Dear Consumer Ed: 

A month ago my fiancée and I moved into a rental home under a two year lease.  The second day we moved in, we discovered black ants all over our bathroom.  The landlord never disclosed that they had an ant problem.  They do have a pest control contract they took out a few months before we moved in to spray for the ants.  Yesterday, I discovered that we have a massive infestation of carpet beetles in the house.  I saw one of these beetles on the wall during our initial walk-through, but when I questioned the landlord about it, she said the house did not have carpet beetles.  We had a pest control company come over and they said our house is massively infested with them.  I am concerned that the landlord will not pay to have the exterminator remove the pests in the best way possible, because she has already done something [which was less expensive, but not effective].  These bugs have eaten through our carpet, the fabric of our furniture, and our personal possessions.  They are in every room of the house including in the cupboards and the counters where we prepare food.  I do not want to live there anymore.  Do we have a say in how these pests are removed, or are we at the mercy of the landlord’s decision?  Do we have a legal right to terminate the lease?  Is this landlord liable for anything?

Consumer Ed says: 

In this situation, we would recommend that you consult with a private attorney about reviewing your lease and advising you as to any rights you may have.

Having said that, there are some things that you should know and that you may want to discuss with your attorney.  First, you need to carefully read your lease. A landlord is generally responsible for keeping the property in good repair. However, pest control is not usually the landlord’s responsibility, unless your lease states otherwise.  Nevertheless, in situations where the pest problem is severe, as it appears to be in your case, the landlord may be required to address it.  Consult your local housing and health codes to determine if the landlord has the responsibility to fix the insect problems.

If you have not already done so, you should give the landlord written, dated notice of the problem that needs to be fixed and give her an opportunity to resolve it.  Keep a copy of your letter for your records.  The landlord must respond in a “reasonable” period of time.  In your situation, it is reasonable to assume that the landlord should respond quickly—i.e. within 36 to 48 hours.

If you have already notified the landlord of the pest problem and she has failed to adequately take care of the issue, you may be able to hire someone to take care of the problem yourself and then deduct that cost from your rent.  This is what’s known as the “repair and deduct” remedy.  If you decide to pursue this option, you should notify the landlord in writing of your intentions before you arrange for the services to be provided. Ask the service provider to write a description of all the work that was necessary and the problem that was corrected.  Be sure to keep copies of this and all receipts related to the work.  Then, you can subtract these repair costs from your next rent payment by submitting the receipts and the remaining balance of the rent to your landlord.

Alternatively, you may be able to file a lawsuit against your landlord for the damage to your personal property caused by the bug infestation. You should also look to the specific provisions of your lease to determine the grounds for terminating it. 

Another avenue that may be available to you is what’s known as “constructive eviction.”  While not grounds for termination of the lease, constructive eviction is a defense you can use to avoid further rent obligations.  For the problems with your house to constitute a constructive eviction, there must be a failure by the landlord to make repairs which leaves the house unfit for you to live in, and the conditions must be more than just “uncomfortable”.  To show there has been a constructive eviction, you will need to show two things:  First, you must show that the landlord’s failure to fix the problem has made the house an unfit place for you to live; second, you will need to show that the unit cannot be restored to a fit condition by ordinary repairs.  You must also vacate the house if you want to argue that you have been constructively evicted.  Some of the factors to be considered when determining whether an infestation like yours amounts to a constructive eviction are:  the time at which the leased dwelling became infested; any fraudulent misrepresentations or concealment by the landlord; and the number and kind of vermin infesting the house. 

For more information, you can look to your local housing and health codes, as well as the Landlord-Tenant handbook available on the Department of Community Affairs’ website at www.dca.state.ga.us.  To reiterate though, you should obtain the advice and counsel of a competent attorney.

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