Question: A couple of months ago the property management company for my apartment complex hired a roofer to re-tar the roof of my building. The process took three weeks. During the roofing process, we refrained from using our A/C because it produced a very strong tar odor. We waited until the process was complete and tried running the A/C again, but the tar smell was still very strong. I contacted my apartment manager and she sent out an A/C maintenance technician who, although admitting to smelling the tar odor, could not locate the problem. Since then a representative from the roofing company and an on-site maintenance person have also investigated the problem. Although the representative from the roofing company admitted to smelling a slight odor, the maintenance person said he could not. Air conditioning is a very important part of my life during the summer months. Also, the hotter it is outside, the stronger the tar odor. No one else in my building has experienced this and everyone is baffled by the problem. The last time I spoke with the apartment manager she asked me to call her when the odor was the strongest and she would come over and verify if she smelled it but I’m not sure what good that will do. Do you know what I can do to get the situation resolved? Is there an agency that can test the air quality and prove to the powers that be that I am, in fact, experiencing decreased air quality? And if so, do I have to pay for the service? I am at a loss and feel management is ignoring the problem. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Property manager Griswold replies:

It actually sounds like your landlord is making a reasonable effort to address the problem in an attempt to reach a resolution. The fact that the efforts to date have not been successful does not mean that they are not helpful in narrowing the possibilities. While it is unfortunate that no one has been able to pinpoint the source of the continued odors at least you have had three different sets of maintenance professionals look into the matter. My guess is that you are experiencing “normal” new roof smells. Tar has an extremely potent and pungent odor that many people can almost “taste” in the air. Just as some individuals are extremely sensitive to tobacco smoke in the air, many people are more sensitive to tar and similar petroleum-based odors. That may be the reason certain individuals did not detect the smell in other units or even in your unit during their inspections. The fact that the odor seems stronger when it is hotter outside combined with the report from the A/C repair company that your A/C system and ducts check out as clean and normal leads to one possible conclusion. My educated guess as a property manager for many years is that the odor is simply being picked up through the air intake on your A/C system. While unpleasant, this is going to be prevalent for at least several weeks to a few months until the tar fully cures. You may want to ask the landlord to consider a rent credit or abatement; however, I do not see any basis for a breach of habitability, as your landlord is surely entitled and encouraged to properly maintain the property by re-roofing and has made reasonable investigations into the problem. For your concerns about the air quality, you can check with your local building department or code enforcement to see if they will investigate. If they do find issues with your air quality be sure to immediately notify your landlord in writing. If they do not offer this service or you are not satisfied with their efforts and are still concerned about your air quality, you may need to retain an industrial hygienist, which can be quite costly. This would be a personal decision and may be well worth your peace of mind to ensure that your health and safety are not compromised. Should the industrial hygienist recommend-and you decide-to conduct air sample tests, I would suggest that you notify the landlord in writing prior to the tests so that they can be present, as well as the roofing firm or any other potentially relevant contractor.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.

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