Bedbugged! My search for a bed bug-free apartment, Part 1

By Theresa Braine  | December 1, 2011 - 10:20AM

Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

I just spent a month searching in earnest for an apartment. As a recent New York Times story put it, I was a sprinter. 

I spent every spare minute running around, a slave to showings. I looked at everything from lovely one-bedrooms and studios to dungeon-like quarters, in two outer boroughs. There were converted brownstones, large apartment buildings and everything in between, in up-and-coming, not-quite-pioneer, and established neighborhoods.
At each turn I consulted the Bedbug Registry, and over the next two columns I’ll explain in detail how it informed my search.
Finding that a building was listed on the registry did not automatically make me dismiss a place out of hand; just as important, or more so, were the type and number of reports, how the landlord or management company responded, and how recent the most recent report was.

Even then there was no ironclad rule — it merely depended on what was said and when, and what the circumstances of each apartment were.

Caveat: It will be inevitable at some point that many buildings, if not most, on one’s search will have, or have had, a bed bug incident. What differs is, as I’ve said many times, the management’s response.
Before you move in, management companies are required by law to tell you if a building has had a bed bug problem within the past year. But they don’t have to do much more than that. They don’t have to give particulars, or specifics; they must just say whether it was taken care of.
And since most of us are not bed bug experts (not yet, anyway), we do not know what questions to ask.
After a while it seemed that everything remotely affordable in some neighborhoods turned up on the Bedbug Registry. This was not a reason for automatic dismissal. It was a reason to investigate further. And investigate I did. Here’s how.
Apartment No. 1 - Beautiful - but potentially deadly
“So what do you think?” the broker asked at one apartment that exactly fit my mental description. It had great closets, a cute bedroom down a hallway, separate kitchen, bright living room, and was priced just right. Almost too right.
I went home and looked at the Registry for that address. If the reports had been on a parchment scroll, it would have rolled down as far as Santa’s list. Though this one I didn’t need to check twice.
For one thing, the reports spanned from 2009 to a month or two ago. It started out innocuously enough.
Bedbugs! Still treating. Ugh,” read the first report. Someone else wrote 11 months later, “The building is treating the problem but it appears that the situation is spreading into other units. Others have found one or two, so hopefully if the building mgt. steps up to the plate, the problem will get under control.”
This at least sounded hopeful, and demonstrated some level of faith in the management. But it went downhill from there.
Fifteen reports was ominous enough. But several tenants had spoken of bed bugs moving around the building. Some people had written asking whether the problem had been resolved because they were thinking of applying. Inevitably, the answer was that there were still bed bugs in at least some of the apartments.
“I live here … and I can agree that we have a bed bug plague in the building and little to nothing is being done about it unfortunately,” said the next poster.
“I have bite marks all over me as I type,” said another. “My word of advice is not to move here.”
The key phrase, though, was the assertion that management was treating just one apartment at a time. This is the way to spread them through a building, not eradicate them. Even the management’s own defense seemed to corroborate this.
Our policy regarding bed bugs is proactive,” said the management company, replying to the reports on the Registry. “As soon as we receive a complaint regarding bed bugs in an apartment, we contact our exterminator, who visits the apartment for a series of three treatments. Our exterminator works with the tenant to setup a treatment schedule based on the convenience of the tenant. The claims that the building is infested are overblown.”
The company proceeded to accuse tenants of bringing them in, which did not help its case. It just meant I wouldn’t be able to trust my neighbors, either.
That report sent my fingers running to the Housing of Preservation and Urban Development (HPD) website, which is where you can check 311 complaints. And this company had quite the rap sheet. Only one of the items specifically said “bed bugs,” but the overall sense was of managerial neglect.

Vermin, garbage and shoddy maintenance were listed there. In contrast, a palatial place that I almost took in a family-oriented neighborhood had nothing of the kind. 
Apartment No. 2 - On second thought…. Thanks but no thanks
This apartment I never even saw, not because of bed bugs but because of scheduling issues.
“Is it XX?” I asked the broker, naming the address, when he called to say the super couldn't make it at our appointed time.
“Yes,” the broker said. He had told me the day before (when we’d gone to see an apartment in a great neighborhood that unfortunately had a box spring leaning on a tree out front — I could not get that image and all it implied out of my mind for anything) that he couldn’t give me the exact address, but he had named the cross streets. Thus I had already mapped the block and found one report.

Guess which building it was?
Though there were just a few reports, the telling item had had only one line in it: “They seem to be traveling through the floors but management is treating the apartments. The tenants want the building treated. Wish us luck.”
On both addresses, tenants had posted saying things like, “I live in XXX apartment and I’ve never had a problem,” as if to imply that the complainers were just gratuitously whining.

It made me a tad suspicious, because either they were in denial about having bed bugs, or they simply hadn’t gotten them yet and didn’t know what they were talking about. And come to think of it, why would they be cruising the Registry if they didn't have a problem?
“No thanks,” I told the broker. “I have decided to put off my search for a while.”
 Next week: Two almost-rans

Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.

Related posts:

Finding an apartment without bed bugs

How bed bugs spread through apartment buildings

Bedbugged! Is the Bedbug Registry broken or just misunderstood?

Bedbugged! How to avoid picking up bed bugs from a moving van

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