Breaking lease over roach infestation is risky

2 courses of action advised when extermination efforts fail

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 5, 2012

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2 courses of action advised when extermination efforts fail

Robert Griswold
Inman News®

Q: I rent a second-floor condo in a six-story building in the downtown of a major city. I've lived here for more than three years and have been very happy! Unfortunately, there was a unit on the fifth floor that was recently foreclosed by the lender. The owner left it a disgusting mess, which resulted in an infestation of cockroaches in my unit and at least six other units, according to the association manager.

My landlord has had my unit sprayed twice, but this has not solved my problem.

I am looking for a new place to live and would like to move out ASAP. My lease states that I am to give 30 days' notice to vacate. Must I still honor this given that the only reason I'm leaving is because of this bug issue?

A: Pest control issues in mid-rise buildings or buildings with multiple connected units are always a challenge in these situations. But you are not in a typical apartment building where you only need to contact your landlord. You rent an individual condo unit from a private owner in a building that is part of a homeowners association. Your landlord most likely owns only the condo unit that you occupy.

So you need to pursue two courses of action to seek a solution to your recent bug problem: (1) contact your landlord who owns the condo you rent and (2) the association that is responsible for the entire common area of the building.

Bugs, especially cockroaches, are quite difficult to eradicate by spraying in a single rental unit without simultaneously treating the building's other units in a uniform and coordinated manner. This would generally be true even if you lived in a garden-style, two-story walk-up building in the suburbs, but it is extremely relevant to your situation in a mid-rise building.

Simply, the bugs are smart enough to avoid your living unit until the spray or bait is no longer a threat to them. The cockroaches have a virtually unlimited reign in a mid-rise building with vast expanses of crawl spaces and other areas that they can live, eat and nest undetected. So the fact that your owner has had your rental unit sprayed twice is a good start, but you are unlikely to see any significant success with the abatement program until all of the common areas and the contiguous units to yours (and even a few beyond that) are also part of the same program.

I suggest that you and your landlord both contact the association manager in writing (most association management companies will accept emails) and explain the situation and the efforts you have taken individually to date. Since the cockroaches are certainly going from unit to unit through the common area of the association, they need to respond to your complaints and take the lead on the coordinated efforts with multiple owners and possibly multiple tenants.

The responsibility for pest control generally rests with the landlord unless it is caused by the tenant. In your case, you seem to have a good theory that it was caused by a former tenant on the fifth floor. I don't have any reason to disagree with you, but be aware that some landlords will take the position that you may have contributed to the problem and try to blame you or claim that you can't break the lease.

Even if you can clearly show that an independent pest control professional is of the opinion that the other unit is the primary source, you do need to give the landlord a reasonable opportunity to address the problem. And based on the fact that they have already had your unit sprayed twice, it is likely that would be considered an adequate response. So I think you need to proceed cautiously on the idea of moving in a matter of days.

If you are at the end of your lease or it has rolled over to a month-to-month rental agreement, then you can give a 30-day notice to terminate and vacate the premises. If you are in the middle of your lease, then I would be very careful before I moved out unless I was willing to potentially pay for the balance of the remaining time on the lease or at least until the rental unit is re-leased. Of course, if the cockroach problem is serious, then the chance of the rental unit being occupied soon by another paying tenant and getting you off the hook is slim.

So, one way or another, the best result for everyone here is to have the cooperation of the condo unit owners (and the occupants -- either owners or renters) and the association to address the cockroach problem from a global perspective. While not your concern, the association may also be able to go back against the former or current owner (the lender) and seek reimbursement of its costs.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

Email your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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