I confess, bedbugs give me the heebie-jeebies. When folks come in, talking about how they have an infestation, I feel like I need to do a superstitious cleansing, a dance, a prayer, to make sure they don't end up hanging out around here. (And so far they haven't. Knock on wood. Feel free to come visit.)
When 2013 Wisconsin Act 76 was passed, it had some language in the law to do with repairs, which has led many people to confusion, especially on the subject of bedbugs. Today, I'm hoping to explain what bedbugs are, best practices in elimination, and whose responsibility it is to take that step.
What are bedbugs?
Bed bugs are small brown insects that look a little like wood ticks and are about the size of an apple seed. They typically spend the day in small cracks and crevices in the bedroom—often in the bed itself. At night they bite and feed on the blood of the person sleeping in the bed, then return to their hiding place. Bed bugs are not known to transmit any disease, but of course they can still make someone's life miserable.
Bed bugs live for ten or eleven months under normal conditions. An adult female can lay several eggs a day and hundreds over her lifetime. The eggs are tiny and hard to detect. Immature bed bugs have the same basic shape as the adults but are smaller and lighter in color. A bed bug molts (sheds its skin) five times before becoming an adult capable of reproducing. It has to have at least one meal of fresh blood before each molt. Under ideal conditions a bed bug can go from hatchling to adult in as little as a month.
The shape of the bug changes after it has fed. Before feeding, it's quite flat (in order to hide in cracks) and roundish. After feeding, the bug is longer, no longer flat, and is more of a purplish color. Under the right conditions adults can survive up to one year without feeding, which is one reason it can be so hard to get bed bugs out of a home.
Why are bedbugs so hard to get rid of?
- Some people have no reaction to a bite, but many people develop a small welt similar to a mosquito bite. Because not everyone has a reaction, it means that not everyone will be aware that they have an infestation. Relying on people to report the infestation might not be effective, so stopping an infestation's flow through a multi-unit building could be difficult. Also, if someone moves into a unit and starts having symptoms of bedbugs, it doesn't necessarily mean that the new tenant brought them in - it could mean that the old tenant had them, but simply had no reaction to the bites.
- Bedbugs are not attracted by dirty apartment conditions. Unlike cockroaches, mice, and other infestations, bedbugs are not interested in dirt, food waste, or garbage. All they eat is human blood, so they are only attracted by humans. Since the nature of occupied apartments is to have humans living in them, it's not possible to guess who will have bedbugs based on the cleanliness of a rental unit.
- Pesticides are not always bad for bedbugs. Many pest control companies use chemicals/poisons/pesticides to get rid of bedbugs because it is the cheapest method, but unfortunately, it doesn't work very well. Bedbugs populations have developed resistance to pesticides (so bedbugs are getting better at not dying when the pest control guys come in and spray them), but people often have reactions. It's hard to get rid of bedbugs when the method you're using to eliminate them doesn't work.
Bedbugs can survive for up to 1 year without feeding. Because they can be dormant for that long, it's very, very hard to know who brought the bedbugs into the dwelling. A landlord needs to be able to know for sure that the tenant was responsible for bringing in bedbugs, if the landlord wants to charge the tenant for the cost of getting rid of the bedbugs.
- New laws have convinced many landlords and tenants (INCORRECTLY) that tenants are responsible for the cost of getting rid of bedbugs. This usually isn't true! (Tenants are only responsible when the landlord can prove that the tenant/tenant's guests brought them in, which is hard to do for the reasons above.) But tenants are more likely to hide an infestation if they think they are going to be charged for its removal, and once someone starts hiding bedbugs, they spread through a building like wildfire.
Best Practices for Bedbug Removal:
Prevention. The best offense is a good defense? Some good ways to prevent getting bedbugs include:
- Vacuuming the apartment thoroughly and often. Change the filter often, and use a HEPA vacuum (if possible).
- Encase mattresses and box springs in bedbug protectors. Make sure the encasements fit snugly.
- Be careful where new furniture items come from! Used furniture is one of the main methods of spreading bedbugs.
- Landlords can check apartments regularly for bedbugs using detection dogs and visual inspection to make sure to catch any infestation early on.
- Landlords should have policies that encourage tenants to report bedbugs. The earlier they get reported, the less expensive the removal will be.
Bedbug removal: Once a tenant has bedbugs, what are the best ways to get rid of them?
- Heat treatment seems to be the most effective way to remove bedbugs, under current research. This method involves sealing off windows and exits and slowly heating an apartment to high temperatures, so that the bedbugs are killed.
- DIY heat: Tenants can take their own steps by using a steamer, a dryer or an oven on smaller belongings. Bedbugs die when their bodies reach 113°F all the way through. Make sure all the decontaminated belongings go into tightly sealed plastic bags, so that they don't get infested again when they come back to the apartment.
- Ovens: Small non-flammable furniture items may be baked in the oven, depending on the oven's lowest temperature capacity.
- Steamers will only work on thin items and the recommended use is 20 seconds of steam per 1 foot of straight-line steaming. "Dry" heat is noted to be more effective than actual steam, if the steamer offers that setting.
- Dryers: Clothes or porous items probably need to be in the dryer for at least 30 minutes on the hottest setting.
- Freezing: It seems like some freezing might be effective for getting rid of bedbugs. One article says that belongings that are kept below 0°F for at least 4 straight days will kill all stages of bedbug life. The article says that putting things outside probably won't achieve this, but I bet they didn't live through Wisconsin's last winter. Make sure to put the items in plastic bags, and then put those bags someplace where the sun don't shine (ie, shade), if freezing is your preferred method.
- Pesticides: One of the things that we understand best about bedbugs is that pesticides don't always kill them. Some populations of bedbugs are resistant to certain kinds of pesticides, and the more pesticides are used on bedbugs, the less likely they are to work in the future. Please see this document for the specifics on what types of pesticides are found to be the most effective.
Wisconsin Laws: Who Pays?
Wisconsin law is pretty clear that the responsibility for repairs is on the landlord, and bedbugs are considered a repair issue. If the tenant caused it, though their "acts or inaction," then the tenant can be made to pay for the cost of getting rid of the infestation, but the landlord really would need to show that the tenant caused it. Here are the laws that make us think this:
- Wis. Stat. 704.07(3)(a) says, under an explanation of the duty of the tenant, that:
"If the premises are damaged, including by an infestation of insects or other pests, due to the acts or inaction of the tenant, the landlord may elect to allow the tenant to remediate or repair the damage and restore the appearance of the premises by redecorating. However, the landlord may elect to undertake the remediation, repair, or redecoration, and in such case the tenant must reimburse the landlord for the reasonable cost thereof."
This law seems to say that a tenant can be held responsible for the cost of pest infestations, but it's also pretty clear that that responsibility is only when the pests are "due to" something the tenant did or failed to do. When we're talking bedbugs, it doesn't seem like very much could be pointed to the "acts or inaction" of the tenant. How can a landlord prove where bedbugs came from? It might be possible, maybe if the tenant has lived in a single family home for over a year, where neither the landlord nor the landlord's employees entered during that time. It might also be possible to hold then tenant responsible when they didn't cooperate with pest removal services, but beyond that, it's a stretch.
- ATCP 134.08(6)(b) clearly says that "No rental agreement may... Impose, or purport to impose liability on a tenant for... Property damage caused by ... persons other than the tenant or the tenant's guests or invitees."
Therefore, this law seems pretty clear that if there was a problem that was caused by someone who was not the tenant or the tenant's guest, then it would not be the tenant's responsibility to pay for that property damage. If, for instance, bedbugs were brought in on the shoes of a maintenance person, or through the ducts from a neighbors unit, it wouldn't be the tenant who ends up on the hook for those costs.
ATCP 134 language is now consistent with Wis. Stat. 704.
- In the City of Madison only, there is an ordinance that puts the responsibility of dealing with pest infestation more clearly on the landlord's shoulders. Madison General Ordinance 27.07(d) states, “whenever infestation exists in any residential dwelling other than a single-family dwelling, extermination shall be the responsibility of the owner.”
- "What’s Working for Bed Bug Control in Multifamily Housing: Reconciling best practices with research and the realities of implementation" by the National Center for Healthy Housing. This is a comprehensive and useful guide.
- "Top Ten Tips to Prevent or Control Bed Bugs" by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- "Using Freezing Conditions to Kill Bed Bugs" by the University of Minnesota.
- The Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab can help figure out what insect you have in your rental.
- An overview on bedbugs by Michael Potter, a entomologist at the University of Kentucky.
- Bedbugger.com, a blog about media coverage and legislation related to bedbugs.
- The TRC's very own Bed Bug Fact Sheet.
Hi! Did you know that 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.