Bed Bugs in Rental Housing

Last Updated On: 2/2/2018 6:56:18 PM

I’ve Found Bed Bugs In My Rental Place. What Do I Need To Know?

Uh oh.  You've discovered what you think might be bed bugs in your rented apartment or house.  How did this happen?   What should you do? Where can you get more information?

What Are Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs are small, oval flat, reddish-brown insects.  Adult bed bugs are about the size of an apple seed. Here's a picture that should help you understand whether the bugs you see are likely to be bed bugs: 

Bed bug on a hand 

Bed bugs live anywhere people live, work or play.  They live in or on our belongings - clothes, linens, upholstered furniture, mattresses, inside walls and baseboards, or in nightstands or dressers. But bed bugs do not live ON PEOPLE, or in your skin.

Adult bed bugs can survive for up to six months without feeding!

Are Bed Bugs Dangerous Or A Threat to Health? 

The US Centers for Disease Control say that bed bugs do not carry disease:

"Bed bugs should not be considered as a medical or public health hazard. Bed bugs are not known to spread disease. Bed bugs can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection."  CDC FAQs on Bed Bugs.

Where Do Bed Bugs Usually Live?

Here's what the US Centers for Disease Control says on their web site:

"Bed bug infestations usually occur around or near the areas where people sleep. These areas include apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, cruise ships, buses, trains, and dorm rooms. They hide during the day in places such as seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, inside cracks or crevices, behind wallpaper, or any other clutter or objects around a bed. Bed bugs have been shown to be able to travel over 100 feet in a night but tend to live within 8 feet of where people sleep."   CDC FAQs on Bed Bugs.

In your home, bed bugs will most commonly be found in:

  • Mattresses
  • Box springs
  • Couches and chairs (especially if they are upholstered)
  • Bedframes and head boards
  • Nightstands or dressers
  • Inside walls or the ceiling
  • Baseboard areas

For example, here's a picture of bed bugs hiding at the end of a mattress:

 Bed bug on mattress 

Or on a sofa under the cushions:

 

 Bed bugs on mattress 

 

How Do Bed Bugs Move Around? 

Here's more information from the CDC:

"Bed bugs are experts at hiding. Their slim flat bodies allow them to fit into the smallest of spaces and stay there for long periods of time, even without a blood meal. Bed bugs are usually transported from place to place as people travel. The bed bugs travel in the seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding, furniture, and anywhere else where they can hide. Most people do not realize they are transporting stow-away bed bugs as they travel from location to location, infecting areas as they travel."   CDC FAQs on Bed Bugs (emphasis added by LAWV).

Bed bugs are tremendous "hitch hikers."  Suppose you put a box or a bag or a purse down on the carpet in a place that has bed bugs.  It could be a movie theater, a restaurant, a hotel, or a friend's house.  A few bugs might get in, and you don't notice.  Then they "hitch a ride" with you, wherever you take that box or bag: to your work, to your home, or to a another friend's house.  And you may never even be aware that they're riding with you.

Once bed bugs are in a building, they can spread rapidly.  They can go through the walls, to move from one apartment to another.  

Who Gets Bed Bugs?

Possibly anyone and everyone.  High income people and low income people. Anyone who travels through a building with bed bugs has a chance of picking them up and taking them somewhere else.

Bed bugs are not caused by "bad housekeeping."  You can't prevent them just by keeping your house and kitchen clean.  You can't get rid of them just by cleaning your house or kitchen better.  

But it is important to reduce "clutter" in your home: piles of papers and newspapers, magazines, posters, or clothes on the floor.  Those are the kinds of places that bed bugs will hide, once they find their way into your living environment.  For more information about cleaning to help reduce or remove bedbugs, read this article from the WVU Extension Service.

What Are the Signs of Bed Bug Activity? 

  • Actual bed bugs
  • Unexplained human blood stains on sheets, linens, or beds
  • Insect fecal stains on sheets, linens, or beds
  • Insect bites on your body
  • Cast-off insect skin
  • Insect eggs (bed bug eggs look like small grains of rice)

How Do I Get Bed Bugs? 

  • Through walls, floors or ceilings, if bed bugs are in a neighbor's apartment
  • Bringing used mattresses, rugs, or furniture into your home, without carefully inspecting them to check for bed bugs
  • Visiting a place that already has a bed bug infestation
  • Visiting public places such as schools, day care facilities, libraries, and health care offices.

Whose "Fault" Is This? 

Let's start with one fact.  The  presence of bed bugs, by itself, does not prove that any one did anything wrong.  There may be "fault," but you have to look deeper to find out what really happened.

Landlord Obligations:

  • Once the landlord knows there are bed bugs in the building, the landlord is obligated to take "reasonable steps" to get rid of the bed bugs.

Buying a can of bug spray at the grocery store is not a "reasonable step."  Controlling bed bugs is not that easy. The landlord should be consulting professional exterminators, or qualified entomologists, for guidance on appropriate methods of treating bed bug infestations.

  • Once the landlord knows there are bed bugs in the building, we at Legal Aid believe the landlord is obligated to inform anyone applying to move into the building.  We believe that renting to someone without letting them know there are bed bugs in the building is amisrepresentation of a "material" fact.  Most people would not knowingly choose to move into a building with an active bed bug infestation problem.

Tenant Obligations:

  • A tenant who moves, from a building with bed bugs to a new building, is obligated to take "reasonable steps" to avoid bringing the bed bugs to the new place.
  • Once a tenant knows there are bed bugs in the building, the tenant is obligated to notify the landlord.  Hiding the bed bugs from the landlord is not going to fix the problem for anyone.

The truth is that much of the time it isn't anyone's "fault."  In those cases bed bugs are a problem that has to be addressed.  Both landlord and tenant are going to be part of the solution.  Both landlord and tenant are likely to lose some money in solving the problem.  

As a Tenant, What Do I Do If I Find Bed Bugs In My Rental Unit? 

  • Immediately report the presence of bed bugs to your landlord.
  • Cooperate with the landlord's efforts to get rid of the bed bugs.
  • Cooperate with your landlord in allowing inspection of your rental unit.
  • Cooperate with your landlord's bed bug prevention policies.
  • Prepare for bed bug treatment, according to guidance from your landlord or the landlord's pest management company.
  • Do not immediately throw out all of your belonging.  Clothing and linens can be laundered.  Wait for furniture to be inspected.
  • Reduce or eliminate as much "clutter" as possible, because that's where bed bugs might hide.
  • Do not try to solve the problem yourself with "bug bombs."  That's probably a waste of your time and money, because it probably won't solve the problem.

I notified my landlord about bed bugs that came from someone else's apartment.  Now the landlord says I have to get rid of my couch and my mattress and box spring.  Who's going to pay for me to get a new couch and bed?

That depends on whether anyone did anything "wrong."  Sometimes bed bugs appear and it's no one's "fault."  In that case, there's no one that is obligated to pay for your loss.  The landlord will have to pay for treatment.  You will have to pay for replacement of your stuff.

Suppose your neighbor knew he had bed bugs, but didn't tell the landlord.  So the problem got worse, and the bed bugs spread to your apartment.  You may be able to sue the neighbor.

Suppose the neighbor DID tell the landlord, but the landlord didn't take appropriate steps to treat the bed bugs.  You may be able to sue the landlord.

Suppose the landlord knew the building had bed bugs before you moved in, and didn't tell you about them.  You may be able to sue the landlord.

But if no one did anything wrong, then there's no one you can force to pay for the damage.  

What Should I Do If My Landlord Does Not Get Rid Of The Bed Bugs?

  • If the landlord does not take prompt steps to get rid of the bed bugs, contact your local building or housing code enforcement office. Also, you should report the problem to your local health department.
  • If the landlord has failed to take reasonable steps to treat the bed bugs, you may be able to move out with no further obligation under your lease or rental agreement.  [Be careful not to carry the little guys with you to the next place!]
  • In some situations you may be able to sue the landlord for money damages.  But you will have to prove that:
    • (1) you met all tenant obligations to protect against bringing bed bugs into the building; AND
    • (2) the landlord failed to take reasonable steps to treat the bed bugs, AND
    • (3) the damage you suffered happened after the landlord failed to take reasonable steps.

If I Move, How Do I Protect Against Bringing Bed Bugs With Me? 

This is a really important question.  It is your obligation as a tenant to take "reasonable steps" to prevent bringing bed bugs from the infested building to a clean building.  If you don't take "reasonable steps," you could wind up on the hook for all sorts of trouble.

The Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force has good web page with "Moving Tips - Don't Take Bed Bugs With You!" Click here to go to that page.

The short version:

  • Wash and dry (on high heat) all your clothing and linens and cloth things.  That includes children's stuffed animals and toys.
  • Bag the clean things in new, unused trash bags or plastic bins, and seal them up. If possible, put them in a safe, non-infested place until you can take them to your new home.
  • Carefully inspect ALL furniture, upholstered or not.
  • Do NOT bring any infested furniture to the new home.

Where Can I  Find More Information About Dealing With Bed Bugs? 

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offices have web page information and lots of resources about bed bugs.  Click here to go to the CDC Bed Bug information.  The CDC also has a set of "Frequently Asked Questions" about Bed Bugs.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a web page of information for dealing with Bed Bugs.   

The West Virginia Bureau for Public Health has a web page of information and links about dealing with bed bugs.  

The WVU Extension Service has information about dealing with bed bugs.  

This is general legal information. For guidance about your situation, talk to a lawyer.