No place on earth (except perhaps the North and South Poles) has escaped the presence of bedbugs. They are annoying pests and an international scourge, and they are known to exist in all 50 states. According to the CDC and EPA, these awful little insects are experiencing an alarming resurgence.
California’s highly mobile population has its share of bedbugs, and the state has enacted a disclosure law to explain and curtail the proliferation of these pests. Most states have similar disclosures to help inform occupants and owners how to help control the spread of these pests.
A booming bedbug problem might seem like a personal issue rather than a real estate one, but don’t let your assumptions keep you from protecting yourself and your clients from what could turn into a litigious situation. Here’s what every real estate agent should know about these pesky nuisances.
Where do bedbugs come from?
Bedbugs are enthusiastic travelers — they love latching onto the bottom of suitcases, bags and backpacks, and then they move into bedclothes and mattresses to breed and feed at night. Attracted by the carbon dioxide we breathe out, they move in the dark to find the blood they seek. They’re tiny little vampires.
How do you recognize an infestation?
You may not feel their bites as you sleep — they use saliva to mask their presence, much like mosquitoes do — but you might see red welts after the fact. Human reactions to bedbug bites can be mild to severe.
After bedbugs feed, they leave behind waste material in the form of dark spots (typically on mattresses or bed sheets).
Don’t be fooled by their name — bedbugs enjoy any dark area (not just beds) where they can nocturnally roam to feed. Bedbugs also favor kitchens, offices and carpeting. And they don’t need blood every night, as they can live months without feeding. Females can lay up to five eggs per day, and eggs can hibernate for months.
Why should real estate agents get involved?
Now that you’re sufficiently grossed out, you must be wondering why you need to know about these bugs. Being aware of bedbugs (and helping remove them) could keep real estate agents from a lawsuit. Plaintiffs whose complaints were ignored when bedbugs infested their premises are collecting substantial damages in courts from New York to California.
Think about it this way: We real estate agents have state-granted licenses, which give us superior real estate knowledge compared to the non-licensed public. So once the state starts recommending bedbug advisories to consumers, agents become bearers of the news. They have a responsibility to their clients to share the information.
As agents, we need to inquire about bedbugs on behalf of our clients. And, of course, inform them right away if there’s an issue as it’s illegal to rent a residence of any kind if there is a known bedbug issue.
Where does this happen?
Ask the housing specialist with your county’s environmental health department about the presence of bedbugs in your area. You’ll learn that, despite what many people believe, it’s not just rental housing that’s affected. Private homes, apartments, hospitals, college dorms and even child care facilities have confirmed the presence of these pests.
International five-star hotels the world over have been infected and successfully sued. Put your luggage on the bed to unpack when you get home, and your unwelcome hitchhikers will scramble off to their new dwelling.
A friend of mine boarded a long-haul flight out of Hong Kong, only to have the entire plane de-boarded at the departure gate because bedbugs were suddenly spotted in the flight attendant’s sleeping berth. Bedbugs can travel first class and don’t discriminate whose luggage or handbag they select.
Most folks are embarrassed to think they have bedbugs, but they need not be — these pests are not a reflection on personal hygiene. They can settle anywhere, without regard to age, cleanliness or location.
What can be done?
Most states recommend that owners and landlords direct their tenants to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for bedbug information. Become familiar with your state’s recommendations, and prepare your clients accordingly.
In California, all residential tenants must receive a Bedbug addendum from their landlord or property owner.
Disclosures help owners and tenants stay alert and aware of the importance of the bedbug problem. When tenants promptly report the presence of bedbugs, owners need to act quickly to treat the infected premises and protect occupants from harm.
Tenants should be assured they will not be evicted for letting the owner know of a bedbug problem.
Who pays for the bedbug elimination?
In short, it depends. Did the occupant bring in the pests, or did bedbugs hide in the crevices or furnishings from a prior occupancy? Is the infestation a recurrence? Pest control companies might be able to track the source of the bedbugs if you request them to.
Some rental agreements state which party pays for exterminating the pests if the source can be determined.
Regardless of who covers the cost, once the premises are treated, it is important for everyone involved to cooperate and follow good practices to prevent recurrences.