Question: What is the best course of action when residents claim there is mold in their unit?
Answer: Because much has been written about the dangers of mold, some residents jump to the conclusion that mildew and dirt in their apartment is deadly mold. In all likelihood, the conditions in the apartment are not dangerous mold. Molds are simple, microscopic organisms found virtually everywhere, indoors and outdoors. Molds are found on foods, leaves, plants and other organic materials. Mold spores travel through the air and find their way into homes. If present in large quantities, molds can cause allergic symptoms similar to those caused by pollen.
The first thing to do when a resident complains about mold in their rental unit is to do an inspection. With all due respect to the mold experts and remediation contractors who are EBRHA vendors, a rental owner should take a look first. If the owner finds that in fact there is an excessive build up of moisture, the presence of musty or earthy odors, or evidence of water intrusion in the unit, there could be a serious problem. Any of these factors, in conjunction with visual evidence of excessive mold or mildew, may indicate a serious mold problem. Look for discoloration or moisture leaching from plaster and drywall.
If the resident is complaining about allergic reactions, asthma episodes, infections or other respiratory problems, there is further reason to be concerned. If you reasonably believe that there is a serious mold problem, or if you have no idea how to assess the problem on your own, then it is time to call in an expert. If the expert suggests mold testing, think twice before agreeing. Reliable sampling for mold is expensive. Also, because mold is present everywhere, the mold tests will show the presence of mold even if you don’t have a serious mold problem. If you have mold testing done, you may someday be forced to provide the test results to your tenant in a court of law. Your resident will use the results as ammunition against you. If your resident insists on mold testing, have them do the testing themselves at their own expense. Owners have no duty to test.
If there is an actual mold problem, you should determine the source and cause of the moisture so that the problem will not persist. Then fix the problem. This could mean installing french drains or a sump pump. Or it could mean fixing windows. And it could mean instructing the resident on how to stop moisture build up in the unit. The next step is to clean up the mold or mildew. This is considered a simple housekeeping task. If your resident won’t clean up the mess, then the owner should do the cleaning. Clean, disinfect and dry the moldy area. Bag and dispose of any material that has moldy residues such as rags, paper, leaves and debris.
If the mold problem is serious and real, you may have to call a mold remediation contractor. Some remediation may require the pulling of permits, extensive reconstruction work and temporary resident relocation. It is common for resident complaints about mold to be accompanied by other factors such as the resident wanting to break a lease or not pay the rent. If you believe that your resident is making mold complaints to avoid his or her contractual obligations, it is probably time to call a lawyer.
Contributor: Clifford Fried, Attorney