"Good night; sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite.
And if they do, then take your shoe,
And knock them 'till they're black and blue..."
If only it were that easy. We’ve all heard some version of this nursery rhyme and most of us thought it was just an endearing way of ending the day. Who knew there was actually a creature called a bed-bug? And that they actually do bite? And that they would turn into the scourge of our modern existence- at least in New York City- currently the #1 city for bed-bugs in the entire United States?
It seems like you can’t turn on the news anymore without hearing a story about these pervasive little creatures- setting up house in local buildings, retail stores, offices (including Bill Clinton’s space in Harlem and in the Empire State Building) , libraries, and courthouses, among many other places. Friends of mine will no longer go out to the movies (thank goodness for NetFlix!), as they’ve been found in theatres as well. And forget about that romantic weekend in a NYC hotel; you may come home with some unwelcome guests in your luggage. These creatures are not selective at all- they’ll go anywhere they can get a good meal (namely human blood), but what we’re especially concerned about is finding them in our own homes…and beds.
Just as a quick background, bedbugs do not carry or transmit disease. But they do feed on human blood- at night- in bed. They can conveniently travel on clothes, in suitcases, inside your purse and in apartment buildings they can move from room to room or apartment to apartment through electrical outlets. Their bite anesthetizes the victim so that an unsuspecting host may not even be aware of the attack until the morning after- when the scratching begins.
So how do you protect yourself from these nocturnally pervasive critters when you’re buying a new home? And what do you do if you’re selling a place that’s been affected by them?
If you’re purchasing a house and you want to be sure that it’s BB-free, your best bet is to hire an exterminator to check for them in addition to the standard termite inspection. Note that bed-bugs are a relatively new specialty and not every exterminator will do both. While concern is generally higher about infestation in co-ops and condos, the insects could just as easily make themselves at home in a house and it’s always best to know before you move in, as treatments can be invasive and destructive to property. Trained, licensed exterminators can perform thorough visual inspections; additionally the use of dogs has become increasingly popular and is quite reliable. The pups are trained to sniff out the bugs which, apparently have a very distinct odor…like raspberries, so I’m told.
If the bugs are discovered, there are a few options. One is a series of pesticide treatments which involves time-consuming cleaning, vacuuming, and plastic-bagging of all household items. Supposedly more effective , with the added bonus of being chemical-free as well as non-toxic to humans, is thermal remediation. This involves heating the house to about 130 degrees for several hours with special equipment that serves to dry the bugs to death. Pets, as well as their owners, must be removed from the home during this process. Certain items- like oil paintings, aerosol cans and candles- also need to be taken away for obvious reasons. Finally, a spray called “Cryonite” can be used. This is also environmentally safe, harmless to humans and gets rid of the bedbugs by freezing them with a type of gas.
Now that you know what to do about them, what happens if bed-bugs actually exist in a house that you’re planning to buy? Like any aspect of a faulty home inspection, including termite invasion, the treatment would be subject to negotiation between the parties. As buyer’s attorney I would demand that the problem be remediated prior to closing, that proof of treatment be provided as well as documentation indicating that the premises is now bed-bug free. Since the pesticide option is the least costly while the other two are the more preferable, the type of treatment may also be subject to negotiation. For example, if a seller wishes to go for the less expensive option but the buyer is set on one of the ‘green’ choices, we may decide to split the difference. Remember, in a good settlement, nobody ends up 100% happy.
And what if you’re buying a co-op or condo apartment? In September of 2010, former Governer Paterson signed “The Bed Bug Disclosure Act” into law, requiring landlords to notify prospective tenants in writing about any BB infestations that may have occurred during the past year. Whether or not this applies to co-ops is unclear and not specifically adressed in the legislation but since one of the pieces of co-op "ownership" is a proprietary lease (along with a stock certificate representing the number of shares owned), more and more co-op transfer agents are now having non-bed-bug disclosures signed at closing.
Many attorneys, myself included, have begun to add bed-bug clauses to contract riders to help protect the purchaser. This simply states that seller has no knowledge of bed-bugs in their unit and is unaware of any reports of bed-bugs in the building. I also make a phone call to management each time I represent a co-op or condo buyer to find out if any occupants have reported the nasty things and if so, how the problem was rectified.
It’s important to know your options with respect to bed-bugs and to take all precautions necessary to assure that they don’t end up in your home. Knowing for sure that your living quarters are bed-bug-free should help you sleep a little tighter at night.