How Much Do Landlords Need to Tell Tenants About Bedbugs?
The Jefferson Park apartment building where Tim lives.
The first bedbug that Tim ever found was in an unlikely place: his kitchen sink. He’d been living in his apartment near Jefferson Park for a little more than a month when he noticed something crawling on one of the clean plates he’d left out to dry. It was flat and reddish, about the size of an apple seed, with six thin legs. Tim soon identified it as a fully grown bedbug.
“When I found the first one in the sink, I looked everywhere I could to see if I found more,” he says. “I thought, ‘If they’re here, they’re here.’”
But Tim didn’t find any others — at least not at first. Still, he was concerned enough that he sent an e-mail to the property managers hired by Denver-based Pinnacle Real Estate Management to take care of the building. “I did not have bedbugs before I moved,” Tim wrote. However, he admitted that since moving in, he’d traveled and had acquired used furniture (in this case, a futon), two common ways that bedbugs spread from one place to another.
But since he’d only found one bug, and in such an odd spot, he wasn’t convinced that he’d caused the problem. In fact, Tim, who didn’t want to use his full name for this story, thought it was more likely that the bug had crawled through the walls that he shared with the apartments around him, perhaps using the space around the water pipes as a sort of insect highway. “What is the history of this apartment building, and my unit specifically, for bedbugs?” he asked.
Tim didn’t trust the answer he received — that there were two apartments in the building with bedbugs but that they didn’t border his. And as time went on and he continued to find bedbugs despite extermination attempts, the question so frustrated him that he began conducting his own research, polling his neighbors, quizzing the pest-control guy, reading up on state law, exchanging increasingly angry e-mails with Pinnacle officials, and eventually contacting Westword with another puzzler: Does a landlord have to tell a prospective tenant that a building has had bedbugs before the tenant moves in?
The answer, it seems, is both yes and no. But even in situations where the law suggests that potential renters must be told of “adverse material facts” about a property, the punishment for not doing so with regard to bedbugs appears to be weak, and rarely, if ever, meted out.
Which means that you could move into an apartment, or next to an apartment, that not long ago looked like a bedbug beehive — and you’d never know it.
Tim began collecting the bedbugs he found in his apartment and putting them in a plastic baggie.
Tim and some of his neighbors suspect that’s what happened to them. The building where they live is a modest three-story brick structure with outdoor, motel-style stairways that lead to the slate-blue doors of thirty individual apartments. It sits in a quiet neighborhood of neat single-family houses a few blocks from busy Federal Boulevard.
When Tim and his neighbors moved in last year, the building was undergoing a transition. It had recently been purchased by a new owner, who hired Pinnacle to help move the old tenants out, renovate the apartments and rent them to new tenants.
Tim moved in in March and was followed by another new tenant, Andy (not his real name; none of Tim’s neighbors were eager to use their names in a story about bedbugs), who moved in in April. Andy found a bedbug in his apartment within a week of living there and, like Tim, was surprised; the property manager who showed him the place hadn’t mentioned any history of pest issues. “We were not told there were bedbugs,” Andy says. But when he contacted Pinnacle, “they said, ‘Oh, we kind of knew about that. We knew it had been treated.’”
Treatments don’t always work, however, because bedbugs are excellent at hiding. In addition to beds, the federal Environmental Protection Agency notes, bedbugs can live under wallpaper, in cracks in the walls and inside electrical outlets. They can also survive for months without a blood meal, which means that even if infested tenants move out, the bugs they leave behind might still be there — and hungry! — when new tenants move in. Denver has been particularly hard hit by bedbug infestations. Orkin, the nationwide pest-control company, ranks the Mile High City eighth on its list of cities with the most requests for bedbug treatments in 2014.
Pinnacle offered to send an exterminator to Andy’s apartment, but after three months of twice-monthly sprayings, he and his roommate were still finding bedbugs. Fed up and grossed out, Andy pressured Pinnacle to let them out of their lease: “I said, ‘You need to deal with this, and if you don’t deal with this, this isn’t habitable. This isn’t comfortable.’” After Andy threatened to bring in a mediator, he says, Pinnacle agreed.
“The problem was there before we moved in,” Andy insists. And the worst part, he says, is that even after Pinnacle knew about it, “they were still moving people in.”
Rob was one of them. When he first looked at the place this past summer, the property manager admitted that the building had pest issues. “She said, ‘I do, by law, have to tell you that there is a history of roaches in this building,’” says Rob (also not his real name). But he says she stressed that the roaches had been “taken care of.”
It soon became clear, though, that the building was not pest-free: Rob claims he found an adult bedbug walking across his carpet shortly after he moved in in August. The property manager hadn’t said anything about bedbugs, he notes: “[She] only told me half the information, and in my opinion, it was the less important half.”
Pinnacle sent an exterminator, but Rob continued to find bedbugs in his bathtub and sink, which made him wonder if they were coming in via the pipes.
Meanwhile, Tim’s problem continued. His apartment was being sprayed every two weeks, but he continued to find adult bedbugs. “Every time I think it’s eradicated, I find another bug,” he says. He began collecting them in a plastic baggie.
Despite his evidence, Tim says, Pinnacle downplayed the situation, telling him that although he’d found some bedbugs, his baggie of insects was not evidence of a true infestation.
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To Tim, however, even one bedbug was too many, and he continued to go around and around with Pinnacle officials before finally e-mailing company co-owners Don Brennan and Chris Maley. “Do you feel that it is reasonable and ethical to move tenants into apartments that are adjacent to a severe bedbug infestation when there is an almost certain likelihood that they will experience bedbugs in their apartment?” he wrote.
Maley and Brennan declined to speak with Westword on the phone, sending a statement via e-mail instead. “Our bedbug policy has remained the same since we began our business,” Maley writes, noting that Pinnacle manages more than 100 buildings and 2,000 units. “We treat all bug issues with the utmost urgency and within the regulations outlined by the state of Colorado. We use a licensed pest-control company to manage our pest-control strategy. When an issue is reported, we immediately schedule an inspection and treatment (if necessary).” Maley says Pinnacle pays to treat the problem unit and the units around it in an effort to minimize the potential of the pests spreading.
“Vacant units that show signs of bug activity are treated until our pest control company deems them to be free of bugs. We always err on the side of caution in respect to vacant units — holding them off market until we are 100 percent sure that they no longer have a problem. It is not good for our reputation, or the tenant, to move someone into a unit with bedbugs.”
According to an e-mail chain between Tim and Pinnacle that Tim forwarded to Westword, Brennan and Maley apologized for the issues (in addition to bedbugs, Tim’s apartment flooded twice and a car drove through one of his ground-level windows). But they didn’t accept any blame, suggesting that Tim might have brought the bugs himself.
“When you moved into your apartment, there were no bedbugs,” Brennan wrote. “This is documented through pest-control reports. Sometime after you moved in, you reported bedbugs. It is possible that you were the originator of bedbugs in your apartment.”
As for whether Pinnacle should have told tenants about past pest infestations, Brennan wrote that it’s against the law for Pinnacle to disclose “any facts or suspicions regarding circumstances that may psychologically impact or stigmatize the property.”
But when Tim read the law, he wasn’t so sure that was true.
Tim found this couch near the apartment building's dumpster. It appears to be infested with bedbugs.
As Brennan implied in his e-mail to Tim, Colorado real-estate law allows brokers, such as property-management companies, to withhold facts that might stigmatize a property.
But there are apparently limits to what is withheld. The facts that brokers are allowed to keep secret “include, but are not limited to” two specific types of information mentioned in the law: that the property was the site of a murder or suicide, and that the property is home to a resident with HIV/AIDS or any other condition that’s “highly unlikely” to be transmitted from one neighbor to another just by virtue of them living next door to each other.
Barring those exceptions, the law says, brokers “shall...disclose to any prospective buyer or tenant all adverse material facts actually known by such broker.”
So are bedbugs an “adverse material fact?”
Probably, says Marcia Waters, director of the Colorado Division of Real Estate. “To err on the side of caution, I’d tell a broker that they need to disclose this,” she says. However, after a pause, she adds, “But you could also say, ‘We’ve exterminated.’”
Karl Schiemann, who oversees the City of Denver’s housing inspectors, says the nature of infestations makes the decision to disclose tricky. It can be hard to tell if a property is truly rid of pests, he says — and equally hard to guarantee that someone or something won’t bring them back. “Just because a place had bedbugs a month ago doesn’t mean they have them now or that they won’t have them two weeks from now,” Schiemann says.
Leslie Ebert, supervisor of the housing unit of Colorado Legal Services and a real-estate attorney with twenty years of experience in Colorado, says he’s never heard of anyone using state law to go after a property-management company for not disclosing bedbugs. And even if they did, he says, the potential sanctions don’t seem particularly harsh.
“I guess they can file a complaint with the Real Estate Commission,” Ebert says. “How far that gets them, I can’t really tell.”
Waters says the commission has a “range of tools” available to punish brokers who break the rules, including revoking their licenses. But she admits that although the commission regularly hears complaints about brokers not disclosing that properties used to be meth labs or that they tested positive for radon — or even that they are infested with snakes or bees — the commission has never gotten a complaint about bedbugs.
If it did, the division would investigate to see whether the broker knew about the bedbugs before renting the apartment to the tenant. If so, the broker could be sanctioned for not disclosing that fact. But Ebert points out that state law also seems to exempt landlords who don’t use brokers and who rent their properties to tenants themselves.
As for Tim’s building, Maley says in his e-mail to Westword that “property managers should not knowingly move a tenant into an apartment unit that has pest issues.” However, he adds, “we also believe that a building shouldn’t be stigmatized in instances where residents unknowingly create pest issues...that owners need to remedy.”
Maley adds that Pinnacle has been nothing but responsive to Tim’s concerns and reiterates his opinion that Tim may have introduced the problem himself with the used futon.
Tim understands the tough position that property managers might find themselves in. But to him and his neighbors, who wish they’d been told about the problem before they found themselves itchy and anxious with year-long leases, what they should do about it is clear.
“These guys are supposed to be part of the solution,” Tim says, “not part of the problem.”
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