Tenant Mold Complaints Following Abatement - Advice please!

27 Replies

Hello BP community - I'm reaching out with a question following a series of events (some mold related) that has led to 3 of 4 college tenants in my SFR having their parents request release from their lease 3 months early due to perceived air quality concerns.

Background (University rental in MN - lease started Jun 17 with 4 college roommate - parents cosigned and pay rent):

- In Sep 17 we had a minor roof leak that was corrected immediately (flashing)after notification with only minor paint damage and no sign of mold (from the attic or interior wall). 

- In Nov 17 tenant's parents (these are college students) call my property manager to report a broken dryer and mold growth in the basement laundry room, a bedroom above the laundry room, and in the bathroom. As soon as notified the management company's maintenance crew is on site. They determine the mold is due to; (1) tenants causing crazy high humidity basement humidity by running the dryer without ever cleaning out the lint trap and (2) not cleaning the bathroom

- All mold is abated with bleach, a second dehumidifier is placed in the basement, carpets are lifted, trim is replaced, and we investigated behind walls. No sign of mold following November's abatement. 65% of their security deposit was used to cover a portion of this abatement because dryer negligence caused the issue.

- In Dec 17 there are no visible sign of mold but a mother calls the property manager requesting an air quality test because her son has respiratory problems. 

- Dec 17 we do the test and it reveals mild elevation (500-1500 ppm) of either Penicillium (laundry room, 1 bedroom) or Cladosporium (bathroom). Both non-toxic common varieties. All other rooms and mold types were non-detect or below outside air levels. This range is reportedly not reason for alarm within an enclosed living area if no visible mold present. We complied with all recommendations from testing company (check behind walls, under carpet, etc). 

- Jan 17 mother of same tenant tells us there is moisture in her sons bedroom following 2 weeks of -20 below temperatures. We investigate and determine insulation is inadequate in the corner of the room and tell them we'll reduce rent to open the wall and re-insulate (no mold present). Due to the series of complaints from the mother we decided to offer him a bedroom in a vacant 1 bedroom unit owned by the mgt company and forgive the remaining 3 months on the lease in order to access the wall insulation in his bedroom.

- Feb 17 parents of brothers in the unit call saying they need their kids out of the house due to bronchitis and a skin rash on one brother. When they told the dermatologist they had mold in their house the doc said to get them out. At this point I step in to talk with the father who informs me his kids are only sick at the house, but not when visiting home. I walked him through our abatement, test results, and professional opinion given by both the abatement company and testing company, but he's sure his kids are sick from the house. He adds they haven't really lived there in two months for more than a couple days because they feel sick there.

- Today we offer to terminate the lease for the remaining 3 tenants but we hold remainder of the security deposit. This is a non-starter for one parent because they shouldn't be charged anything to leave a house they deem unhealthy. They countered with wanting back the entire security deposit because they're not convinced the dryer issue was their kid's fault.

That's a lot to unpack, and was typed fast so I apologize for grammar. My take:

- I feel we've been very accommodating with our offer and treatment of all complaints considering tenants caused these issues due to the dryer lint trap in November. We truly have spared no expense.

- At this point I don't know what more we can do to address the perceived mold issue because we've complied with every recommendation from a licensed abatement company and testing agency. The house seems very habitable, to the extent I'd feel comfortable living there with my family, unfortunately the parents of 3 of 4 tenants disagree with this assessment.

- I am sympathetic to what I believe are real health concerns by the tenant's parents, but i can't figure out how they can be tied to the house based on the mold test results or visual inspections completed by the management company's maintenance team or abatement company.

- based on what I feel was an unreasonable counter I'm not sure how to frame my response to the tenants.

My questions for the BP community:

- Could I be missing something causing real health issues? I would spare no expense if I found a problem.

- Should I make a claim against the tenants for the remaining 3 months of rent because the only issue we've had with the house that resulted in any mold (after extensive inspection) was due to tenant dryer negligence (i.e. if there is an issue it's tenant caused)?

- Other advice or similar stories anyone would like to share. We've rented to college students for 5 years and this is the first real issue we've had in this market.

Thanks for reading and your input!

Hey Seth, sorry for all the headaches! Mold can be a pain, it is abundant in my area. You could try putting a hygrometer in the home to check the relative humidity? Might tell you if the home isn't being heated enough. I had the same thing happen to me a few years ago, let the tenant out of their lease because they said they were going to sue me for health related issue. I ended up tearing the place apart trying to figure out how it was happening. I believe they weren't heating part of the home to save on electricity. Never had a complaint after they left.

By the way I'm pressed how you handled the situation, well done.

HI Alex, sounds like you went through a similar experience. Thanks for the tip on the relative humidity, I'll look in to it. 

Did you find evidence of mold when you tore the house apart?

Yes there was a corner of a bedroom that wasn't insulated enough like you had. I added insulation and replaced the sheetrock. Also some on the backside of a bathroom wall. I tied the bathroom light and ventilation fan together so the fan turns on more often.

I'm not going to address everything because there's too much.

1. Do not EVER use the security deposit while the tenant still occupies the unit. What leverage do you have to keep them in line now that the deposit is depleted? What will you do if they disappear in the middle of the night without paying last month's rent and leaving the place filthy? You won't even have enough left for the cleaning, let alone the lost rent income.

2. When tenant causes the damage, give them WRITTEN notice that they are responsible for the damage and they have XX days to remedy the situation at their cost and submit to an inspection. If not done to your satisfaction, they will be required to move out.

3. They are walking all over you and you need to find a way to put your foot down.

Mold is one of the fastest-growing scams wielded by tenants. Mold is present everywhere, even in the clean air outside your home. Just because you have mold in a property doesn't mean it is dangerous. The effects are often exaggerated and sometimes completely fabricated.

The tenants caused the mold yet you keep bending over backwards to accommodate them. This gives them the confidence to blame you and hold you accountable. If you had held them accountable at the beginning you would have saved yourself a lot of trouble.

Based on what you've shared, I wouldn't budge. I would require THEM to prove the existence of dangerous mold and that it was your fault, not theirs. I doubt they will even try. I would hold them to the terms of the lease, to include early termination.

Alex - thanks for the input. At the least we'll be doing the same, although the insulation issue still isn't an obvious reason for the tenant complaints.

--

Nathan G. - Interesting points regarding security deposit and requiring tenants to fix their problem in xx days. Although we did provide written notice we were charging the security deposit because they caused the issue the work was already done. 

In hindsight that seems to be a more sensible approach than we took. When confronted with visible mold in the laundry area our instinct was to act immediately, which may have been the first step in the tenant's parents belief it was not the fault of their kids. As you mentioned, it's clear we've over compensated for tenant negligence which has emboldened the parents (who only get half the story from their college kids) to make unreasonable demands.

Moving forward in this situation I'm going to maintain the offer of 3 month early out on the lease to avoid further headache, but draw a line stating we can go the legal route if they want more, in which case I'll claim the remainder of the rent in addition to an legal fees.

--

I'm trying hard to see this from the parents perspective and be as reasonable as I can. 

If you abated with bleach, then you abated nothing.  Bleach kills only surface mold, forms a carbon layer and seals and protects the mold growth below.

I'll add, you need a penetrative mold treatment like Concrobium.  Spray and use a mold treatment fogger to reach all areas.

Mike S.,
I oversimplified but will confirm method with the abatement company. Our maintenance guy initially responded but we had an abatement company do most of the work. Trim was replaced, block wall was scraped/treated and we got under carpet and behind adjacent and upper walls to confirm no hidden areas.
In addition the air quality test didn’t tell us we had an ongoing problem.

I’ve considered a follow up air test, but am wondering if there are home kits or if purchasing testing equipment would be cheaper than the $600 charge by the local testing agency.
Has anyone tried mail in or personally owned equipment to check for airborne mold?

Let your tenants go do not make this experience more painful to the point of having property red tagged. Once it is red tagged your investment property is done.

Get a certificate of compliance from the company and use it to show future tenants. In our area the home is condemned by health department as not livable.  Remove the source like drier completely and let them do it elsewhere. Should by now learn not to rent to student tenants. 

You should've just told them what the maintenance crew said about the lint trap and that the kids were filthy. 

Did the parents ever visit to inspect or is this on the word of their kids (likely via text), the kids who don't know how to clean a bathroom or lint filter? If the kids weren't taught to clean or do laundry, who do you think didn't teach them? 

Sam, I expect we’ll end up doing what you suggest to avoid further delays resolving this disagreement.

Clint, we’ve pointed out the cause of the initial issue to the parents several times. Unfortunately, it’s the management company’s word against their kids. Communication on this has been strange - the manager calls, emails, or texts the kids and their parent(s) reply sometimes if anyone does at all. It seems we hear nothing until we’re contacted with a crisis.

Four college boys living in a house - I am guessing mold isn't the only thing affecting air quality or sickness. 

This is a classic case of people running to rash decisions based on fear. The word mold freaks people out, but mold exists everywhere in the world to some level. Doctor didn't help things by not gathering more details before telling them to get out of the property.

The reality is that mold is very often caused by tenants. Not running fans in the bathroom, running humidifiers, not properly cleaning and not venting dryers properly (as you learned). My lease specifically states tenant responsibility to reduce the risk of mold and holds them liable for causing it.

At this point, you let one kid out of the lease, so that probably made things worse and lead to the other parents believing their kids should not be there. 

Ultimately, how far you push things comes down to value of your time and legal considerations, meaning if it goes to court, who has a better case? They have a doctors statement and you have a mold report - not sure who wins but I wouldn't chance it.

I would let them out of the lease and not hold them liable for rent. Have them sign a piece of paper that releases them from the lease, but acknowledges that you had the mold issue professionally mitigated and testing didn't show a hazardous condition. You can let them out of the agreement but cover yourself from them coming back later with a lawsuit. You want to make it clear you are not letting them out of the lease due to a mold issue, but rather as good will on your part. In other words, there is no problem, but you acknowledge that the word mold freaks people out, so you are not going to hold people in your property if they don't feel comfortable there.

The issue/concern with mold is so overblown it's laughable........ its EVERWHERE and 99.9% of it is completely harmless.

Pick you battles....... is it worth the hassle over letting them walk 3 months early? Probably not....

Do they have any REAL proof that the kids vague illness has anything to do with the living conditions..... no

Have you done everything humanly possible to correct the issues and prove that the house is safe to live in?......seems like you have to me.

So you can stick to the lease.....maybe end up in court....and probably win.....is that worth it to you or not? You decide.....

If you decide to not let them slide out early without penalty, just make sure you have everything documented really well....dates, reports etc. Maybe even have another company come in and test....a second opinion

Change mold to mildew and nobody cares.  

@Seth M. mymolddetective is a great mold test kit. You can order them online or pick one up in some Lowes stores. I think you can purchase it for around $60.00 and comes with two air cassette's and the air pump. You can purchase more cassette's from them if you need to test more areas or even other properties. 

You will have to pay for lab testing also thru them I forget how much the charge was. 

I bought one because I am in the mold remediation business and I wanted to see the results compared to my $1,000.00 kit that I purchased a couple decades ago. 

So I did side by side comparisons in 5 different homes and the case study showed basically the same test results. 

So if you are looking to save yourself $400 - $500 I would give it a try. 

Joe S & Ned J - you're both right about my mistake letting one out of the lease to avoid hassle without realizing it opened the door for the remaining tenants. Ultimately, it's not going to be worth the hassle and I'll terminate the lease early to avoid further headache. I like the idea about signing a release form. I'll also keep all documents organized and available.

--

Sarah D - you're right. Bathroom issue was definitely mildew and got lumped in with the laundry room mold concern...

--

Cliff Terry - thanks for the recommendation! That's the route I'll go.

Who is on the lease , the parents and or the kids , if the kids are over 18 , deal directly with them . 

Matthew - kids are on the lease with a parent cosign. The management company has consistently dealt with only them, but the only responses they've received to any notices or messages has been from the parents. It's added another layer of confusion to this series of issues, and I suspect led to over-reactions.

If you didn't agree to waive their deposits in writing or there's no agreement, I'd hold all responsible.

If one tenant (or all) caused the dryer jam, it's their responsibility. Not only did it cause mold, it very well could have caused a fire, and safety hazard.

You mentioned that the parents are cosigners. They should be aware of the documented cause. Yes it's management's word against the kids, but you have evidence of the tenants calling about the "broken dryer", AND there's related mold damage. If they insist there's more mold, so be it. The tenant (or tenants) and their guarantors are responsible for ensuring it's mold free as it was when they moved in.

Is there Tenant insurance? This DOES (or should) come under tenant liability.

We had one tenant claim that dust was mold, and efflorescence on the basement walls (the white stuff that comes through concrete, harmless) was mold damage. Sued and demanded a refund of rent (her rent was paid by the government, so trying to double dip), and showed up with a "air quality test mold report". Conveniently though, her report was "accidentally missing" the actual results and determination of the inspector, and the inspector wasn't in court either. Judge of course realized it was just to get money and dismissed her case. It didn't help her situation that she submitted a picture "of a wet basement" that showed no water, and her daughter actually confirmed that there was no water.

While it's possible in your situation that some moisture from the roof leak may have contributed a bit, the underlying cause was the heat from the blocked dryer which was due to negligence by not cleaning out the lint trap.

If it's one lease with all 4, and you have a "joint and several" clause, I'd name all 4 in a suit. If individual, then it depends on your maintenance clauses.

As Nathan said, require them to prove the existence of the mold. No doctor will say "yes I've determined it's mold... they told me repeatedly that it's because of the mold so I believe them".  And of course make them prove that it's your fault. We know there was some mold, which was abated. We know what the cause was determined to be. If they prove there's mold, and can't prove the cause to be anything other than the dryer, well they've provided you everything you need for them to be responsible for a full abatement.

Gagan,

Great breakdown and rational way forward. I agree with all your points. On one hand I want to end this drawn out issue, but the fault clearly lies with the tenants and out of principle it’s hard to walk away...

Most environmental biologists would agree that the air quality test are basically useless in detecting mold. But as long as the “right people” recognize these test as legit legally you should be ok.

According to Dr Ritchie Shoemaker 25% percent of the population has a higher susceptibility to mold than the rest of the population. Based on there HLA-DR genetic type. Which is probably why some swear that some environmental factor is giving them trouble when others have no issue.

The gold standard for mold testing is called the ERMI and can be ordered from mycometrics.

This might be a can of worms you don’t want to open and would agree with most of the posters and let them out of the lease.

Hi @Seth M.

Plenty of good information in the thread and good opinions. I am only going to touch one specific area because I think you got plenty of good advice all around:

"- Feb 17 parents of brothers in the unit call saying they need their kids out of the house due to bronchitis and a skin rash on one brother. When they told the dermatologist they had mold in their house the doc said to get them out."

Response: Please have the doctor prescribe or recommend that their current living environment is not suitable for them for health reasons and I will happily release them from their liability. 

Gut Thought: Not many doctors are going to condemn your property without testing or having some valid reason to call your property "The cause" of an issue.

Good Luck!

I would want these tenants gone as easily and quickly as possible BUT without losing any more money. The parents have watched way to much HGTV. 

Mold allergies are real--I am allergic myself, and I applaud you for taking the complaints seriously and being diligent in remediating. However, HGTV has convinced people that mold is the new asbestos. Based on what you have told us, I would guess that the tenants themselves could be causing the mold situation. Check their toilets, check their showers.  Check the heat to see if they are keeping the place adequately heated. If there are 4 young men living there, I suggest there will be mold under the rim of the toilet. Document that. Then you could offer a "couple of solutions". 
"I have been diligent in addressing the issue on my end. The abatement experts have agreed with me. If you still want to end your tenancy, I can let you out of the lease, but I'll need you to work out a month's notice, and be sure to keep the place immaculate so I can find a quality tenant and have a new tenant move in immediately. Alternatively, you are free to hire an abatement expert. Just so you know, it will cost you upwards of $600, I myself paid more to remediate the mold that was created when your boys didn't take care proper care of the dryer. The experts may find that your boys' negligence caused even more problems than we earlier thought. Let me know which option you prefer."

Seth, I also want to throw this out as an idea. In my area we have a lot of apartments that are used as student housing for Nascar Tech. So, 4 young men in a 2 bedroom apartment. In those situations there is a generally a vacuum of responsibility regarding cleanliness. As a result, the housing entities charge a slightly higher rate, which is used to pay for monthly inspections. You can hear the students freaking out a couple of days before the inspection. "I can't go out tonight because we have our apartment inspection tomorrow". The dirtiest one of the bunch, who doesn't keep clean and help out, quickly gets booted out. 
If you are going to continue renting to a dormitory-type situation, it might be worth your while to pay someone $50 to go in your property once a month and make sure the tenants are keeping the place hygienically acceptable. 

Join the Largest Real Estate Investing Community

Basic membership is free, forever.

By signing up, you indicate that you agree to the BiggerPockets Terms & Conditions.