Renting an apartment or house in North Carolina can be stressful enough without having to think about fungi. Tenants must struggle with a multitude of factors in their potential rental property, from the personality of their neighbors, to the landlord’s policy on cats. But as onerous as the rental process is, tenants must add another issue to their move-in checklist: mold.
Although mold hasn’t traditionally been a top priority for potential renters, new research on the health effects of mold have made people sit up and take notice of the mold growing in their homes. Renters have a more complicated set of rules governing the process of mold and mildew removal than homeowners. This process involves landlords, renter’s insurance, and most importantly, tenant’s rights laws. North Carolina renters do have some rights that can help them when mold becomes a problem in their rental units. This article is intended to shed some light on the special legal situation for renters in the Tar Heel state. It is important to remember, however, that you should always seek out the legal aid of an attorney before attempting to take a landlord or property manager to court over mold or other complaints.
First of all, renters should know what mold (or mould) is, and why it’s a problem. What is mold? Mold is a common fungus found in the natural world. Its general purpose is to decompose organic material, such as fallen leaves or wood. Humans come into contact with mold all the time, and of the millions of different species of mold that exist, most are safe if exposure is brief and the concentration is small. However, mold that grows indoors can become a real health hazard. Molds give off tiny airborne particles, or spores, that can enter a person’s lungs, causing an array of respiratory problems. Mild symptoms of mold exposure include wheezing, eye irritation, sore throat, coughing, and other flu and allergy-related problems. Mold spores can trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate allergies. Toxigenic molds, such as “black mold” (stachybotrys atra), can be even more serious, with some reports of infant deaths as a result of black mold exposure. With this in mind, North Carolina residents should take any infestation of mold in their homes very seriously.
Although renters across the country should be aware of the dangers of mold and mildew in their homes, North Carolina residents should be especially concerned. As a southern coastal state, North Carolina is typically humid in the summer and wet and cold in the winter, meaning there is a constant supply of moisture in the air. Additionally, the coast of North Carolina has seen several storms and hurricanes in recent years, which can cause severe home water damage. Mold can grow quickly in flood-ravaged homes, making clean-up efforts that much more difficult. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website has addressed the issue of mold in North Carolina homes, recommending that North Carolina residents hire certified, trained indoor air quality (IAQ) professionals when attempting to test, remediate, and remove problem mold. Professional mold technicians should also have expertise in moisture detection, since, as the North Carolina Health and Human Services Department states, “mold growth problems can be related to water or moisture intrusion.”
It may be discomforting for renters to hear that currently there are no national regulations regarding the amount of mold that can legally be present in a rental property. No federal codes exist that deal exclusively with mold testing or mold removal in rental properties. Tenants aren’t completely helpless, though. Two basic renter’s rights laws are often used in mold cases: the rights of a tenant to a habitable living environment and the rights of a tenant to have repairs fixed in a timely manner. Renters should also know that they cannot be defrauded into signing a lease. If a renter asks a landlord directly about any known mold problems with the property, the landlord cannot give the renter misleading information about current mold growth.
In North Carolina, the Residential Rental Agreements Act states that the landlord must “make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition” and “maintain in good and safe working order and promptly repair all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and other facilities and appliances supplied or required to be supplied by him provided that notification of needed repairs is made to the landlord in writing by the tenant except in emergency situations.” This is an important law because mold is always the result of moisture. If the moisture intrusion is the result of some flaw in the building, such as a leaky roof or a broken water pipe, the landlord must fix the problem. Tenants must give the landlord written notice of the needed repairs, and except in emergency situations the landlord has 30 days to make the repairs before breaking his or her end of the lease agreement. In many cases leaks can count as emergency situations. If you do request a repair be made by the landlord, make sure you sign and date the document, keep a copy for yourself, and if possible, have the notice sent by certified mail. Keeping a detailed record of your interactions with the landlord will help in any potential legal disputes.
There is one important stipulation about tenancy rights pertaining to mold. The renter is fully responsible for mold damage if the mold is the result of the renter’s own negligence. For example, if the renter’s fish tank leaks onto the floor, and mold grows as a result of the moisture, the renter, not the landlord, is responsible. The costs of replacement and repair might be covered by renter’s insurance, depending on your specific policy.
Unlike many other states, North Carolina does not allow a tenant to withhold full or partial rent payment in the event that a landlord has failed to make repairs in a reasonable time. According to the North Carolina Department of Justice legal advice handbook on landlord repair laws, “North Carolina law does not allow tenants to withhold rent payments [for failing to fix a problem] or any other way, with two exceptions: when the landlord consents to it in writing or when a judge or civil magistrate allows you to withhold rent pursuant to a court order.” Therefore, it’s important for North Carolina renters to establish a record of interactions with their landlord, since it may take legal action, such as a small claims court case, to compel a landlord to fix problems.
If there is visible mold in your rental unit, it is important to get the mold tested and removed by a professional mold remediation expert. Attempting to tackle mold problems by yourself may make matters worse. Agitating mold can cause it to release spores, and without the proper safety equipment you and your family could breathe in even more toxic mold spores. Even though North Carolina has not enacted laws that specifically address mold in rental property, tenants need to know that they have the right to live in a safe, habitable building. Getting your rental property tested is the first step in making certain your home is free from the harmful effects of mold.