Has anyone else noticed that it's been a super wet June (and now July) here in Wisconsin? So much rain. Our email is flooded (heh) with complaints about water and mold.
Now, to be clear, I think mold can be devastating - let's say you're a family with kids, the kids have mold-triggered asthma which leads to bronchitis or, worse, pneumonia. Sickness in the kiddos leads to days home from work for the parents, which means that it's hard to pay rent. Suddenly, this little spore becomes a make-it-or-break-it thing. Of course, it's usually less impactful for most of the folks who read this blog, but it can damage carpets, lead to mild sickness, render furniture unusable. Let's look at some of the steps to deal with mold.
1. Notice the things that lead to mold. According to the EPA, there is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment. The way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture. So, to prevent mold problems, you need to be aware of where moisture is getting inside your home, and make sure to notify your landlord if there are problems with water getting in.
- Examples of moisture getting into the home: bathroom fan stops working, ventilation generally isn't working, there's a leak in the exterior of the home, there were ice dams during the winter, humidity in your home is above 60%, etc.
- Prove what you can prove: buy a humidity gauge, take photos of the leaks.
- Write a letter: Your landlord might not take a letter that seriously, but it is so so helpful in giving you proof of where the problem is starting. If, down the road, mold in the home made a huge negative impact on your life (like the example above - kids out of school, work missed, rent unpaid), you have more ability to sue the landlord for not doing what they should have, if you can show that they could have prevented it. So, this is the moment - write to them about the moisture problem. If they fix it, great. If not, you have a paper trail which will only help you down the road. More on getting things in writing here. Information on how to write a letter (with templates) is here.
2. Prove that there's a mold problem. If mold develops, then do what you can to prove that it's there. Document everything, whether it's a teensy problem, or a big one.
- Examples of proof: Take photos! Cell phones make taking photos pretty easy - email them to the landlord if you can. If you can afford it, get a kit to test for mold in the air.
- Write a letter: Again, you want to make sure that your paper trail is really strong, so that if it turns into a big, full-blown problem, then you'll have proof to show that the landlord could have prevented the problem from getting so out of hand. More on getting things in writing here. Information on how to write a letter (with templates) is here.
3. Call in the cavalry, or sue to get paid rent back. If the letters aren't working, then you can ask for help:
- Building inspector: You can call your local or state building inspector. Many phone number are listed at the bottom of our Repairs page, but if you don't see your area's then contact us, and we'll look it up. Building inspectors will not always test for mold, so if you want that done, you can do it yourself (kits linked above).
- Sue for rent abatement: Suing to get money back on rent that you've paid allows you to hold the landlord responsible for repairs they haven't done, but without the risk of ending up in eviction proceedings (if tenants withhold rent for repairs that aren't done, and the landlord thinks they ought to pay it, then the landlord starts eviction proceedings, which is pretty scary for a tenant who is already living in a desperate situation). More information on Small Claims Court is here and here and here.
4. Move out. If things in your rental situation get genuinely unlivable, then you can move out. Here are some different ways to frame it:
- Claim constructive eviction. If you move out because you, as the tenant, think it isn't safe to live in the rental unit, then you can use constructive eviction as a defense in court, for why you shouldn't owe rent after you move out. More info here.
- Break your lease. If you move out before your rental obligation is over, then you are breaking your lease. Your landlord is required to make the unit available for new tenants, but you might still owe some money for the rent if no one rents the unit during your lease term. More information here on how to break a lease.
5. Sue for money owed because of the mold problem. If you move out and want to hold the landlord financially responsible for the money issues that his/her negligence or lack of repairs have caused, then you can sue for that. Make sure to only sue for money you can prove that you lost (Small Claims Court doesn't go in for "pain and suffering"), and be sure that your paper trail shows that the landlord could have acted and prevented the problems, but didn't choose to do so. More information on Small Claims Court is here and here and here.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: if you know that you or a family member is sensitive to mold, then look carefully as you search for housing, before you even sign that lease. Some ideas:
- Mold sensor: get a kit or a sensor, and use it when looking through a prospective rental.
- Leaks: look for leaks. Water leads to mold, so be careful if you see damp surfaces or water.
- Moisture: get a humidity gauge, and think carefully about units that have humidity above 60%.
- Ask the landlord in writing: email or text the landlord asking if there are any mold problems in the unit. If the landlord says that there are no issues, in writing, then you can more easily hold them responsible for those statements if you can later prove they were untrue (like if a former tenant can show you that they complained about moisture or mold).
You should also know: We are not attorneys here at the TRC! And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.