Two months after Kim Johnson moved into her new rental apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, she started to have trouble breathing. She took herself to an allergist and discovered she was highly allergic to mold. Suspicious, Johnson started examining her apartment and discovered black mold on the walls beneath the kitchen cabinets.
Now she's got two problems to deal with. "I can't live with the mold because it makes me sick," she says, "but I signed a one-year lease. How can I get out of this situation without being penalized?"
Mold is an environmental problem in rental apartments nationwide. Tenants have suffered significant health effects, including rashes, asthma and chronic fatigue caused by exposure to toxic molds in their apartment buildings. Some have won legal cases against their landlords for neglecting mold cleanup.
"If you suspect mold could be an issue in your rental space, it's wise to learn when your landlord is liable or when the burden is on you," says Marcia Stewart, co-author of Every Tenant's Legal Guide. Here's some advice on how to handle mold in a rental apartment.
Inspect for mold before you move in
Before you sign a lease, check the premises carefully for mold. Some molds are easily spotted--black, green or gray patches, with a powdery or shiny surface. Typically, buildings in naturally humid climates, like the South and Northeast, experience more mold problems than in drier parts of the U.S., but mold can grow anywhere that moisture is present.
If you spot any signs of mold, ask the landlord to clean it up before you move in. If you can, contact the prior tenant and ask if there were any problems with moisture.
After moving in, Stewart recommends making sure rooms stay ventilated and cleaning humidity-prone areas, like the bathroom and kitchen, with anti-mold cleaning products. Keep an eye out for conditions that lead to mold, like plumbing leaks and weatherproofing problems, and immediately report signs of mold to your landlord.
Know your landlord's responsibility for dealing with mold
There's no federal law regarding mold in buildings, and a landlord's responsibilities for dealing with mold are typically not covered on the state level. However, some states, including California, Texas, New Jersey, Indiana and Maryland, have passed laws to develop guidelines and regulations for mold abatement indoors. New York City requires its landlords to disclose any issues affecting indoor air quality. In San Francisco, mold is considered a nuisance for which landlords can be fined or even sued.
Even if there's no specific mold laws where you live, your landlord may still be liable for mold problems in your rental, says Stewart. Landlords are responsible for maintaining and repairing rental properties, which includes fixing leaky pipes, windows and roofs, which are the causes of most mold.
Bear in mind that the blame is reversed if it can be shown that the mold problem developed because of the tenant's behavior. For example, if mold grows because a renter fails to keep windows shut or allows water to soak walls or floors, the landlord won't be held responsible.
Call in a mold inspector if the problem is serious
If the mold problem is severe enough that you're considering suing your landlord, you'll first need to hire a certified mold inspector to test the mold and verify that it poses a health risk. You can buy a home test kit and test it yourself, but over-the-counter kits don't provide the same level of accuracy as professional test results.
If the affected area is small enough--10 square feet or less--you can safely clean up the mold yourself. Mixing one cup of bleach per gallon of water will do the trick on nonporous materials. (Don't bother trying to remove mold from fabrics like towels and carpet; you'll just have to consider them ruined.) Wear gloves while cleaning and take frequent work breaks in a place with fresh air. If you experience any symptoms, like nausea or dizziness, don't hesitate to call your landlord for help.
In Johnson's case, her landlord was understanding and let her out of her lease. But the best protection for renters is to examine for signs of mold up front, and to do your part to keep moisture problems at bay.
Want to make your home a cleaner and greener place? Here are some AOL Real Estate guides to help:
More on AOL Real Estate:
Find out how to calculate mortgage payments.
Find homes for sale in your area.
Find foreclosures in your area.
Get property tax help from our experts.