Mould is a year-round problem in humid climates. In Australia’s southern states, autumn often heralds the arrival of the dreaded fungi. Moisture, heat, dark and a lack of air flow are just the right conditions for mould and mildew to thrive.
Mould is a fungus that can grow in homes when conditions are damp, dark and poorly ventilated. Common places for mould include bathrooms, kitchens, cluttered storage areas, wall and roof spaces or behind furniture. Mould can spread from one surface to another by contact or it can be airborne.
More than being unsightly, mould can cause serious problems. When it dries out or is disturbed, it releases spores which can cause illness in some people or exacerbate existing health issues like asthma or respiratory infections. Mould can also cause odours and damage to building materials, contents and structures. If left untreated, it can grow into plaster, ceiling cavities, behind walls, in and behind gyprock and under carpets and floorboards – potentially causing structural damage.
The cause of mould and mildew in a rental could stem from maintenance issues or from the action or inaction of tenants – which means fixing the problem could rest with either landlord or with the tenants. If there is mould present at a property on your rent roll, you’ll need to be prepared – have contact details for mycologists to determine the cause of mould and specialist mould cleaners – and, of course, know the rights and responsibilities of all parties when it comes to remediation.
When it’s the landlord’s responsibility
It is the landlord’s responsibility to remedy mould caused by structural issues, or stemming from a lack of maintenance or repair such as:
• a leak in the roof
• a faulty pipe
• malfunctioning gutters causing overflow into the property
• surface water leaking into the building
• wet building foundations such as rising damp
• indoor plumbing leaks
Landlords are required to keep the property in a reasonable state of repair; meet building, health and safety requirements; and ensure all repairs are undertaken within a reasonable time frame. They could be in breach of the tenancy agreement if they don’t fulfil these obligations; for example, failing to get plumbing issues fixed, not repairing a leaky roof or not fixing broken exhaust fans etc. A tenant may be able to seek compensation from the landlord if mould damages their personal property and the landlord has failed to take reasonable steps.
An ounce of prevention: You should keep an eye out for potential problems during inspections and encourage tenants to immediately report any dampness, windows that don’t close properly or leaks. You should then ensure landlords remedy the issue promptly. Scheduling routine maintenance (such as cleaning out gutters) should also be on your to-do list this autumn.
When it’s the tenant’s responsibility
A tenant could be responsible for cleaning up outbreaks if their actions resulted in mould forming. For example:
• by showering without switching on the exhaust fan or opening a window
• leaving pools of water on tiles
• cooking without turning on the extractor fan
• using a drier without ventilation or drying clothes indoors and not airing the room afterwards
• failing to properly clean up indoor liquid spills
• getting the carpet wet and neglecting to properly dry it out
• not cleaning the home properly
Tenants are responsible for keeping the rental property in a reasonable state of cleanliness, not intentionally or negligently causing or permitting damage, and informing you or their landlord of any damage as soon as possible. If the tenant has caused the underlying problem that led to mould developing, or hasn’t informed you/their landlord of an issue with the property, they could be held responsible for mould damage and may have to compensate their landlord.
An ounce of prevention: You should remind tenants of the need to adequately ventilate the property – air the home by opening doors and windows, use exhaust fans in bathrooms when showering and for 30 mins afterwards, open a window when the clothes drier is on, use the extractor fan over the stove etc. It may also be a good idea to remind tenants that they (not you or their landlord) are responsible for cleaning up any mould (which may include specialist cleaning) that has appeared because of their actions.
As a PM, you manage your client’s obligations as a landlord. Your main role is managing the landlord obligation under tenancy law and ensuring your client is aware of their rights and obligations. When managing a property on behalf of an owner, it is important for you (as part of your obligation as managing agent) to assume the responsibility for inspections and to notify the landlord of any repairs which are the landlord’s responsibility.
When it comes to mould, it is important for you to ensure that any outbreaks are noted on the condition report (when the bond is paid/at the beginning of a tenancy) and on any routine inspection reports. Depending on the suspected cause of the mould, you should then discuss remediation with either landlord or tenant – and be sure to keep thorough records of all correspondence etc. If you fail in your duty of care to either landlord or tenant – or are accused of negligence or wrongdoing – you could face legal proceedings (making professional indemnity insurance a smart idea).
If the mould is widespread or identified within structures, a specialist cleaner will need to be engaged to sort out the problem.
Landlords and tenants should only attempt to clean up minor outbreaks of surface mould; for example, if it is in a cupboard or wardrobe, a small patch on a wall, on bathroom tiles etc. You are cautioned not to ask tenants to undertake any cleaning that could pose health or safety risks; for example, one that requires the use of a ladder or harsh chemicals (such as bleach) as doing so could constitute a breach of your duty of care as there is a foreseeable risk of injury. Cleaning requiring working at height or using chemicals should be contracted out to professionals who are licensed/certified and insured.
Insurance and mould
Neither landlord (landlord or building and contents) nor tenant (renter’s contents) can claim on their insurance for damage caused by mould. Damage caused by mould/mildew/fungus/algae is a standard exclusion in most building and contents policies in Australia.
As mould growth is frequently unavoidable and because it usually doesn’t cause any damage if it is taken care of quickly (i.e. damage is preventable), insurers will not offer cover for mould damage.
Insurance often won’t cover damage caused by mould or for mould removal or cleaning, even if it results from an insured event, such as storm damage or a burst water pipe. This means the cost for cleaning, repair or replacement will rest with the party (landlord or tenant) responsible for the presence of mould at the property in the first place. Mould can be a contentious issues at rentals and you can get caught in the cross-fire during the “blame game”, so it is important that you know how mould needs to be addressed according to state/territory legislation, and also that you protect yourself by making sure to identify mould outbreaks and notify the responsible party that remediation is required – and to make sure that it happens.
Although a home can fall prey to the dreaded mould spores at any time of the year, the arrival of cooler weather is a prime time for breeding. Get on top of any mould issues before they become expensive problems. Claiming for mould damage or for mould cleaning/removal on landlords’ or renters’ insurance is generally not an option, so it pays for you, your landlords and your tenants to keep on top of maintenance, repairs, cleaning and ventilation to stop the formation and spread of mould in the rental.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sharon Fox-Slater is the Managing Director of EBM RentCover, which protects more than 150,000 rental properties across Australia. She commenced a role with EBM back in 1993 and was part of the core team that helped launch one of Australia’s first landlord insurance policies into the market. She was also the first woman in Australia to complete the Advanced Diploma in Insurance Broking, and is well equipped to educate property investors and property professionals about the value of aligning with a specialist landlord insurance provider.