the same kind of tone as you would write dealing with a job interview. Make them respectful. Your spelling is accurate, and unemotional.”
Part of this is to prove you’ve made all attempts at negotiating in good faith. It also keeps renters who complain safe from retribution.
At this point, Christopher Rao advises tenants to keep their apartments spotless for any landlord inspections.
“If your unit looks like a pigsty, they’re going to take pictures of it, and it’s going to be easier for them to convince a third party, I believe, that the bed bugs came from your unit,” he said.
Going toe-to-toe with your landlord in court is likely too big of an expense and headache for the average tenant.
But simply meeting with a lawyer to get advice about your evidence — including lease, correspondence, pictures, and testimony from neighbors — can be free or set up for a very small fee.
At this meeting, attorneys can also help draft correspondence to a landlord.
The one thing renters cannot do, no matter what, is withhold that monthly rent check until the problem is fixed.
“If you just withhold 50 dollars worth of rent, you put yourself in a situation where you can be evicted, even if all the other things you’re alleging are true,” said Rao.
There is a possibility of negotiating to deduct the cost of dealing with bed bugs from your rent, a technical argument that a legal counsel can navigate.
Rao said by assembling evidence and being fully armed with your rights, you can make it easier for the landlord to do the right thing.
A clause about bed bugs in a lease should not deter renters from standing up for themselves.
“There are sometimes when landlords put things in leases that are actually unlawful in the State of Washington,” Rao explained. “They do that just so a tenant will believe they have no recourse.”
Bed bugs are a stubborn pest, but professional exterminators say a combination of heat, isolation, and targeted pesticide use can successfully defeat even the worst infestation.
But that doesn’t eliminate the emotional trauma of finding unwanted visitors in your home.
Haigh said the trick to overcoming irrational fear is to be proactive about prevention and elimination.
“If you get them, it’s not the end of the world. Yes it can be painstaking. The biggest thing is don’t panic, and let the professionals go in there and deal with it,” said Haigh.
He recommends you inspect hotel rooms you might be staying in, and check furniture with soft fabrics before you bring used items into your home.
If you have bed bugs or any rental problem, visit TenantsUnion.org to learn more about your rights. The King County Bar Association can also help connect you with legal representation or a consultation.