Tenant caused mold from leaving unit humid, who pays?

19 Replies

I have a tenant who lives in a walk-out basement unit in central IL.  She rarely runs her heat and hasn't used the A/C once in the two years she's lived there since being sunken into the earth keeps the unit fairly comfortable.  The major drawback to this is it stays very humid during the summers down there, also due to it being a basement unit.  I verbally warned her when she moved in to make sure she ran the A/C periodically to keep it dry, but she hasn't, and recently she found mold on a lot of her shoes and clothing.  I paid to have a mold inspector come out and while the spread of the mold wasn't severe, their proposed remediation is $2,000.  

The other catch is she is moving out in a month.

How do I handle this?  Do I bill the inspection fee ($200) and the remediation to the tenant?  She tried to run the A/C for the first time now after the inspection and all the refrigerant has leaked out (it was working when she moved in, not sure if it failed from sitting dormant), so that's also going to require a $2000-4000 repair after we find the leak.

Any advice is appreciated!

Also, should I just replace the A/C unit with a dehumidifier?  The tenants may be more likely to use it and it seems the A/C unit is overkill 99% of the time, although it will probably hurt marketability to not have A/C.

It's your property, technically YOU pay. And are you sure it's mold and not just mildew? There's a difference. If it's just surface, get a mask and some bleach and do it yourself. Stop letting people scare you into thinking you can't do it yourself.

I have dehumidifiers in all of my basements (unoccupied) that are set to a certain humidity They have a hose outlet that feeds into a condensation pump that sends it into a drain. The basements are always cool, so I would certainly place a priority on the dehumidifier. After running it for a bit you will see that the mildew disappears and otherwise is easy to clean up.

fridgidaire 70 pint -to- a little giant pump + drain line = <$300

(I see a problem with the "you should have used the A/C" when the A/C didn't work)

I think you would be ok if your lease states that tenant must run A/c periodically to prevent humidity in unit. I am assuming it is not in the lease, in that case I think this will be a lesson from the school of hard knocks. If you decide to try to bill tenant for this, I would consult an attorney first.

@Andrew B. the problem I would have with that is that an A/C is not a dehumidifier. Sure it does dehumidify as a function of cooling, but not to the extent a dehumidifier does.

Additionally, I get home from work and my apartment is a very cool 77 degrees. I am supposed to make myself uncomfortable by reducing it to 75? Additionally it is unlikely to run long enough to really have an effect on the humidity. We are talking about a basement apartment where the humidity is coming from the floor and the walls- not the air like upstairs.

Also- is the tenant paying electric?

Originally posted by @Patrick M. :

@Andrew Boettcher the problem I would have with that is that an A/C is not a dehumidifier. Sure it does dehumidify as a function of cooling, but not to the extent a dehumidifier does.

Additionally, I get home from work and my apartment is a very cool 77 degrees. I am supposed to make myself uncomfortable by reducing it to 75? Additionally it is unlikely to run long enough to really have an effect on the humidity. We are talking about a basement apartment where the humidity is coming from the floor and the walls- not the air like upstairs.

Also- is the tenant paying electric?

 if its in the lease, you are most definitely supposed to turn the a/c on regardless of your comfort level the same way a lease may state that inside temperatures cannot go below a certain threshold in the winter. I do agree its an uphill battle, but if it is in the lease op has a fighting chance. as I am assuming its not in the lease, my post was geared more towards that conundrum.

@Andrew B. For all intents and purposes the tenant could have the A/C on (forget that in this case it is broken) and it could never cycle because the temperature would not reach a level to start the A/C. Is your position that you can mandate in a lease that a person must keep the A/C at 68 degrees? 

Additionally, please- I reiterate- a function of an A/C is that it dehumidifies the air but it is not a dehumidifier. Therefore, especially in a basement where the humidity is coming from the floor and walls- it ain't gonna get it done. To mandate in a basement lease that you must have the A/C on continuously to dehumidify the basement is like saying that you must leave the lights on at all times to scare away the roaches. It is not a solution to the problem.

@Zach Nelson - who pays the electric?

Originally posted by @Patrick M. :

@Andrew Boettcher For all intents and purposes the tenant could have the A/C on (forget that in this case it is broken) and it could never cycle because the temperature would not reach a level to start the A/C. Is your position that you can mandate in a lease that a person must keep the A/C at 68 degrees? 

Additionally, please- I reiterate- a function of an A/C is that it dehumidifies the air but it is not a dehumidifier. Therefore, especially in a basement where the humidity is coming from the floor and walls- it ain't gonna get it done. To mandate in a basement lease that you must have the A/C on continuously to dehumidify the basement is like saying that you must leave the lights on at all times to scare away the roaches. It is not a solution to the problem.

@Zach Nelson - who pays the electric?

 you're quite obviously exaggerating my point now.

@Andrew B. as to the cockroaches, you are 100% correct- but it is the same rational, a questionable course of action that is not at all a solution. 

Like I said, I have 3 basements that are all in the 70's and very nice. If you mandate that the A/C be on from June-September that is fine, but if it was set to "my home" temperatures it would never turn on because of the temp would never drop below. So then you would be mandating to the tenant that a certain temperature be maintained- and then we get into the area of an A/C not being a dehumidifier so the problem would not be solved.

Really, the easiest (and cheapest) thing to do here would be to get a dehumidifier.

Originally posted by @Patrick M. :

@Andrew Boettcher as to the cockroaches, you are 100% correct- but it is the same rational, a questionable course of action that is not at all a solution. 

Like I said, I have 3 basements that are all in the 70's and very nice. If you mandate that the A/C be on from June-September that is fine, but if it was set to "my home" temperatures it would never turn on because of the temp would never drop below. So then you would be mandating to the tenant that a certain temperature be maintained- and then we get into the area of an A/C not being a dehumidifier so the problem would not be solved.

Really, the easiest (and cheapest) thing to do here would be to get a dehumidifier.

 a lease that stated a/c must be "On" is different than a lease stating a/c must be "running"

Exactly. And would have zero effect here where the temperature would negate it cycling.

From the beginning you really should have used a dehumidifier, but you can’t change the past. I would ditch the air conditioner since it’s a sunken apartment and use the dehumidifier moving forward. You’ll eliminate your headaches. 

The verbal warning to use the air conditioner isn’t enough to stand on in court, especially since she turned it on and it doesn’t work. (You can prove that it didn’t work due to long term inactivity because it’s a very common problem, but it’s gonna cost you and it’ll drag out any court precedings).

Do not pay someone to go in a remediate any surface mold. Remove the source of moisture and you’ll remove the mold, simple as that. Set up a dehumidifier, even if it’s a portable one that you have to empty by hand just to get the moisture out while you figure out a more permanent situation. Then get some bleach and a bucket of KILLZ and go to town. Mold isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be, I promise you. 

The AC did not fail because it was sitting idle.  It failed because it has a leak.  Now, some might argue that "the seals dried out" and caused the leak.  I don't buy that.  An AC person might be able to find the leak, if the lines are accessible.  But even that can be tricky.

Dehumidifiers and ACs are fundamentally the same thing - a mechanical refrigeration unit.  But they're designed and tuned differently.  In one case to produce a lot of condensation with minimal cooling and in the other case a lot of cooling and the condensation is only a by product.  And the AC will only have any effect on humidity if its actually running and cooling.  Running just the fan won't help humidity at all.

Unless your lease states some requirement for running the AC I doubt you'll be able to charge the tenant. Put in a dehumidifier with a drain and set it keep the humidity at a specific level. They work great and are only a few hundred bucks.

You pay. You can attempt to send her the bill, but the contractor won't chase after her for their money. And unless you hold a big security deposit, in which case you can play nasty and don't give any back, good luck trying to get her to pay the bill that you sent.

Be glad that she is moving out on her own. You could have a lot of headache if she refuses to move out, and call the health department instead.

I think at this point you have to foot the bill and chalk it up to "tuition."  Going forward, tighten up your lease.  Here are two items from mine that deal with your issues:

14. PEST CONTROL: Your rental unit has been inspected and deemed to be pest-free. If you have a special problem with pests, notify the Property Manager. You are asked to assist our pest control by maintaining a high standard of good housekeeping. If the sanitary conditions in your unit are such that it attracts pests of any kind, and it becomes necessary for us to undergo remediation in the building, you will be held financially responsible for reasonable costs thereof, paid as additional rent.

18. MOLD: You must take steps to limit the growth of mold in your apartment. This includes operating your heating and air-conditioning system as appropriate to reduce humidity, using appropriate ventilation, limiting evaporation of water, promptly removing any visible mold, and immediately reporting to us any leaks or other water intrusion into your apartment or any visible mold that you cannot remove. Household furniture must be positioned and/or elevated to allow adequate air flow underneath and between furnishings and adjacent walls.

@Zach Nelson I’m normally a landlord advocate but it’s pretty clear you have little to no case and your lucky she Isn’t suIng you. Your in Illinois not Oklahoma and that is even worse for your odds. Assess the damage when she leaves and clean up the mold yourself. A 2k remediation bill is chicken feed as far as they go, so likely it’s an easy fix you can do in a day

Thank you all for your help!

  @Patrick M. do you place the dehumidifier in the corner of one of the rooms and ask the tenants not to block it? Or do you have any built-in to the unit option? As my case is an occupied basement it may be awkward to try to place a free-standing one in one of the rooms.  The tenant pays the electric, which has added to the incentive not to run the A/C.

@Andrew B. as you guessed, nothing in the lease mentions a requirement to run the A/C, it was just a verbal discussion.  I think you're right that I'm probably out of luck in billing anything back.

Thankfully, the mold report didn't turn up any dangerous molds and it's not too widespread, I think I'll be able to clean this one up myself and then use a mold-spore killing bomb when the tenant moves out.

@Zach Nelson Mine is free standing. I have an unoccupied basement. I don't know how it would work in your case and no idea of the floor plan (air movement), but for me it was a few minutes setting up both pumps and the electric is minimal, especially after you get within target.

Before I set up the condensation pump- you would be amazed at how full the reservoir got in just 2 hours! The benefit to the tenant is that the atmosphere is much nicer and that subtle "stink" is not in the air.

@Zach Nelson in many parts of the country, central air may only be operated 2 months out of the year. Units will operate 20 years and not lose a drop of refrigerant. It is a sealed system so it doesn't just evaporate. If you have a leak and if all the refrigerant leaked out, it is a very serious leak. Depending on the age of the AC unit, it may make more sense to just replace the unit. It could cost less than trying to find a leak. I am having an AC unit replaced right now for under $2000, so $2000-4000 just to fix one seems high.

You should permanently install a dehumidifier and tell the tenant it must stay on. Hook it to a drain and leave it will only cycle on when the humidity spikes up. 

As far as this tenant, no you should not charge them anything. Running AC is not a solution to moisture control problems, dehumidifiers are, so that falls on you to provide unfortunately. 

Two big causes of moisture I have observed are tenants running humidifiers and not using exhaust fans when in the shower (make sure your bathroom has an exhaust fan). In a basement, another problem is moisture penetrating the foundation. You may not see water pouring in, but if you ripped the walls open you would probably see the damage. This can be caused if you don't have proper waterproofing on the foundation or if there is no sump for the water to drain. 

Good luck.