moldMy stepdaughter is spending this morning scrubbing mold in the basement of a house she manages.  (That’s not her property at the left–just a photo from the Internet) It’s the first day in weeks with sunshine, and she should be doing something fun with her son.  Instead, it’s time for the respirator, bleach, and scrub brushes.

How big a problem is mold in rental properties?  True “toxic mold” is extremely rare.  On the other hand, every tenant who sees a discolored spot on a wall, or smells something “off,” is convinced they have toxic mold, and every passing day carves a year off their natural life span.  You must  take them seriously. Tenants have won extremely large verdicts against landlords and property managers for failure to fix mold problems, with resulting real-or-imagined health issues suffered by the tenant.

If you have not already done so, go back and read my earlier post about dog bites. The same principles apply to mold. With very rare exceptions, you can only be held liable for a problem if you (1) caused it, or (2) knew about it, or (3) should have known about it but ignored the warnings. If one of those circumstances exist AND you have a duty to fix the problem, AND you then failed to fix it, you can be held liable. The opposite of that principle is called “strict liability.” With strict liability, you are liable if something goes wrong, no matter what. Strict liability is an extremely, extremely, rare situation. Some states, and some municipalities, have specific laws about mold, but I could not find anything in Alabama. HERE is an article and  some links if you want to find out more about this.  If there is a specific law about mold, it means government has imposed the “duty” part of liability on you. You might have that “duty” anyway, but the law just takes away a lot of wiggle room.

Everything starts with “notice.”  Bounce that tennis ball back into the tenant’s side of the court. Require tenants to give you notice of water leaks, unexplained moisture, and mold.  HERE is a sample clause.  If they don’t give you notice, then if they sue, your lawyer will have a much easier time getting them thrown out of court without even going to the trouble and expense of a trial.

Mold is often a temporary condition. Clean it up once, and it goes away pretty much forever. Persistent mold is caused by the presence of spores that grow new mold whenever the temperature and moisture reach the right levels.  If you have persistent mold, you have an underlying problem with persistent moisture. That’s not just a health issue, it could be something steadily damaging the property. Someday, that “little” mold problem could turn into an expensive repair job.

Obviously, plumbing, window/door, and roof leaks should be repaired right away.  HVAC duct work is a separate problem. HERE is a link to something EPA has to say on that subject. Basement moisture usually arises in one of two ways.  (1) Seepage through the underground portion of basement walls or (2) improper overlapping of siding leaves an unprotected place above ground, and rain water shedding off the roof comes in at that point.  Many houses can tolerate these conditions, as long as there is adequate ventilation in the basement.  Usually, though, ventilation is terrible.

The best way to control seepage through the underground portion of basement walls is to re-slope the dirt outside the walls so water flows away from the house.  If that’s simply not possible, you might have to install a French drain system and/or gutters.  it might not be necessary to put gutters and downspouts on the entire house, just the places where water seems to collect. You must get water away from those walls. Simply waterproofing the interior surfaces of the basement walls will not help you. Water will erode the mortar between bricks or concrete blocks, and eventually your entire wall could cave in.

Finally, if you own or manage charming vintage homes, many of them probably have dirt basements. Now and then, there WILL be water in the basement.  Disclose this in writing in your lease documents, and make the tenant responsible for drying out and properly ventilating after those occasional water problems.