Mold is the worst nightmare of any homeowner. Once you find out it’s there, you just want it gone. Unfortunately, the next step is to pay to have it tested and then pay lots more to get it eradicated. But, the alternative is to live with a poison (basically). Who wants to develop constant sinus infections and lung problems? No one, of course – and so you pay it. That’s an easy scenario. But what happens if you’re a landlord of an apartment complex? What if we’re talking about a leaking A/C that’s caused mold in two units? Three units? Four units!? Suddenly, the cost of being a landlord becomes devastating. However, what happens when your tenant starts developing constant sinus infections and his child starts developing asthma? As a human being, you don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, but legally, putting them in harm’s way may put a legal target on your back. And that’s the point of this blog – to give some tips to landlords about how to deal with the problem and to tenants on what options may be available to them.
Let’s start with landlords. Your rental income depends on keeping overhead low. You don’t want to be called out to the property constantly to fix plumbing issues, air conditioning issues, or broken this or that. So, likely you do a pretty thorough inspection before each rental term and have your maintenance guys go in and make sure everything is good to go. However, it is easy to cut corners and not look into the little things. A leaking air conditioner can be easily overlooked and even if found can be expensive to fix or replace. So, you miss it. Then, next thing you know, you’re getting complaints from your tenant. You fix it. But… have you checked to see what damage was done by the leak? In Florida, it doesn’t take much time for some water to become a huge issue. And if your negligence in not taking proper care of the unit results in mold that causes your tenants injury, you may just find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. So, what can you do? I would say your starting point should be to do a thorough inspection each and every time you rent the unit – and this includes checking for mold. Sure, it may cost you a few hundred bucks, but you’ll have peace of mind and you’ll have documentation that you took that extra step to protect your tenants. If you find mold, fix it – unfortunately, that’s the risk of being a homeowner. The next place I’d advise looking to is your lease. Have provisions that instruct the tenant to inform you of any water leaks or any indication of a problem. Sure, it may mean you get a few more calls, but it will be well worth it if it keeps you from having to eradicate mold or be involved in a lawsuit. Finally, if mold is there and the tenants say they just want out, it might be prudent to let them… but when you sign the release, include personal injury claims in the release (like the ones that could result from mold).
Now, the tenant – what can you do? Well, if you’re moving into a new place, start by asking whether there have been any water issues and whether there have been any mold issues. If you notice you are getting a lot of allergy/sinus/breathing issues, you may want to call the health department to do a screening. If it comes up positive, you’ll want to provide your landlord notice to fix the issue. This is where you may want to contact an attorney to make sure you stay within your rights by the Florida statutes. You may get to the point where you withhold rent (and you have to do it properly) to leverage the landlord into fixing the issue. If the issue is ignored, you need to get out. If you’ve followed the steps, you should be able to terminate your lease (again, an attorney is helpful here). Now, alongside these steps, you may have a suit for personal injury. While this is case specific, if you’ve been injured by a landlord’s negligence, you may have a lawsuit to get compensated for your injuries. Given the number of variables that can affect whether you have a suit or not, it is important that you seek legal counsel before, for example, breaking your lease. If you are able to seek compensation for your injuries, your attorney will likely want to have a professional mold inspection performed in order to have evidence of the claim. However, to be clear, the biggest issue is that you stay out of a mold-infested environment and that you seek medical care when necessary. Mold is a nasty thing – so do not take it lightly.
So, what’s the take away here? If you’re a landlord, it is to take proactive steps and look at the cost as an investment in protection. If you are a tenant, it is to know there are options out there, but that your health is more important than anything. Over the past few years, rentals have become more and more popular. Unfortunately, some landlords have taken demand as an excuse to shortcut maintenance. Do not take mold lightly. If you are a landlord OR a tenant and think you may have a mold issue, take action, and take action now.