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Ask A Landlord: Mold and Termites And An Outlet Over The Bath

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Throughout Renters Week, a real live Los Angeles property manager (not technically a landlord, but with plenty of landlordy experience) will be answering reader-submitted, rental-related questions of all natures. We live in a 1935 fourplex in Miracle Mile area of LA. We have had some issues since moved in 2 1/2 years ago, and don't really know what to do when we ask our landlord to repair something and they say no. We were homeowners for 32 years and have had a difficult transition becoming renters. We have 3 beds / 2 baths. One bathroom only has an outlet above the tub on the opposite wall from the sink - not GCFI, so the problem is twofold: 1) I cannot charge my electric toothbrush or dry my hair because there is no plug in the right place; and 2) the only outlet in the entire bathroom is unsafe. The response I got was, "it was good enough in 1935 so it's good enough now."

When we moved in the apartment had been painted and the job was extremely sloppy. We asked if they could please remove the paint from the windows. Nope.

Brown gunk was dripping from the ceiling edge in the stall shower. A plumber was sent and he went to the upstairs apartment and repaired a leak. There is still damage in my shower PLUS now there is brown gunk seeping up from the floor at a corner. In the closet adjacent to that shower the paint has peeled from the ceiling and it is dark brown underneath. I have asked for a mold test and was told that they don't do mold tests. If I want a mold test I must pay for it myself.

As a former longtime homeowner I have experience with termites. In one of the kitchen windows there is evidence of termite infestation with droppings. I pointed it out to the management representative and he said no they're not termites. Nothing has ever been done. What are our rights with these issues

The apartment is very large. Our rent is much lower than the current market. I suspect that they would rather we leave so that they could charge higher rent and are being difficult to cause us to want to move. We cannot afford to move, and to rent a comparable-sized apartment would be significantly more expensive. We look forward to your advice!?

Electrical, mold, and pests are hazards that require immediate attention. Your rights as a tenant dictate that some of those problems may cause unlivable conditions, and your landlord should not retaliate if you do exercise those rights. The Department of Consumer Affairs does a great job explaining your rights here.

An outlet above the bathtub? Yikes. You should call the code inspection folks at LA Housing and Community Investment Department to find out if this alone is a violation of the warrant of habitability. If so, you can file a complaint and they will conduct an inspection.

The mold issue is more urgent, and I would recommend you speak with Environmental Health Services Los Angeles at (888) 700-9995 as soon as possible. Tell them just what you've told me, that you made good faith efforts to notify management and they have refused to conduct any testing or mitigation for mold. Termite infestations are not specifically called out as habitability issues--that title is reserved for roaches and rodents. But still: ew! Maybe EHS will have some guidance on that issue as well.

As I always recommend, document EVERYTHING. Take well lit/high quality pictures, and videos if possible, of the bathroom and kitchen conditions. Print or save any electronic correspondence related to your attempts to have repairs made.

Once an inspection happens and corrections are issued, the owner will be given a written notice of deficiencies and 30 days to make repairs. If those deficiencies are not corrected on time, the unit may be placed into the City's Rental Escrow Account Program, and you would begin paying rent to the city's escrow account instead of the landlord in order to incentivize the landlord to make the repairs. If the repairs are made, the city gives the landlord the back rent. Having never gone through the process myself, I can't imagine it is quick, easy, or fun. But this is how you legally withhold rent when necessary repairs (again, only if it relates to habitability) are not being made. If moving is not an option, this is your next best recourse to getting your home safe again. I also recommend consulting a tenant rights clinic in your area to help you through the rent withholding process and make sure you're doing everything properly.

On to the crummy paint job. If it's not affecting the habitability or marketability of the unit, your landlord probably doesn't care. He's already filled the vacancy, hasn't he? Property management costs are a race-for-the-bottom numbers game, and that means many landlords like to get sweetheart deals and have a crew for each task--my building has a four page list of preferred vendors for everything from electrical and plumbing to fire extinguisher maintenance and even specialty vertical blind vendors. The less-than-stellar job those crews do is usually good enough. In my boss's opinion it is cheaper and easier to have me go in and clean off the inevitable paint drips from the floor than it is to find a new paint crew, especially when the one we use has charged the same rate for their work since 1999. Renting has some definite benefits, but being able to make your unit look exactly how you want (or even finding some pride of ownership) is hard to come by in a swift market. I'm not saying that it is morally right, just saying how it is.

One last note, if your instinct is correct and they are just trying to get you to leave: if your building is under rent control, the owners must provide good cause if/when you are asked to terminate your tenancy. For example, if you file a complaint with the city and the owners do not wish to renew your lease, this could be perceived as an act of retribution, especially if they incur civil or criminal action from the city. Good luck.
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