7 Lessons I Learned After Pests Invaded My New Apartment
I moved to New York City like most do — with six seasons of “Sex and the City” under my belt and a summer internship in Midtown that convinced me I knew what it was like to be a New Yorker. What was not advertised about Carrie Bradshaw’s understated pre-war walk-up was the plethora of issues that may come along with living in a 155-year-old apartment building.
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After three months of personalizing my own charming third-floor unit of a Brooklyn brownstone, a reality check arrived at my doorstep. First came the roaches, then the bed bugs, and last but certainly not least, the mice. It was the holy trinity of pests. I was devastated and knew I had to get out.
What came next was two months of sleeping on my couch to avoid the bed bugs, and figuring out what to do with little money and no experience when it came to New York City tenants’ rights. A month later, I was able to walk away from my lease with a glowing reference letter from my landlady and my security deposit in hand. Here’s how I got out of my infested apartment, scot-free.
You might have to hit rock bottom.
The first step in getting out of a lease due to infestations is to truly hit rock bottom. Breaking a lease and finding a new apartment requires an immense amount of determination, which really, is often born out of desperation. For me, that moment was the first time I slept in my bed — a month after my apartment was fumigated — and woke up with bites. I was losing sleep and living in constant paranoia thanks to the mice and roaches nibbling at the contents of my pantry, and I knew these pests weren’t going anywhere. I spent sleepless nights budgeting what little money I had, asking family for help, and going through a million Reddit threads to figure out my plan of action.
Document, document, document.
From bites to bedbug eggs, roaches, and mice droppings, “document everything,” says landlord and tenant law attorney Samuel Goldberg. “Always take photographs of anything that’s wrong in your apartment. You want to have proof that it existed,” he says. You should also have proof, in the form of an email or certified letter, that you notified your landlord of the issues. This will definitely come into play if things get dragged into court. “One of the requirements is notice,” he says. “The landlord has to be put on notice that there is something wrong in your apartment.”
Know your rights.
Let’s say the conversation with your landlord doesn’t go too well. As a tenant in New York, you’re still entitled to a habitable rental unit. “You can immediately call 3-1-1, which is [the Housing Preservation and Development department],” says Goldberg. “HPD would send an inspector and they would look around your apartment. HPD would issue a violation against the landlord if there are habitability issues. By having this violation issued by HPD, it’s prima facie evidence that there is an issue in your apartment.” At that point, if you refuse to pay your rent as a result of an unresolved habitability issue and your landlord takes you to court, you’re able to cite the documented violations.
Decide to leave and don’t be deterred.
Having to upend your life due to infestations is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s grueling, time-consuming, and tempting to give up on, but the alternative is far worse. If your landlord won’t compromise, you’re not stuck. Thanks to something called constructive eviction, tenants have the ability to break their lease without penalties due to unlivable circumstances. Worried that if you leave, it might create a hostile scenario with your landlord? “My response to that is if the landlord is refusing to make repairs of your apartment, they’ve created the hostile situation,” says Goldberg.
Avoid trouble in the first place.
When I was apartment hunting, I functioned in a Pinterest bubble. I wanted a warm, vintage aesthetic with a few coffee shops and a train nearby. I wasn’t looking into complaints against the landlord or the building’s inspection history. I didn’t look in the cabinets for mouse droppings or cracks and gaps in the structure, where roaches enter through. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. There are plenty of resources, like the HPD building look-up website, apps like Nextdoor and Igloo, and old-fashioned human interaction. After the real estate agent leaves, stick around and talk to people who live in the building. Get a feel for what you’ll be getting yourself into.
Make sure your landlord is a decent human being.
A huge factor in me walking away from my lease, security deposit and reference letter in hand, was my kind-hearted landlady. I came to her and asked if I could be let out of my lease. It wasn’t accusatory or stern — honestly, it was a little pathetic. I did cry. “I wouldn’t want this for my own daughter,” were her exact words to me. When viewing apartments, don’t just factor in location, natural light and whether or not there’s an elevator. While all important things, what’s equally (if not more) important is who owns the building. Make sure they are decent, responsive and involved. It makes a world of a difference.
Your mental health comes first.
“Money comes and goes.” That’s what someone told me when I was deciding whether or not to move. At the time, I was broke and angry at her for saying it, but in hindsight, she was right. Having a safe, habitable home is non-negotiable. I cleaned out my bank account and borrowed money from family members in order to move, and it was the best decision I could’ve made. Being eaten alive by bugs every night, having mice scurrying through the kitchen, and roaches climbing your bed posts is not a way for anyone to live. Talk to your landlord. Call 311. And if all else fails, just leave. You’ll figure out the rest.