I’d like to apologize if reading this makes you itchy, but bed bugs is a topic that frequently comes up for landlords and renters.

There’s a bed bug renaissance across the country, because these disgusting critters have become resistant to pesticides.

Renters might wonder about their rights when it comes to bed bugs, and if they should move out of an apartment with an infestation. And landlords might wonder who should pay to get rid of the pests, and the best way to go about it. Here’s what everyone needs to know.

Most infested cities

The cities with the worst bed bug infestations in 2018, according to the number of Terminix service calls, were:

  1. Cleveland, Ohio
  2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  3. Los Angeles, California
  4. Indianapolis, Indiana
  5. Cincinnati, Ohio
  6. Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas
  7. New York, New York
  8. Columbus, Ohio
  9. Houston, Texas
  10. Dayton, Ohio
  11. St. Louis, Missouri
  12. Chicago, Illinois
  13. Detroit, Michigan
  14. Atlanta, Georgia
  15. San Francisco, California

Even if you don’t own property, or live in a rental, in one of the top 15 cities, you could still have to deal with bed bugs. Bed bugs can attach to clothing, luggage, and backpacks and get transported to apartments or homes.

Because it can be difficult to determine how bed bugs arrived in a residence, especially in an apartment building, don’t worry too much about that question. It’s more important to take action to get rid of them immediately.

Top 5 questions about rentals and bed bugs

1. What’s the first step?

If you’re a landlord, and your renter calls you in a panic because there are bed bugs, keep calm. The infestation might not be bed bugs; it could be fleas or roaches.

Call an exterminator and have them diagnose the problem. The exterminator should look at all mattresses and bedding in the rental property. They should also look in couches, drawers, closets, and shelves.

The first step is to treat the problem before it gets worse.

2. Are landlords responsible for bed bugs?

Responsibility should fall on whoever brought them in the house.

An exterminator might be able to tell you how the bed bugs arrived. For example, if your renter just returned from a trip and the exterminator finds a swarm of bed bugs in their luggage, then you could hold the renter responsible.

But in general, it’s difficult to prove fault, particularly in an apartment building. Your renter could have brought in the bed bugs, or the bed bugs could have crawled through floorboards or small cracks in the walls from another unit.

If bed bugs are in a single-family home, it could be easier to determine where they came from. But even then, a maintenance person or visitor, not the renter, could have brought in the bed bugs.

3. Who should pay for the exterminator?

If the bed bugs were present before your renter moved in, you need to pay for an exterminator.

If you don’t do anything about the bed bug infestation, your renter can take actions against you, such as paying for an exterminator themselves and deducting that amount from the rent. Or they could break the lease or sue you for not providing a livable dwelling under the implied warranty of habitability doctrine.

If the renter brought in the bed bugs, the question of who pays for an exterminator might depend on the state where they live. There are 21 states with laws addressing bed bugs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

If your state doesn’t have any bed bug regulations, and you can prove your renter brought in the bed bugs, you can charge your renter for the cost to remove them.

4. What are the best ways to get rid of bed bugs?

Getting rid of bed bugs is a time-consuming process that your renter must be on board with. Once your renter notifies you of the bed bug problem, you need to act immediately. The longer you wait, the worse the problem becomes.

Steps a renter should take:

  1. Declutter. Clean up any clutter inside the house or apartment. Clutter provides a perfect place for bed bugs to hide, and it makes the treatment process more difficult.

  2. Encase or trash the mattress. If bed bugs are in the mattress, enclosing the mattress and box springs in a special bed bug encasement product prevents the bed bugs from coming out. The encasement needs to stay on for a year.

  3. Wash everything. Wash all bedding (blankets, sheets, and bedspreads) and all clothing that’s been on the floor. Use a washing machine with hot water, then put the laundry in the dryer on a medium or high setting for at least 20 minutes and up to 45 minutes.

  4. Vacuum everything (twice). Vacuum the rugs, floors, furniture, bed, and all cracks in rooms. Then dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag in an outdoor garbage bin.

What the exterminator should do:

  1. Move and disassemble furniture
  2. Use high heat and steam treatments. Exterminators have special equipment that raises the temperature in the bed bug area to 118 F and maintains that temperature for 70 minutes.

  3. Use professional-strength insecticide. General over-the-counter insecticides probably won’t work on bed bugs.

  4. Seal furniture. Infested furniture might need to be sealed in a container until the bed bugs die.

Once the bed bugs are gone, your property can become infested again. Make sure your renter knows not to bring in mattresses and other furniture found on the street.

You might wish to share with your renter some best practices when traveling:

  • Check the headboard and around the bed for bed bugs.
  • Inspect luggage stands.
  • Look at the sheets for bed bug fecal spots.
  • Inspect luggage before bringing it back into the home.

Can a renter terminate the lease?

A renter might be able to break the lease if they told the landlord about the bed bug problem and that person did nothing about it.

Renter need to give proper notice (which varies by state) of their intention to break the lease and time to fix the problem.

Bottom line

Landlords should never knowingly rent a property infested with bed bugs, which is illegal and could lead to a lawsuit. If a renter can prove a landlord knew about bed bugs in advance, the landlord might be ordered to pay damages.