Once thought to be largely eliminated in the United States, bedbugs have again become a problem for tenants, homeowners, hotels and even retail stores. Bedbugs easily travel from one location to another and spread rapidly in connected living spaces such as apartment buildings. Often by the time that an individual has discovered visible evidence of bedbugs, the infestation has become widespread.
It is a common myth that bedbug infestations arise from unsanitary living conditions. While excess clutter can provide bedbugs with more opportunities to hide, bedbugs can be found almost anywhere. Pricey New York City hotels and condos have spent thousands of dollars battling bedbugs, and clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was forced to temporarily close two stores in 2010 due to bedbugs. The following are some common questions and answers about dealing with bedbugs.
Preventing and Getting Rid of Bedbugs
From the Environmental Protection Agency
Bedbugs feed on your blood and cause itchy bites. Adult bed bugs are brown, 1/4 to 3/8 inches long, and have a flat, oval-shaped body. Young bed bugs (called nymphs) are smaller and lighter in color.
Bedbugs hide in a variety of places around the bed. They might also hide in other places, such as in the seams of chairs and couches, between cushions, and in the folds of curtains. They come out to feed on blood about every five to ten days. But they can survive over a year without feeding.
To prevent bedbugs in your home:
- Check secondhand furniture for any signs of bedbugs before bringing it home.
- Use a protective cover that encases mattresses and box springs. Check it regularly for holes.
- Reduce clutter in your home so they have fewer places to hide.
- Unpack directly into your washing machine after a trip and check your luggage carefully. When staying in hotels, put your suitcases on luggage racks instead of the floor. Check the mattress and headboard for signs of bedbugs.
To get rid of bedbugs:
- Wash and dry bedding and clothing at high temperatures.
- Use mattress, box spring, and pillow encasements to trap bed bugs and help detect infestations.
- Use pesticides if needed.
The good news? Unlike some other pests, bedbugs don’t transmit and spread diseases.
What are some of the signs that I may have bedbugs?
- Bedbugs, including their eggs, are visible to the naked eye. However, because bedbugs are only about the width of a credit card, they can slide into very small places.
- Bedbugs shed their skin, so you may see “bug shells” in your home.
- You may have small blood stains on your sheets or pillows.
- Bedbug bites generally look similar to other insect bites, though they may be lined up in “row” of bites. Common areas for bites are the arms, hands, face and neck.
- Small reddish or brownish spots on linens are often the first sign of an infestation. These spots are the bed bug’s droppings and may bleed on the fabric like a marker would.
I think I may have bedbugs. What should I do?
Some leases require tenants to notify the landlord if there are bedbugs. Even if your lease does not require notice, you should contact your landlord immediately to let him or her know. Early treatment may prevent bedbugs from spreading to other units and infesting your belongings.
Send a written notice to your landlord that you believe that your unit may have bedbugs and keep a copy of this notice for yourself.
Cooperate with extermination efforts by your landlord. Early action may prevent you from losing personal belongings to bedbugs.
Because bedbugs spread rapidly, it is difficult to prove that one person or one unit is the source of a bedbug infestation. In most cases your landlord should be held responsible for the costs of eliminating bedbugs. Tenants are only responsible for damage they cause deliberately (on purpose) or negligently (not taking reasonable care).
You can also contact your city’s housing inspector. If the problem is extensive, the city may intervene and force your landlord to take steps to eliminate the bedbugs.
My landlord won’t do anything. Is there anything else I can do?
Iowa law lets a tenant end the rental agreement if 1) there is a “material” noncompliance with the rental agreement or 2) there is a noncompliance with the landlord’s duty to maintain the unit and it “materially” affects health and safety. If you can show one of these, you can give a notice to the landlord. The notice gives the landlord 7 days to fix the problem. The notice also needs to say when the rental agreement will end if the landlord does not fix the problem within 7 days. If the landlord does not do enough to fix the problem within 7 days, the rental agreement ends on the date stated in the notice. Do not serve your landlord with a 7 day notice if you are not prepared to move if the problem isn’t treated within 7 days.
CAUTION! The landlord may disagree with you about whether the landlord fixed the problem. If the landlord disagrees, the landlord may sue you for any rent that you may owe through the end of your lease. The judge would look at the landlord’s actions and your actions in deciding what to do. It will be important for you to keep copies of all papers and write down what happened on what dates. It is hard to say what a judge will do about bedbugs or how much a tenant will have to show to prove a bedbug problem.
Get rid of the bedbugs before you move!
Top Ten Bed Bugs Tips from the Environmental Protection Agency
- Make sure you really have bed bugs, not fleas or ticks or other insects. You can compare your insect to the pictures on our bed bug Web page at www.epa.gov/opp00001/factsheets/bed-bugs-faq-fs.html or show it to your local extension agent.
- Don’t panic! Eliminating bed bugs is difficult, but it’s not impossible. Don’t throw out all of your things because most of them can be treated and saved. Throwing stuff out is expensive, may spread the bed bugs and could cause more stress.
- Think through your treatment options -- Don’t immediately reach for the spray can.Be comprehensive in your approach. Try other things first. Integrated pest management (IPM) techniques may reduce the number of bed bugs and limit your contact with pesticides. If pesticides are needed, always follow label directions or hire a professional. There is help available to learn about treatment options at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pesticides/pdffiles/bb-nonchemical1.pdf.
- Reduce the number of hiding places -- Clean up the clutter. A cluttered home provides more places for bed bugs to hide and makes locating and treating them harder. If bed bugs are in your mattress, using special bed bug covers (encasements) on your mattress and box springs makes it harder for bed bugs to get to you while you sleep. Leave the encasements on for a year. Be sure to buy a product that has been tested for bed bugs and is strong enough to last for the full year without tearing.
- Regularly wash and heat-dry your bed sheets, blankets, bedspreads and any clothing that touches the floor.This reduces the number of bed bugs. Bed bugs and their eggs can hide in laundry containers/hampers, so clean them when you do the laundry.
- Don’t rely on do-it-yourself freezing as a reliable method for bed bug control.While freezing can kill bed bugs, temperatures must remain very low for a long time. Home freezers are usually not cold enough to kill bed bugs. Putting things outside in freezing temperatures can kill bed bugs, but it can take several days when the temperature is 0° F and almost a week when the temperature is 20° F.
- Use heat to kill bed bugs, but be very careful.Raising the indoor temperature with the thermostat or space heaters won’t do the job. Special equipment and very high temperatures are necessary for successful heat treatment. Black plastic bags in the sun might work to kill bed bugs in luggage or small items, if the contents become hot enough (about 110°F for at least 3 hours).
- Don’t pass your bed bugs on to others. Bed bugs are good hitchhikers. If you throw out a mattress or furniture that has bed bugs in it, you should slash or in some way destroy it so that no one else takes it and gets bed bugs.
- Reduce the number of bed bugs to reduce bites.
- Thorough vacuuming can get rid of some of your bed bugs. Carefully vacuum rugs, floors, upholstered furniture, bed frames, under beds, around bed legs, and all cracks and crevices around the room. Change the bag after each use so the bed bugs can’t escape. Place the used bag in a tightly sealed plastic bag and in an outside garbage bin.
- Turn to the professionals, if needed. Hiring an experienced, responsible pest control professional can increase your chance of success in getting rid of bed bugs. If you hire an expert, be sure it’s a company with a good reputation and request that it use an IPM approach. Contact your state pesticide agency for guidance about hiring professional pest control companies. Also, EPA’s Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety provides information about IPM approaches, how to choose a pest control company, safe handling of pesticides, and emergency information.
If I have bedbugs can I stop paying my rent?
No. In Iowa, there are very few circumstances where a tenant may stop paying rent. It is likely that if a tenant fails to pay rent based on a bedbug infestation, a landlord will pursue eviction proceedings against the tenant for nonpayment of rent. A court is likely to evict an individual who stops paying rent, even if they have a bedbug issue.
Is there anything I should know before signing a new lease?
Read the lease carefully for any terms that discuss bedbugs. Some landlords have added language to leases shifting all responsibility for bedbugs to the tenant or simply stating that they are not liable for any loss of personal property due to bedbugs. It is unclear as to whether these provisions would be enforceable.
Some cities have passed ordinances requiring a landlord to disclose bedbug outbreaks to prospective tenants. However, this requirement is not common and you should ask the landlord and other tenants in the area about known bedbug outbreaks on the property prior to signing a new lease.
Where can I find details or get help?
For more information on treatments and prevention, visit the following websites: https://www.epa.gov/bedbug or https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef636
Providing assistance for legal issues involving the basic need of housing is a priority for Iowa Legal Aid. If you are having problems with a bed bug situation, contact Iowa Legal Aid.
- Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans.
- To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275.
- Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or
- apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org. A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.