Breaking lease over roach infestation

When pest eradication efforts fail, know your rights

Robert Griswold
Inman News™

Q: I moved into a new apartment in Los Angeles less than three weeks ago. Immediately upon moving in I noticed cockroaches all over the apartment. I emailed the owner with my concerns along with photographs. Since then, the owner has sent a handyman by and I’ve had my apartment sprayed twice. The spraying seems to have helped, but the bugs still seem to be here. I have found them on my shower curtain, on my desk, and even in my refrigerator.

Financially, I don’t want to hurt my credit, but I also don’t think I can afford a lawyer. I am considering just speaking with the landlord to see if we can peacefully end my lease. I’d like to get all the advice I can before having that conversation, though.

Do I have grounds to break my lease? I understand that it is obviously a contract, but doesn’t it break some sort of habitability clause? My neighbors seem to have the same problem but aren’t as concerned. But I can’t live in an apartment where it’s uncomfortable to go to sleep because of what might end up crawling on me in the middle of the night.

A: A persistent cockroach problem can certainly be annoying and requires a coordinated effort among the landlord and all tenants to resolve favorably. You have already given notice of the problem to your landlord and the landlord has at least made initial steps towards addressing the problem in your unit. However, the eradication of cockroaches can be particularly difficult if you are in a multi-unit apartment building in an area where there is a major infestation. This unfortunately is true in many urban areas. The cockroaches migrate easily from one unit to the next and are unknowingly brought home as "hitchhikers" from local businesses.

To properly address this issue in your building, you need to see if you can gain the cooperation of your neighbors and your landlord to work together with a professional exterminating company that has the expertise in dealing with cockroach infestations in multi-unit apartment buildings.

If your neighbors and landlord are unwilling to cooperate, then you should send a letter to your landlord citing the severity and ongoing nature of the cockroach issue and ask that you be able to unilaterally break your lease. I would think that you have a good reason to seek the termination of your lease if your landlord isn’t responsive.

My experience is that most landlords faced with this challenge will be cooperative and take the appropriate "whole building" approach to eradicating the cockroach problem. This is not easy and will take time, and requires the participation and support by all tenants. If even a single tenant refuses access to their unit or refuses the recommendations of the professional pest control company, it is very likely that the cockroach problem will subside but not be entirely resolved, as roaches are adept at survival and have existed for millennia with their ability to detect and avoid most standard methods of pest control.

You might also want to consider using the repair-and-deduct laws that are found in most states. While they vary from state to state, they generally provide that after giving the landlord proper notice and a reasonable opportunity to correct the maintenance or other issue, the tenant has the ability to directly hire a professional vendor. In your case, you could hire a pest control company.

You indicate that you cannot afford seeking legal advice and assistance from a tenant-landlord legal expert, but there are low-cost or even free services in many urban areas. I am sure that this is a common problem presented to them by tenants and they may have handouts or standardized information available for you.

But if not or you don’t want to use an attorney, another alternative for you to consider is to go to small claims court and seek a claim for damages against your landlord. Your landlord will then be forced to appear and fight the allegations, or more likely will contact you in an attempt to either seriously address the problem or negotiate a termination of your lease.

Q: I had a month left on my lease when I decided to move into another apartment. I told my current landlord I was leaving, paid the rent and asked her to try to rent out my apartment. She put one ad on an online website advertising the place at more than what I was paying (which I believe was still the market rent). There were no "For Rent" signs on the building or anything, else, just the one online ad. Obviously, the place did not rent.

Three days before the month was up, the landlord put up another ad advertising the apartment at the same rent I paid. The place rented in two days. Has the landlord fulfilled her duty to mitigate damages?

A: When a tenant breaks the lease, he or she remains responsible for the rent for the remaining length of the lease. However, the landlord is required to minimize or "mitigate" the damages to be paid by the tenant and must make reasonable efforts to re-rent the apartment. The landlord can charge for the reasonable costs of re-renting your apartment, including the costs of advertising and any leasing commissions and other reasonable costs.

Your landlord’s response of placing an ad with an online service is a reasonable response. But the landlord seeking to re-rent your unit at a higher rental rate is not appropriate in my opinion. Your landlord essentially took advantage of you being responsible for the rent to "test" the market and see if she could get a higher rent knowing that you would have to pay. This is not reasonable and you have a good argument that if the landlord had advertised the property at your current rent she would have re-rented the apartment in a few days.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

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Copyright 2011 Robert Griswold
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