Is this mold? If so, can I get out of this lease?
June 21, 2007 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Is this mold? I just leased an apartment and then found standing water, a leak, and what looks like a lot of mold. I want out. Property manager obviously doesn't want to let me out without lots of money.

Let me state up front that I've already taken tape lift samples of suspected mold to be tested at a lab. But since the tests will take time, and I only have a short amount of time to resolve this with the leasing people, I'm hoping to get your opinions on whether you think this stuff is mold vs. just dust and various gunk. See especially pictures 10, 16, and 24. And if it is mold, is that grounds for releasing me from my lease and getting a refund of my deposit? Below is the background.

I'm moving out of an apartment that previously had a mold problem and caused me, an asthmatic allergic to mold, some difficult health problems. I signed an apartment lease last week on a different apartment. It's an older building. I asked them if the unit had had any problems with leaks or mold, my #1 criterion, and they said no (not in writing, alas). And I saw none so I signed and laid down a $500 deposit.

When preparing to move my stuff in, I heard a drip. I opened up an intake vent in the wall to find standing water in the bottom of some chamber where the A/C fan/motor/wheel-thing is, and many different drip spots dripping down into it from the seam where it met the internal wall. There were various flavors of gunk in the bottom of the water. Dirt? Mold? Dunno.

So I opened up the A/C closet and saw water dripping down the side of the unit onto a shelf above the aforementioned chamber. That shelf is naaasty with crusted gunk. And the whole closet has various kinds of fuzz adhering to it. Could it just be dust and junk gathered over many years as will happen in an A/C closet? I think it's mold and my allergies agree. A mold specialist at a university suspects so too on the strength of the pictures alone but awaits lab confirmation.

So I scoured the rest of the place looking for other stuff. The only other thing I found was in the water heater area. The plaster on the ceiling above it is peeling away in spots, likely due to a leak from the water heater in the same spot in the upstairs unit at some point. I peeled back a piece and found black splotches under it. That seems like a gimme. And there's stuff all over the water heater itself that could either be dust, mold, or both. On the walkthrough, I had dismissed this stuff and and a quick glance at the A/C closet stuff as the usual dust.

There's no way in hell I'm living here. The health toll is just too much to live through another year of that. Even the possibility of it is too high a risk for me. Can't take a chance. The property manager wants to downplay it. He says the building is "not a good candidate for mold". Whatever! He also says he gets people in there trying to get out of leases with all kinds of excuses and can't know what's true. "Maybe you just don't like your new neighbors, maybe you found a better place." They want to just fix the leak and "spray some Tilex in there and get rid of it." Even if they fix the leak and clean up visible mold, this appears to have been a long term leak. I now notice the floor slopes down toward that area. That could be indicative of various things, but would be consistent with long-wet structural wood. And if it's been like that for a while, there is likely mold all behind the walls in that area an in the floor supports that they won't be able to reach and that I'll continue to breathe in.

I asked to be let out of the lease that I signed last week. The lease states that I can break it if I give them 60 days notice, pay an extra month's rent ($800) and forfeit my $500 security deposit. But I haven't moved anything in and there's no way I'd have signed if I had heard that leak during the walk-through or seen the suspected mold or if they had answered yes to my question about water and mold. I offered to compensate them for the week it was off the market, and that they refund me $300. They don't want to go for it. They're saying maybe, MAYBE they'll let me out (if the owner agrees) but I'll lose my whole deposit. Legally I feel like they're in the stronger position because I didn't get any kind of written statement regarding leaks and mold, and they can always deny that I asked or that they answered. And if the lab tests show that it is mold, but not harmful varieties, then I don't think they'd be obligated to do abatement or let me out or compensate me or anything. The worst case scenario is that I have to abide by the terms of the lease and pay them a total of $2900 for two months of never living there. No way I'm doing that, I'll fight that. I'd also like to not lose my whole deposit if that's their only offer, but from everything I read, if you put a deposit on a place and don't move in, you're just about guaranteed to lose it. So whatever. Lesson learned I guess.

Still, any ideas ? Any legal rescue ropes you know of? If they don't want to let me out without the full terms, and I prove that the stuff is mold, dangerous varieties or not, will that give me any kind of case?
posted by kookoobirdz to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The black splotches are definitely mold. I can't tell about the shelf but if it's actively wet, then my guess would be yes. The rest (including the furry black posts) are dust. The black on the posts is actually paint, put there to make the posts look less obvious in the recess than unpainted wood.

But I can't see how this could get you out of the apartment. They gave you a walk-through, and you didn't say anything then (whether you saw it or not, they gave you the opportunity to see it.) If they didn't know it was there, they can say no, there's no water or mold issue- and I think you'd have an extremely hard time proving they DID know it. You could probably drag this through court, but I bet it would cost you more in legal fees and consultations than it would cost you to just get out now.

You certainly have my sympathy; I'm allergic to mold too, and it makes finding living space challenging to say the least.
posted by headspace at 8:47 AM on June 21, 2007

What state are you in? There are no federal standards for mold, so unless there are state or local standards applicable to your situation, it will be much harder to make a case legally. Are you allergic to any types of mold? Each person reacts differently to mold. You have to realize that mold occurs everywhere in nature there is moisture - everyone reacts differently, and unless you have pre-existing respiratory problems or are allergic to certain more pernicious strains of mold like stachybotrys or aspergillus, it's usually not a problem.

There is a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt about mold, enhanced by the fact that US EPA doesn't have any standards on the subject, but they do have this helpful informational booklet.

As to spraying down the mold/killing it, that is all well and good, but if the moisture source is not fully eliminated, the mold will probably just grow back. But even dead mold can cause allergy problems for some people.

Another thing you can do is measure the moisture levels in the walls using a protimeter. Anything over 20% moisture in WME (wood materials) requires immediate action. You may want to call a local inspection company or enviromental hygiene firm to do a mold inspection along with that. If there are high moisture levels then there is probably mold you cannot see in the property. Those black splotches, as the earlier poster noted, are probably mold.

At the end of the day the best option may be to just cut your losses and break your lease, but unless you are having allergic reactions to the potential mold, it's not that big of a problem.
posted by chlorus at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2007

Sweet jesus, that's a lot of mold. A LOT of mold.

Your landlord is most likely required to keep the apartment habitable. That much mold makes it inhabitable. The landlord is responsible for it's removal--by a professional--and keeping whatever's causing it at bay.

I'm allergic to mold. I could never live in a place like this. Even if you aren't currently allergic to mold, breathing in those spores all the time will likely cause you respiratory problems sooner rather than later.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:26 AM on June 21, 2007

Dont move in, find a new place dont pay them another dime, take them to small claims court for your deposit back, photo document everything, make sure you get their responses on record, write them emails or physical letters delivered certified mail and keep copies. Dont ask for your deposit back, demand for it back. They are not providing a habitable environment which probably voids your lease. Since you have not even moved in there is no reason for him to keep any of your damage deposit.

From the photos it looks like they put up new plaster / drywall over the existing mold, not uncommon, but who knows how much more of the stuff is around?

Do you know the former tenant? See if any mail is being delivered currently with their name on it or ask neighbors. Ask the former tenant if they have any health problems that could be mold related. I would say if you found the mold before you even moved in anyone living in the place would have known it was there. Maybe they moved out because of it? The threat of a real lawsuit (assuming the landlord knew there was mold, didnt clean it properly and just painted over it) might make them cut their losses with you.
posted by outsider at 9:34 AM on June 21, 2007

Looking at your photos, 'Black splotches' is very likely mold, 'A/C Closet Shelf' is probably mold but might just be grime. Metal is not an easy place for mold to accumulate. I'm not ruling it out but there are other spots where you are more likely to see it.

You are correct to take it as seriously as you are. Fixing the leak and spraying Tilex does not cut it. Dig your heels in on this one. Mold is a health hazard, it's not just a matter of allergies. Even if the present mold, assuming that is indeed mold, is not one of the ones harmful to health, when a home has mold it becomes much easier for additional strains to gather and reproduce.

It shouldn't take long to find a host of horror stories from people living in mold ridden homes. Use what you know about the house, the sloping floor, the closet, the peeling plaster showing probable mold, to find accounts of houses that had mold problems and see how they match up. If you can find that a home which shows mold in X place requires a certain (probably expensive) treatment to be mold free and demand that they do that they may let you out of the lease. Keep emphasizing the health hazard aspect.
posted by BigSky at 9:36 AM on June 21, 2007

an asthmatic allergic to mold, some difficult health problems.

For those that wondered: yes, the poster is allergic to mold.

Kookoobirdz, you need to speak with a local tenants advocate. Mold issues and landlord's responsibilities vary widely by state and county. no one here can really begin to answer your question without knowing where you live.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:44 AM on June 21, 2007

You are within your legal right to ask the landlord to hire a mold specialist to examine this on site (Unfortunately the DIY lab kit will not get you far as they are prone to false positives or negatives). If your landlord does not comply you could also try to work out a deal where he covers the cost "IF" it is all mold.

From here I would approach this in a well documented manner, starting with the submission of notices to withhold rent payments such as the ones described on this site. Similar cases have been won in favor of the tenant, but hopefully it will not need to go to court if your landlord understands you mean serious business.
posted by samsara at 9:50 AM on June 21, 2007

The rags, standing water and mold are unsuitable for habitation. If these problems have gone unattended to, there are probably additional issues.

You could call your local department of housing and have them come do an inspection. Explain the issue to them. If the condition of this apartment is bad enough, they can "red tag" the apartment and require the landlord to make repairs and pass an inspection within a certain amount of time (it was 30 days in my case). If the landlord does not make the proper repairs, the apartment can be condemned.

I had to do this for an apartment I briefly and foolishly rented. All of the windows were painted shut, most of the electrical outlets did not work and homeless people hung out in the basement laundryroom. When the dept of housing inspectors came, they found additional problems (non-code water heater, a small gas leak in the stove). Landlord did not fix. I moved out. I did not pay my last month's rent, and did not get my deposit back, but I the landlord had no grounds to hassle me further.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:59 AM on June 21, 2007

I would at least get health inspectors/ Better buisness Bureau out as soon as possible. Also, as stated by some other people; You signed the lease believing it was habitable, because that is law. They can't give you an apartment without running water or without a properly working sewage system and say "well you signed the lease! It was up to you to see that, and you didn't so you have to break your contract to exit." That makes no sense at all.

From my understanding if you get the health inspector out to your apartment and they find mold and deem it a health hazard they will shut down the complex (at least here in VA)

Hope that helps!
posted by slc228 at 10:07 AM on June 21, 2007

What does your lease say regarding upkeep and what they promise you upon renting you the apartment? Did you do a written move-in inspection? If they outright refuse to do anything or let you out of the lease, you could get a statement from a doctor that you cannot live in the home due to your health reasons. That is a reasonable accommodation request and they should honor it. They could ask for a 30 day notice, etc, but that should help the process.
Mold in apartments today is like lead based paint in the 80's. If it's mold, and it looks like it is, then you certainly have a leg to stand on to have them either repair the issues, provide you a different place to live or let you out of the lease.
posted by Elaisa at 10:16 AM on June 21, 2007

Not about mold per se, but the gunk around the water heater vent indicates that it may not be drawing the exhaust efficiently. get a Carbon Monoxide /detector/alarm should you decide to move in.
posted by Gungho at 10:31 AM on June 21, 2007

Oh, and since you're allergic to mold, get a doctor's note stating that.
posted by chlorus at 10:37 AM on June 21, 2007

Response by poster: Hi you all. Thanks for all the input and resources and advice. To answer some of your questions:

-I'm in Georgia. This company uses the standard Georgia Apartment Association lease.

-I don't know what strains of mold I'm allergic to, only that I'm allergic to: tree and grass pollen, ragweed, mold, and pet dander.

-I don't know former tenant but will check the mail and see if there's any way to locate them.

Regarding upkeep clauses: "Resident accepts the apartment as-is and in habitable condition suitable for residential purposes. Resident accepts full control an dresponsibility of the leased premises and agrees to maintain the apartment in a clean, safe, and sanitary condition. Management will make repairs with reasonable promptnes upon receipt of written notice from resident... ... ... Resident must promptly report the need for any repairs to management in writing before management is obligated to make any repairs. Resident must promptly report any dampness, water leaks, or mold in the apartment to management."

I have a written move-in inspection form on which they say everything is OK and which they gave me upon signing to go fill out and return to them. There's nothing on it that says "there's no leaks or mold" or a spot to note plumbing prob could have written anything wrong with the heating and A/C (it's plumbing problem in A/C area so sort of a grey area).

Regarding habitability, I believe their stance is "hey we'll fix the leak and clean the mold if there is any or if you think there is, but that's not grounds for breaking a lease or being inhabitable, it's just a repair." I just flat don't want to risk staying there. Everything I've heard says mold cleanup is very difficult and often takes several iterations to find and get at all of it. I'm just not going to take that chance.

I know they want to avoid abatement and so don't want to let me cite mold as my reason for not moving in. Maybe I'll try to bargain with them and say that I'll list whatever reason they want as long as they let me out. Still, the next person shouldn't have to have that crap in their apartment.
posted by kookoobirdz at 11:42 AM on June 21, 2007

Any chance the white fuzz is lint from a dryer venting into the area?
posted by letitrain at 12:01 PM on June 21, 2007

It sounds like they use the general lease provided by the National Apartment Association, You probably had to sign a Mold Information and Prevention Addendum, which states that the landlord is responsible to repair/remedy the situation upon notification of the issue in accordance with the lease and state law.
Based on the pictures, the apartment is not in habitable condition. I would contact an attorney if you need to. I've been in property management several years and would never rent an apartment in that condition.
posted by Elaisa at 12:23 PM on June 21, 2007

Also, the fact they said on the move-in inspection that everything was okay and you have pictures documenting that it wasn't is not good for them. Is it dated the date of move-in? What date were you supposed to move-in? Make sure you get the report back to them in time if they had a deadline, that could go against you if it goes to court.
posted by Elaisa at 12:28 PM on June 21, 2007

Response by poster: Okay so I just went and saw the property manager. He said they'd let me out and I'd forfeit my deposit. Given the amount of hassle I think I'd have to go through to do better than that, I'm going to take it.

One last question though. I asked if there was something I could sign to formally terminate the lease and they said no. They said "well I mean we'll know." That's a little worrying to me. I'd had to try to be buying a house or something in five years and have the bank say "you've got this abandonment/default on your record from 2007" and I wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I need for there to be something in writing.

My plan is to write a simple letter and take two copies to their office. It would essentially say "As agreed, I will not be taking residence at xx address, we are terminating the lease dated xx/xx, I am forfeiting my security deposit of $500, and as agreed I have no further obligation to XX Properties. Please sign below to confirm that you have seen this letter and agree to its terms."

Sound good? If they don't sign, then I guess my next step would be to consult a lawyer. I just don't think I can walk away without something in writing. Agree?
posted by kookoobirdz at 2:42 PM on June 21, 2007

Okay a couple things:

1. Threaten to report them to the health department. Mention that the entire building can be declared uninhabitable until they do abatement. If there are children in the building, the liability could be pretty high.

2. Tell them that "Tilex" will not cut it. IF they spray Tilex, they will kill the mold. As it dies under stress, it will release toxins - so bleach related solutions are the absolute worst thing you can do.

3. Standard for removing mold is negative pressurized environment, sanders with hepa vacs, and wearing spacesuits. They WILL have to tear out all the walls.

4. I suggest you go back to them (after checking with the health department - the above standards are for California), and inform them that if they don't want you to fill a formal complaint with the health department and the Georgia EPA they should return your deposit and give you a legal release from the lease.

And yes, you should stuff in writing ALWAYS. And document every conversation.
posted by zia at 3:09 PM on June 21, 2007

Definitely make sure you get anything and everything if writing if they are going to let you out of the lease.
posted by Elaisa at 3:20 PM on June 21, 2007

nothing to add...just...eww.
posted by Soulbee at 7:38 AM on June 22, 2007

Any news on what the results were?
posted by PandemicSoul at 1:04 AM on July 8, 2007

« Older Please Help Me Find Border Points in Michigan   |   "Luuuuuuucy!" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.