Greg Laycock

The presence of mould has become a high-stakes gamble for apartment building owners, management companies, developers and builders. The past wave of litigation sought verdicts in the billions of dollars. Since mould and other airborne pollutants are often difficult to detect, potential buyers also are at significant risk. There are a couple of simple steps buyers can take to protect themselves.

First, have a qualified engineer inspect the property. Even if you think you see mould, you may not have identified the source – and therefore the solution – to the problem. Also, make sure that owners are required to spell out any mould problems in disclosure documents, and that they identify whether these incidents were caused by tenant lifestyle issues (for instance, not running the bathroom fan) or if the problem is structural. Again, this information will be key to knowing how to fix the problem and how much it will cost.

Developers and builders also need to be cognizant of mould and implement risk mitigation measures, primarily by preventing water intrusion and mould growth in the first place. But preventing water intrusion can be difficult, especially if multiple subcontractors are on a project. Builders need to get subcontractors to sequence and coordinate their work so that water doesn’t get into the building. And if the building’s interior does get wet, the subcontractors should work together to dry it immediately to prevent mould growth.

One way to prod subcontractors to prevent water intrusion, and for builders to protect themselves if it does occur, is a clause in subcontracts that shifts the risk of water intrusion and mold to the subcontractors if they are responsible it. The clause should make subs responsible for sequencing, coordinating and protecting the work during construction. If they fail to do this, the clause should also make them responsible for the costs to remediation any damage and for other costs incurred as a result.

Landlords and property managers can help head off mold growth by educating residents that it is important not only to immediately report any plumbing leaks or other moisture sources, but also to take specific actions to minimize mould growth in their apartment homes.

These include the following steps:
1. Periodically clean and dry the walls and floors around the sink, bathtub, shower, toilets, windows and patio doors using a common household disinfecting cleaner.

2. On a regular basis, wipe down and dry areas where moisture sometimes accumulates, like countertops, windows and windowsills.

3. Use the preinstalled bathroom fan or alternative ventilation when bathing or showering and allow the fan to run until all excess moisture has been vented from the bathroom
.
4. Use the exhaust fans in your kitchen when cooking or while the dishwasher is running and allow the fan to run until all excess moisture has been vented from the kitchen.

5. Ensure that your clothes dryer vent operates properly, and clean the lint screen after every use.

6. Do not overfill closets or storage areas. Ventilation is important in these spaces.

7. If possible, maintain a temperature of between 10 and 20 degree Celsius at all times.

8. Clean and dust your apartment on a regular basis as required by your lease. Regular vacuuming, mopping and use of environmentally safe household cleaners are important to remove household dirt and debris that contribute to mould growth.

9. Immediately report to management any evidence of a water leak or excessive moisture in your apartment, storage room, garage or any common area.

10. Immediately report to management any evidence of mould growth that cannot be removed by simply applying a common household cleaner and wiping the area. Also report any area of mould that reappears despite regular cleaning.

Potential signs of mould growth include:

Stained ceiling tiles or walls musty, earthy or urine smell or odor black, brown, orange-pinkish or green speckled walls or around any plumbing grout or tile Mild to severe unexplained illness swollen or crumbling walls or floor boards sewer backup leaky roof, window or door

For more information, the National Multi Housing Council has published an operations and maintenance plan for mold and moisture control on its Web site at http://www.nmhc.org. This document identifies best practices and concrete steps apartment owners and managers can use to manage mould growth and moisture problems on their properties.

GREG LAYCOCK is a senior director at Cushman & Wakefield of Washington. This report was originally published in the Sept. 13, 2002 print edition of Puget Sound Business Journal.