Property Management Q & A

Question: We manage a single-family home in King County. The tenants just informed us of a serious mold issue that seems to have spread from a leaking pipe between the kitchen and bathroom. Even though we’ve just learned of the leak, it seems like it may have been going on for months (maybe years). Now, the tenants are making all sorts of threats against us (that the mold has damaged their health), yet they refuse to vacate so we can perform repairs (we need to pretty much gut the kitchen and bathroom to fix the leak and repair the damage). What can we do to get the tenants out? What are our risks of being sued?

This is not an easy question to answer within the space limitations of this article, but I will try. It doesn’t sound like anyone from your staff has been in the home for some time. It is very important to perform periodic inspections of rental properties, for the safety of the tenants and to protect the owner’s investment. Whether you are scheduling these inspections annually or more frequently (some managers inspect every six months), part of what your clients are paying you for is to take reasonable steps to safeguard their property. Relying on tenant complaints alone is not enough to do this. While most owners and managers are happy to perform needed repairs (lest the problem magnify), there are a surprisingly large number of tenants who believe that if they report repairs are needed, that the landlord may somehow retaliate against them. It is for that reason that there are express provisions in the Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA) which prohibit retaliation against tenants who “lawfully exercise their rights.” It sounds like this problem could have been avoided with regular inspections.
While it might seem an unrelated issue, one of the main reasons to require your tenants to carry renter’s insurance, is because most policies provide coverage for the cost of temporary housing if the premises become uninhabitable. Most tenants simply can’t afford an extended hotel stay. While it is always possible to offer to bear those costs, most tenants are much more agreeable to temporarily relocate when the
cost to them is borne by insurance.
Also, there is nothing in the RLTA that forces a tenant to vacate because you want to perform needed repairs. I have even had cases where a home or apartment was substantially burned up in a fire and tenants refused to vacate. Particularly given the current COVID restrictions on eviction or termination of tenancies, the only way to force a tenant to relocate permanently or temporarily is if the local government code enforcement “red tags” the property and orders them to vacate. Sometimes, as a last resort, you need to call code enforcement yourself and ask that they determine if the property is habitable.
I don’t wish to imply that tenants can’t or won’t bring a claim for personal injuries arising from exposure to molds in your rental home. However, I rarely see such claims pursued in court. I honestly don’t know why this is the case, but I believe it may have something to do with the fact that such claims aren’t covered by insurance. Most plaintiff’s attorneys seem reluctant to pursue claims unless they know there is an insurance company that might be willing to write a check and settle a claim. 
Lastly, I think it is important to create a good papertrail with the tenant. If they are refusing you access, be sure to communicate in writing why you want to go in, and the risks to their health if they refuse. So, if your water restoration company has told you that it is not safe to occupy, be sure to share this information with the tenant. There is no reason to be coy. If there is a lawsuit, whatever information you have will come out in discovery. Don’t be worried about somehow admitting liability. Frankly, once you share information with the tenants, if they fail to take reasonable steps to protect themselves or their family members, they could be independently negligent (assumption of risk, failure to mitigate damages, etc.).  ◊

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