I suspect there is hidden mold in my new apartment. What now?
August 31, 2012 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I suspect there is hidden mold in my new apartment. How do I know for sure, and what do I do to remove it/get the manager to remove it? I'm allergic so letting it be is not an option.

I just leased an apartment. It looked fine when I saw it except for some mold in the bathroom. The building manager agreed that this was unacceptable and agreed to "paint" before I moved in. I was an idiot and I guess I just assumed this meant that he get the mold removed and then have it painted.

In any case, I think there's probably painted-over mold in other places, because after 15 minutes in the place I start sneezing like crazy and my throat itches. Or maybe it's under the carpet. I have barely moved any stuff in at all at this point and my lease formally kicks in tomorrow.

If the problem's really bad, I assume the carpet will need to be removed and/or the walls will need to be stripped. If it's not, maybe just wiping stuff down with Lysol or vinegar and/or steam-cleaning the carpet would work. But how do I assess the problem, or determine if it's actually another allergen that's bugging me?

And is this the landlord's responsibility? I signed off on the apartment as being OK aside from the bathroom being "unpainted" because I wasn't in there long enough seeing it for my allergic reaction to kick in. What are my next steps?
posted by randomname25 to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, this is the landlord's responsibility. From an insurance perspective, the landlord is responsible for the structure of the property including the walls whereas you are responsible for your personal belongings within the property. So, your landlord should be contacting his insurance company.
posted by livinglearning at 6:59 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mold is everywhere. So, if it is mold, this is a matter of type and concentration. Whether it is mold, or some other allergen, it is a potentially huge undertaking to remediate it. It could be as simple as a good cleaning, or might require removal and replacement of all porous surfaces, full repainting and a thorough cleaning of all duct work and mechanical systems. This can extend to things like replacing all built in cabinets, etc.

For this reason it can be very tough to convince a landlord to even begin the process of fixing things, because there is no defined end to what will make you satisfied. Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of standards for how to test for mold, or what is too much.

This leaves taking care of the obvious (like the repaint in the bathroom). Look around in the cabinets, corners of closets, behind the toilet, whatever is behind the wall where the shower controls are, etc. If you see any visible mold then absolutely demand to have it cleaned and removed.

A thorough disinfection and cleaning of the carpet, etc. is definitely worth a try. Beyond that, fighting your landlord to do more could be a pretty frustrating affair, so be prepared.
posted by meinvt at 7:12 PM on August 31, 2012

My lease has a specific clause in it about mold. In it, the landlord said she didn't know anything about any mold on the premises and that any testing would need to be done at my expense (though I don't remember what it said about fixing anything that was found). Also, check your state landlord-tenant laws if there is nothing in the lease. There may be something specific there.
posted by adorap0621 at 7:33 PM on August 31, 2012

I suspected mold in my house so I bought a Mold Armor test kit for $9 at Home Depot. Then I sent it in for a lab analysis (add'l $40). The report seemed pretty thorough & legit. I had a retired guy who used to detect & remediate mold for a living check it out, and he said the small amount of what I had (Aureobasidium & Cladosporium) were negligible & common. So you could do this, and then find a trusted professional (ideally who doesn't have a financial interest in solving the problem, obviously) interpret it for you. But meinvt is right; it may be tough to get the landlord to do anything about it.
posted by Lettuce_Leaves at 8:11 PM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: There's nothing in the lease about mold, but the city health department website says to call if you're a renter, so I'll do that if there's a serious hidden mold problem that the manager resists fixing.

I'm not even sure there is a mold problem. All I know is that I'm allergic to my apartment, and that very well could be mold, but it could also be dust mites or other stuff in the air. Maybe an air purifier would help? I just really suspect it's mold because of the little visible in the bathroom before it got painted, and because my unit seems to irritate me far more than common areas in the building. Also notable: the apartment has no A/C, and right now my unit doesn't have a fan so it's stuffy despite the open windows.

I'm thinking my next step is to steam-clean the carpet, but is there any point in wiping down the walls when any mold would be under a layer of paint? Also, is the steam-cleaning expense something I should try to get the management company to pay for? They'd probably require proof and that's probably more expensive than the $25 it costs to rent a Rug Doctor.

tl;dr: Is my plan to rent a steam-cleaner and buy an air purifier reasonable?
posted by randomname25 at 9:13 PM on August 31, 2012

Are you sure that you are allergic to the apartment? Because I know that moving and packing in general sets off my allergies, between all the dust that gets kicked up and all the cleaning products I end up inhaling.
posted by radioamy at 9:44 PM on August 31, 2012

I once suspected having mold in a certain location in under the slab of my house, so I made some calls to some professionals, and they all said it's a major destructive endeavor to check for mold. So my impression is that it's not something that anyone is going to do unless there is really strong reason to believe that there is a seriously harmful mold problem.
posted by Dansaman at 9:47 PM on August 31, 2012

Best answer: Are you allergic to cats and were there cats owned by the previous tenants?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:41 PM on August 31, 2012

Just a couple of thoughts on testing:

I am not keen on the idea of the $9 mold test kits, nor the notion that it is very destructive to test for mold. Testing for mold properly rarely involves tearing out walls. Certified mold tests are done with sniffers to detect airborne spores, not rub tests. Only once spores are confirmed is any demolition done to expose and treat affected areas. Indeed, that test justifies the remediation work, and also follows remediation as a final clearance.

Certified mold inspectors are more akin to CSI investigators, in terms of equipment, etc. The equipment is expensive. (A good professional kit is about $800.) The testing media itself is high-grade and has to be handled just so. Test media and lab analysis is not that expensive, but the big expense lies in the technician. The training to properly set up expensive sniffers and handle samples, including a proper chain-of-custody style analysis, is the difference. A home test kit is not likely to have collected properly, which greatly skews the results. The difference this makes is so huge that many states are starting to require such extensive certification (and annual re-certs) that these remediation guys will not be able to test their own work. The health risk is too great if they mess it up. I would really be concerned that a home test would give false negatives. The low end for a professional test in my area is about $600. For medical environments, it goes as high as $1800.
posted by skypieces at 11:31 PM on August 31, 2012

Mold per se isn't a problem; airborne mold is. I had a pro test my home (when there was a potential health concern, tests came back excellent and negative for scary mold) and it cost around $450, completely non-destructive.
posted by davejay at 12:19 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Can you please pop back in here and explain exactly where the mold in the bathroom was? On the wall? In the shower?


- If you are lucky, your city will come out and do an inspection. Call them.

Depending on your answer above, I believe you are misinterpreting what is going on here. But you do have issues your landlord needs to address.

- Was the carpet professionally cleaned before you moved in?

If not your landlord should pay for that. If it was cleaned, it would have looked cleaned. I'm guessing dust and stuff are making you sneeze - not mold throughout your home.

- Was the apartment super clean upon move-in?

If not, clean it top to bottom, or pay a service before your stuff arrives.

In my jurisdiction, carpets must be replaced every 8 years, walls re-painted every 4. Your city can advise you on the rules in your jurisdiction. Call them.


My best advice to you is that you should not cry "mold!" without evidence. Your landlord will think you are a crazy tenant and will disregard every legitimate complaint from you that comes his or her way after you do so.


Look around your ceilings and walls for water damage, or patched over and painted water damage. Ditto for water damage around window seals. Are you the top floor, or do you have neighbors above?

Leaking roofs, windows, and plumbing leaks from the neighbors above all cause water damage, and eventually, mold. This type of damage is identifiable by eye, because repairs never really hide it.

If water damage is not in evidence - relax! You don't have mold!

If there is no apparent water damage repairs, look for other causes for the sneezing and itching.

A previous owner's pets, shrubs or other pollen creating trees or flower beds outside of your window(s), dust, a temporary reaction to the paint used to freshen the walls, etc., etc..

Don't panic. Proceed in a sane and logical way to isolate the issue. Give it a few days. Then escalate if the problem remains unidentifiable and persists.

ProTip: Do you want to get out of this lease? If you do, I guess you should MeMail me for details, but the long and short is that if you escalate with your landlord and become really frantic, they will probably be very happy to let you out of your lease. Expect a small penalty if you can't identify a legit problem (like water damage) because, basically, your landlord will want to get rid of you if you are perceived as a nuisance complainer.

Look around carefully. Make some calls. Make a decision.

posted by jbenben at 12:42 AM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: I work with property management folks and mold inspectors, and I have allergies, so I have some experience here.

Are you living in a large complex? If so, I think your best solution is to cut the Gordian knot by requesting to be moved to a different unit. Do this right away, while it's still a high move-in time of the month and there are people who haven't shown up/leased units yet. If this is an option, it will be much easier (and cheaper) for both you and the landlord, so I think there's a case to be made here. Make sure you spend at least fifteen minutes in the new unit.

It's possible, but in my opinion unlikely, that mold under paint (especially minor bathroom mold) is a major issue at the moment. (It could turn into one if they handled it badly and didn't fix the source of the original mold, but I doubt it's what's causing your issues today.) Where is your ventilation/air flow coming from? If there's a central air system (even if just central heat/ventilation), that would be my first guess and the first place I'd look. It would also explain the difference in how badly you reacted, if the ventilation system was off the first time and on when you moved in. (If you can get to it safely, look inside the unit. Is there standing water? If so, they need to get an HVAC guy in to solve that. If no, they need to get mold inspectors to look in the ducting, etc.)

If you don't have a central air system (or other ventilation system bringing actual air into your apartment), I would skip the Home Depot kits (folks are right, they're unreliable) and go to the carpet. Carpets are a huge source of allergens, mold or otherwise. Is the carpet wet at all? If so, that's where to look. If not, well, it might be pet allergens (even in a pet-free complex -- people sneak them in), dust, whatever. Get it professionally cleaned and air out the apartment thoroughly. (But check on what they're using to clean the carpet, too. Some of the cleansers are as bad as the things they're cleaning out. And come to think of it, was the carpet cleaned in the past week or so? If so, you may just be reacting to the carpet cleaning chemicals, in which case it will likely go away once the apartment has been aired out for a few days.)

If you do take this to the local housing/building department, be aware that very few US jurisdictions have actual mold standards/regulations. The two major exceptions I'm aware of right now are Texas and NYC, so if you're there, you'll have actual standards to argue. If you're not, the local inspectors may not have a lot of mold training or experience, and in some cases they can end up treating tenants like they're crazy over this kind of complaint. This is by no means always the case, but it's something to be aware of.

This sounds extremely frustrating -- good luck!
posted by pie ninja at 5:24 AM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: Are you allergic to cats and were there cats owned by the previous tenants?

I am indeed very allergic to cats! I don't know if the previous tenants owned any, but I do know that they're allowed. Then again, I don't see any dander anywhere.

Can you please pop back in here and explain exactly where the mold in the bathroom was? On the wall? In the shower?

On the wall right above the shower tiles (but not on the ceiling; the tiles just don't extend all the way up).

Was the carpet professionally cleaned before you moved in?

I don't know. It looks vacuumed, but there are a lot of crusty stains on it.

My best advice to you is that you should not cry "mold!" without evidence. Your landlord will think you are a crazy tenant and will disregard every legitimate complaint from you that comes his or her way after you do so.

Yeah, I would like to avoid that. Mold was really a guess based on the humidity in the place, the small amount of painted-over mold in the bathroom, and the severity of my reaction (I've never reacted this hard to dust).

Look around your ceilings and walls for water damage, or patched over and painted water damage. Ditto for water damage around window seals. Are you the top floor, or do you have neighbors above?

If there is any water damage, it's much more minor than anything that comes up searching minor water damage on Google Images. I'm going to see the place again today and will look harder this time.

Do you want to get out of this lease?

I would MUCH rather take care of the allergen, but if I can't, yeah, I pretty much need to live somewhere else.
posted by randomname25 at 6:31 AM on September 1, 2012

there are a lot of crusty stains on it

Um, this doesn't sound like a reasonably old professionally cleaned carpet. This sounds like a too-old recently vacuumed carpet.

You didn't answer the question about where any air flow you might have comes from, but I'd be more suspicious of allergens in your carpet/pad and any other soft porous surfaces (does the space come with curtains/drapes/blinds? A professional steam cleaning of all these items and quick wipe down of the walls might help immensely.

Also, you didn't answer the air supply question, but allergens can live and spread in ductwork, so look for that on your return visit.
posted by meinvt at 9:57 AM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, I didn't answer either of those questions because I don't know the answers. I will look on my return visit, but that probably won't be for a while because I lent my dad the keys this morning and he lost them.

Anyway: thanks for your ideas, everyone! When I either find the keys or get new ones, I'm going to steam clean the carpet and wipe down the walls and see if things improve.
posted by randomname25 at 10:57 AM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: I used one of those home test kits, and yes, the apartment had mold. Luckily, the manager let me out of the lease. So now I'm back to square one with the apartment hunting, but at least I'm not stuck in a place that makes me miserable.

Again, thanks for your help!
posted by randomname25 at 1:53 PM on September 16, 2012

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