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VA Court of Appeals clarifies landlords’ responsibility for pest infestations

Posted about 2 months ago by Charlie Schmidt

At the Law Library, I get this question quite a bit – “If my apartment has bugs/mice/fleas/etc., is it my landlord’s responsibility to pay for an exterminator, or do I have to pay for it?”

And as with many legal questions, the answer can depend on several factors. Thankfully, the Virginia Court of Appeals recently clarified one factor related to this topic. Landlords can’t ignore their duty to control pests at a rental property and they can’t put all the responsibility on the tenant.

Bugs?! Before you have even moved in!

In the recent opinion, Parrish v. Vance, a tenant rented a house and found it infested with fleas on the first day she moved in. Her lease stated that the tenant was solely responsible for pests had to pay for exterminators in the event of an infestation.

After failed attempts to eradicate the fleas, the tenant filed a “tenant’s assertion” with the Fairfax County General District Court, which is a claim that the landlord breached the lease and allows the tenant to place their rent in escrow with the court. The tenant lost in General District Court but won her case upon appeal to the Circuit Court. The landlord appealed the case further to the Court of Appeals claiming, among other things, that the lease stipulated that the tenant was responsible for pest control.

What makes a rental property “habitable”?

The Appeal Court justices disagreed with the landlord. They ruled that “the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRTLA) provides tenants a warranty of habitability that a landlord and tenant cannot waive by agreement.” Warranty of Habitability is a general guarantee that the property will be livable. There is no set definition for “habitable”, but courts have found that a property must have proper working heat and utilities, be free of dangers and code violations, and be free of pests and infestations, just to name a few.

But nothing is absolute, of course. The VRLTA also imposes a duty on tenants is to “[k]eep that part of the dwelling unit and the part of the premises that he occupies free from insects and pests… and promptly notify the landlord of the existence of any insects or pests.” Code of Virginia § 55.1-1227(A)(3). So, tenants share in the responsibility to keep a rental clean and watch out for pest, but, as the court noted, “it is ultimately the landlord’s duty to keep the premises habitable” and landlords must pay for exterminators.

Let’s break it down.

So, as the appeals court noted:

  1. Landlords are responsible for ensuring a property is “habitable”.
  2. Infestations of fleas certainly makes the rental property uninhabitable.
  3. “Habitability” is not something a landlord can force a tenant to waive in the lease.
  4. Landlords can’t put all of the responsibility on a tenant.
  5. Therefore, it is up to the landlord to pay to eradicate the fleas.

Rental law can be confusing! Especially if you don’t know your rights as a renter. But there is help! Here at the Law Library, we are teaming up with lawyers from the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and hosting a series of workshops on Tenant/Landlord Law in Virginia. Come learn about your rights and responsibilities. Also learn what proposed new laws may benefit renters in Virginia.

More details on the workshops can be found by clicking here.

And if you need help with a housing issue, and qualify, reach out to Legal Aid. You can find information on housing assistance and more by downloading our Legal Resource Guide.

Charlie Schmidt

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