What to Do About Mold in Your Apartment or Rental Home


Mold and Your Health

The good news is that most mold does not pose a significant health risk, and even so-called "black mold" or "toxic mold" is unlikely to create a danger to occupants of a home. Most mold appears to be dark or black in color, so the fact that mold looks black does not indicate that it is particularly dangerous or toxic.

That doesn't mean that mold in a rental unit isn't a potential cause of health problems. Mold of any type can be dangerous to people with respiratory conditions or weakened immune systems. People who are allergic to mold spores may experience significant discomfort from the presence of mold. Mold also poses higher potential risks to infants and children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

What is the Source of the Mold

Your landlord is responsible to maintain your apartment in order to keep it habitable, but you are responsible for ordinary cleaning. If you fail to clean your bathtub or shower, and allow water to sit around the edges of the tub or shower pan, you will likely eventually see mold develop in those areas. If you complain, you can expect that your landlord will either suggest that you start to properly clean your apartment, or clean it up but charge you for the cost of cleaning.

If the problem is a leaky faucet or pipe, a roof leak, a broken bathroom fan, or a similar problem, inform your landlord of the problem as soon as you notice that the problem exists. Your landlord should respond by repairing the problem, ideally before mold starts to grow, and should also remove any mold that has grown as a result of the maintenance issue.

Notify Your Landlord of the Problem

Some states and localities have laws and ordinances that require your landlord to respond to a report of mold, and that give a tenant specific rights during the clean-up of potentially dangerous mold. However, even in the absence of such a law or ordinance, your landlord has a general duty to maintain the rental premises in a reasonably safe condition. If you have mold in your unit that is caused by a maintenance issue for which your landlord is responsible, it is your landlord's duty to repair the problem and to clean up the mold. As long as you promptly report the problem, absent a cost-shifting provision that is valid under the laws of your state, the cost of repair and remediation should be paid by your landlord.1

Landlord's may learn of the presence of mold in one of two ways:

  • Actual Notice - The landlord may observe the mold, or be told by the tenant or a resident that there is a problem with mold; or

  • Constructive Notice - The landlord has knowledge of a situation that the landlord knows or reasonably should know could create or has created a mold problem.

For example, if a leak develops under the bathroom sink, the landlord is not going to be aware of the leak and the potential for mold until the landlord either inspects the bathroom or the tenant informs the landlord of the problem.

On the other hand, if the landlord is aware that the rental unit was flooded due to a heavy rainfall or a mechanical problem, such as a broken water pipe or washing machine hose, the landlord should be aware that a failure to properly clean-up the water could result in the development of mold. Similarly, if the landlord is aware of a leak in the roof, the landlord should be aware that a failure to fix the roof could result in the development of mold within a wall space or even mold that penetrates drywall from inside of the wall space.

Keeping Records

Whenever you are dealing with a serious maintenance issue, you should keep a clear, written record of all of your communication with your landlord -- the dates of communication, what you said, and how your landlord responded. Important notices or demands should be provided in writing, and you should keep a copy for your records. The tenant should take pictures of any areas that show water or mold penetration.

What if the Landlord Won't Help

If the landlord does not promptly respond to your report of the presence of mold, you may be able to get help from your local government. Although the office responsible for inspecting and ordering remediation of mold may differ depending upon where you live, agencies that are often responsible or able to direct you to the proper department include the county health department, or the city or county building inspector's office. The state attorney general's office may also be able to provide information about agencies that can potentially help.

The office that you contact may be more interested in the reason why you have mold, rather than upon the presence of mold itself. For example, a building inspector is not likely come out to your premises merely because you report mold, but may come out if you report a physical problem with the structure of the building, such as water intrusion through a roof or wall, water leaks within the unit, doors or windows that don't close, or other problems that suggest a building code violation.

Damages from Mold

When your landlord is responsible for the clean-up of mold, you may experience financial harm. In some mold cases, you or other residents of the rental property may experience health problems.

It is important to remember that damages are not automatic, merely because mold is present. If the landlord has no reason to be aware of the problem before the tenant reports discovering mold or the smell of mold, and the landlord responds promptly to repair the premises and remove any mold, it is unlikely that the landlord will bear any further responsibility. It is when the landlord knows of a problem that is likely to cause mold, or knows or reasonably should be aware of the presence of mold, yet does not repair the problem in order to provide safe and habitable premises, that the liability is likely to arise.

Where Will You Live During Clean-Up

Depending upon the nature and extent of any water damage and mold growth, it may not be possible for you to remain in the rental property while the problem is being remediated. If you will lose access to your kitchen, or to the only bathroom in the rental unit, you can reasonably argue that you should be provided with an alternative residence during remediation, or that you should be released from your lease. Although a few states define specific tenant rights during mold removal, in most states the landlord's duties are not specifically defined and tenants may benefit from discussing their rights with a local real estate lawyer or legal aid office.

Damage to Personal Property

When mold exists within the living space, contact with mold and the moisture that feeds the mold may cause damage to a tenant's personal property, including clothing and furniture. However, absent wrongdoing or culpable negligence by the landlord, the landlord will not nomally be liable for the damage.

For example, if a tenant's apartment floods due to an unexpected maintenance problem, although the landlord is obligated to clean up the water from the premises, the landlord is not ordinarily responsible to clean or dry the tenant's personal belongings. If a tenant allows the belongings to remain wet, such that they become moldy, the tenant will not be able to hold the landlord responsible.

However, if a landlord is aware of a water leak and does not repair it, and mold grows in the premises as a result of the leak without the tenant's knowledge, the landlord is potentially liable for any damage to the tenant's property. For example, the leak and mold may occur in a storage area or the back of a little-used closet, such that the tenant is not aware of the problem or that the tenant's property is becoming damaged.

Once a tenant is aware of a mold or water problem, the tenant should remove property that may be affected by the problem from a location where it might become damaged, and take reasonable measures to prevent further damage to any property already exposed to the problem.

Health Problems

Most health problems caused by mold tend to be modest, and to clear up once the mold is removed or the affected person leaves the premises. However, sometimes mold has a more significant impact on health, whether due to the nature and extent of the mold problem or due to the age or medical condition of the person exposed to the mold.

At the lower end of the damages scale, if a tenant can demonstrate the presence of mold and airborne mold spores within the dwelling unit, even if the symptoms from mold exposure are modest, and potentially even if the principal claim is that the premises smell bad, the tenant may be able to recover a modest amount of compensation for the symptoms and for emotional distress caused by the exposure, and may also be able to obtain a rent abatement -- a reduction in the amount of rent owed, with the landlord being required to refund the difference in the rent -- for the period of time that the landlord allowed the problem to continue.

At the higher end of the damages scale, somebody who develops serious health problems that can be medically attributed to the mold exposure may be able to recover a substantial award of damages as a result of the exposure. Damages could include recovery medical fees, lost past or future wages, pain and suffering and, in some states, could potentially include punitive damages.

The Role of a Personal Injury Lawyer

For cases involving serious personal injury, litigation may involve a considerable investment in mold testing, as well as the cost of proving a causal connection between the health symptoms and any mold exposure. For less serious cases, it may be possible to work out an acceptable settlement with the landlord or the landlord's insurance company, such as the release from the lease, medical expenses and moving costs. But when damages are significant, or proof of causation will be difficult, having a lawyer on board may be the best way to prove a case and recover fair compensation.

Lawyers who handle personal injury claims work on a contingency fee basis, meaning that they do not charge a lawyer fee unless they recover money through a settlement or favorable verdict. It thus makes sense to consult a lawyer about any medical injury that you believe may have been caused by mold exposure -- it costs nothing, but you get a professional assessment of your situation and chances of recovering compensation.

Footnotes

1. Most states significantly restrict a landlord's ability to shift maintenance costs to a tenant. If your lease includes a provision that makes you partially or wholly responsible for certain repairs, make sure that you verify that the clause is valid under your state's laws and any applicable local ordinances.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Sep 12, 2016.