[UPDATED 2/9/11] As of Aug. 30, NYC landlords and co-op owners must disclose bed bug problems to potential renters or buyers.  Specifically, they must disclose whether bed bugs have been detected in the apartment or in the building within the past year, and if in the building, on what floor. 

That's all well and good, but there are a couple of unaddressed nuances besides what to do if you're buying a condo.  First, a landlord or co-op owner may be unaware of an as-yet untreated problem.  Second, not every infestation history is grounds for disqualification: While a large bed bug problem in a small building is a deal breaker, the same is not necessarily true of the opposite.

Renters

A limited bed bug problem in a large building is not necessarily reason to avoid renting there, provided you're comfortable that the landlord is responding correctly, and that the affected apartments are, at the very least, not  horizontally or vertically connected to yours.   

To find out, you'll need to do some detective work.

  • Look up the building’s bed bug complaint and violation history on the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s website. All you need is the building's address. Bed bug complaints represent formal complaints filed by residents; violations mean a city inspector has confirmed the presence of bed bugs. You can also see the specific unit numbers involved. If tenants filed a complaint, that probably indicates that the landlord is either not sophisticated or committed enough to adequately deal with a bed bug situation.
  • Look up the building’s address in the Bed Bug Registry, but keep in mind that these complaints have not been verified by an inspector.  However, a lot of complaints in your building suggests both a heavy infestation and a poor response by the landlord.
  • Ask the neighbors.  This sort of news travels quickly, and renters, unlike owners, are not very invested in keeping it quiet, particularly when they believe the landlord is not managing the situation well.
  • Ask the landlord/management company how they are dealing with the bed bug problem.  They should sound knowledgeable, not defensive or dismissive.  For instance, prior to signing a lease on what turned out to be a bed bug infested studio apartment last fall, one renter who contacted us recently said the management firm assured her that “only dirty people get bed bugs,” and as long as she kept her apartment clean, she would be fine. She wound up moving next door to the cluttered, infested, untreated apartment of a shut-in; she is not fine.

Buyers

As stated above, co-op owners have the most disclosure responsibilities. They have to reveal whether there have been bed bugs in the apartment during the past year, or in the building, and on what floor.  

Condo owners are legally required to disclose a bed bug problem only within their apartment, and only when asked. (Their brokers only have to tell you if they know—clearly, a don’t ask, don’t tell situation.)

Some suggestions for finding out more when you're dealing with a condo:

  • Ask your attorney to put a seller’s representation in the contract (similar to those for leaks or mold) stating that to the seller's knowledge, there has never been a bed bug problem in the building. You could also ask for an escrow fund to be set aside to deal with bed bugs should they surface within a specified period of time after you move in.
  • The board minutes probably won’t tell you much, as boards—concerned about property values—typically make deliberately vague references, if any.  In a building with a bed bug problem, you might find multiple references to 'extermination.'
  • Ask the property manager about any bed bug issues in the building and then carefully observe his or her response: Ignoring your question or passing the buck may indicate a problem.
  • If you can gain access to the apartment, consider hiring a professional inspector.  (See tips below about bed bug sniffing dogs.) Understand that early infestations are extremely difficult for professionals or dogs to spot. And if the apartment is empty, the bugs are likely hibernating out of reach in the walls (and other hard to access spots) for up to a year awaiting the delivery of fresh meat (you).
  •  If the apartment is empty, making visual and canine inspections even trickier, Gil Bloom of Standard Pest Management recommends putting down a variety of passive detectors (sticky traps) and active bed bug monitors (which emulate the presence of a human being) in the bedroom and where the couch used to be.  The active monitors range from a fancy plug-in machine like the Nightwatch Bed Bug Monitor (around $400) to the lower-tech BB Active Alert Bed Bug Monitor ($25 + heating pads).  Passive varieties include the CatchMaster Bedbug Detection System ($65/five dozen; more info here).   In an empty apartment it can take two weeks to detect signs of bed bugs, and you will have best results if the apartment has been empty for less than a few weeks.

A word about inspections

If you do inspect, you could ask for a visual inspection by a pest management professional who knows where to look and what to look for, or you could bring in a bed bug sniffing dog.

In the latter instance, be aware that there is a growing concern about false positives.

Make sure the company is recommended by the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association.

And to decrease the likelihood of a false positive, find a handler who also seeks out visual confirmation of a bed bug “finding” by the dog. Alternatively, hire two independent canine testers, and be suspicious of any conflicting results.

Don't bring a bed bug problem with you

If you are moving from a bed-bugged apartment or building, you may want to take the extra precaution of stopping at a fumigation facility along the way to have your moving van and everything inside it fumigated. This will also eliminate the possibility of picking up bed bugs from the moving truck itself.

Related posts on BrickUnderground:

It's official!! Governor Paterson signs bed bug disclosure bill

How to bed bug proof your NYC apartment

Insurance companies could soon be paying for your bed bugs

All the Mayor's friends have bed bugs

To squash a "pest like no other," Mayor's panel calls for Bed Bug Czar, massive public ed, speedier courts

My babysitter has bed bugs

Bed bug disclosure bill sails through NYS legislature

New clues on how bed bugs spread through apartment buildings

Bed-bugged storage facilities: Is your stuff safe?

Beyond bed bugs

All bed bug stories here.

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