People often think of bed bugs as a nuisance to watch for in hotel rooms. But professional exterminators say that 91% of the time, they find these pesky pests in single-family homes. That’s gross if you’re a homeowner, and double the trouble if you’re a seller. You’re wondering, “Is it illegal to sell a house with bed bugs?” or if the onus is on the buyers to make that choice.
“I was able to sell a multi-family unit that had bedbugs,” says Eric Broesamle, a real estate agent of a decade serving Mount Clemens, Sterling Heights, and neighboring communities in Michigan. However, he adds, “It’s not an easy sale.”
At a high level, here’s what Broesamle recommends:
- Eradicate the bed bugs with the help of a professional pest control company that guarantees its work.
- Provide proof that you addressed the problem to buyers, including the guarantee.
- Comply with your state’s disclosure requirements by revealing any material defects about the home, including the known presence of bed bugs and what you did to address it.
- Don’t overprice.
So while you can legally sell a house with bed bugs, you’ll first need to disclose the problem. And by way of disclosing, you’ll likely need to fix the issue before any buyer willingly moves in. But let’s back up a minute so that you can confirm who you’re dealing with (is it bed bugs?), figure out a realistic game plan, and sell this property with peace of mind.
The elusive nature of bed bugs
Bed bugs are a pervasive problem — almost 97% of all pest professionals treated them as recently as 2018 — but the general public doesn’t know a lot about them, according to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA).
“Bed bugs are quite elusive, hiding during the day and emerging at night to feed on a host,” says Brittany Campbell, Ph.D., a staff entomologist and research scientist at the NPMA. That host, by the way? Humans. (Yuck.)
More than half of pest control professionals say they receive the most bed bug complaints during the summer, likely because of increased travel. But while you read news reports about checking your hotel room for bed bugs, hotels and motels are actually the third most common location where exterminators notice these pests. Just 68% of pest professionals reported finding bed bugs there.
Overwhelmingly, pest professionals spot them in single-family homes (91%) and apartments or condominiums (89%).
Other locations where bed bugs love to gather? Generally, they’re where lots of people are, the NPMA says, including:
- Nursing homes (59%)
- Schools and day-care centers (47%)
- Office buildings (46%)
- College dorms (45%)
- Doctor’s offices and outpatient facilities (39%)
- Hospitals (36%)
- Public transportation (19%)
- Retail stores (16%)
- Movie theaters (13%)
In spite of their name, beds aren’t the only places where bed bugs like to get cozy. “Bed bugs can be found just about anywhere indoors where humans reside,” Campbell says.
“They’re typically found in and around the area you sleep, but can also hide in chair cushions, sofas, behind electrical outlets, cracks and crevices around baseboards, or even behind picture frames.”
The NPMA points out that they also like stuffed animals, purses, fluorescent light bulbs, wheelchairs, and even tucking inside bedside lamps.
What are the signs of a bed bug infestation?
Because bed bugs love our body heat and the carbon dioxide we produce, small red, itchy bites are the most common sign of an infestation, Campbell says.
However, not everyone reacts to these bites in the same way. Some people immediately develop a skin reaction treated with an anti-itch cream or antihistamine, she says. Others have no symptoms at all, so they could be unaware of the problem until the infestation has become worse.
Aside from bites, other signs of a bed bug infestation include:
- Small fecal spots (dark spots) on mattresses, upholstery, or walls
- Shed skin
- Blood smears
- Empty egg shells
- Bed bug eggs (about 1 mm in diameter and pearly white)
When checking for bed bugs, the pest control company Rentokil, which provides services in more than 80 countries, suggests looking for areas where a bug can tuck in tight, such as:
- Along mattress seams
- Along the joints and slats of a bed frame and in crevices of a headboard design
- Along the seams and zippers on upholstery and inside cushion covers
- Where furniture, baseboards, and carpeting meets the wall
- In the joints of drawers and along any cracks and crevices in bedside furniture
Granted, you also might see the bugs instead of just signs that they’re in your home. But not everyone can identify a bed bug. About 71% of pest professionals say that customers who have a bed bug infestation mistakenly identified the bugs as fleas.
What if there is a bed bug infestation in the house I’m selling?
First, you may want to contact a pest inspector to verify that you’re dealing with bed bugs and ask how to exterminate them properly. While a standard home inspector should be able to identify signs of a pest issue, some lenders, including those for VA loans, require pest inspections, Broesamle says.
These provide more detailed assessments and cost about $100 on average. But if you already work with a pest control company, many offer free preventive inspections annually.
With the multi-family unit that Broesamle sold, the lower unit was pest-free, but the upper unit had bed bugs from a previous tenant. The seller tried to remediate the problem on their own but couldn’t remove the bugs completely. So they called a professional pest control company, which guaranteed its work.
“You have it done professionally because that company guarantees that it’s gone,” Broesamle says.
The cost of killing bed bugs
The cost of exterminating bed bugs varies depending on the level of infestation and the size of the space involved, according to estimates from HomeAdvisor. Expect to pay an average of $1,000 to $2,500, although you could pay as little as $300.
As for the treatment, your options include fumigating your home, which involves chemicals (much like with fumigating for termites), or driving hot air into your home to get the temperature above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Bed bugs can’t tolerate such heat.
That’s why experts recommend that when you return from traveling, you should vacuum and steam your luggage. Also wash and dry all your clothes from your trip (even those you haven’t worn) on a hot cycle.
Better yet: check over where you’re staying for signs of any bed bugs, and ask to have your accommodations switched if you find any, Campbell says. “Inspect the bedsheets, bedframe, couches, and dressers before bringing your luggage into a room to avoid bringing these hitchhikers home with you.”
With the multi-family unit that Broesamle sold, the seller threw out a couch that the former tenants had left behind, which proved to be a hotspot for the bugs. The agent says he’s also known of properties where the owner had to remove and replace the carpeting because of bed bugs, but that can depend on the infestation and type of carpet.
However, discarding furniture is more the exception than the rule. Pest control experts told The New York Times that in almost all cases, it’s never necessary to discard a mattress or other belongings because treating them is part of the pest professional’s job. (As for your bedding and other washable fabrics, use the hot cycle on the washer and dryer.)
Do you have to disclose that a property used to or has ever had bed bugs?
Broesamle disclosed that the multi-family unit had been treated for bed bugs and provided potential buyers with documentation that included a certification from the pest company. “Yes, you can sell a home that has had bed bugs,” he says. “Make sure you disclose it.”
Granted, some state laws aren’t as black-and-white on this matter. Real estate disclosure laws generally say that a seller must disclose all “latent defects,” defined as material defects or improvements that someone can’t easily detect and that could be harmful to someone’s health and safety. But they might not specifically state anything about bed bugs.
Nevertheless, an attorney can argue that bed bugs cause an “extreme hardship” because of the distress from the bites, any allergic reactions to the bites, and emotional distress and anxiety from having them in the house, says personal injury attorneys Whitney, LLP, of Towson, Maryland. The firm specializes in termite damage and bed bug litigation and has successfully sued landlords for failing to disclose bed bug infestations under Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act.
A buyer of a residential property also could attempt to sue for nondisclosure, according to the online legal website Avvo of Seattle, Washington. Such a lawsuit may not be successful, but it’s likely that your real estate agent will advise being upfront regardless.
The disclosure provides added peace of mind, Broesamle says. With the certification about the bed bug treatment, the multi-family unit sold for “pretty close” to what the seller wanted, he says. “The market’s been pretty solid for the past three to four years,” he adds. “It was already priced pretty aggressively.”
You might not be sure whether your home has bed bugs — and you might feel awkward to disclose that they’ve been crawling around your home, to say the least. But experts like real estate agents and pest professionals are used to handling these types of issues and putting clients at ease. Talk with your real estate agent about how best to address your bed bug concerns so your home sale can move forward.
Header Image Source: (Patrick Chin / Death to the Stock Photo)