Until 10 years ago, I thought bed bugs were nothing more than a childhood nursery rhyme. You know the one: "Sleep tight; don't let the bed bugs bite." But then I unknowingly moved into a bed bug-infested building, and what ensued was hands down the worst year of my life. If you want to avoid avoid the physical, emotional, and financial turmoil that accompanies a bed bug infestation, then you need to know how to tell if an apartment has bed bugs before you sign the lease.
While bed bugs are present in every city, Terminix recently release its annual report of the most bed bug infested cities in the U.S. Topping the list are Philadelphia, New York City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati. The report noted that 22% of people have had an experience with bed bugs, yet 48% don't know what kind of precautions to take in order to prevent them. Fear not my friendlies: I am here to share with you what I wish I'd known before moving into a bed bug-infested apartment.
Fortunately, in 2019, landlords are prohibited from renting units with known infestations, and most states require property managers to provide tenants with information about bed bugs, according to the legal site Nolo. I received this information with my most recent lease. It included a clause that said the apartment was free of bed bugs as well as information about what to do if you suspect you have bed bugs in the future.
But before I get into how to make sure you're not moving into a building with a bed bug problem, here's the quick and dirty about bed bugs. It's important to know that although they're called bed bugs, they can be found on any surface, including in between floorboards, under carpets, and even inside of books. Bed bugs are nocturnal, meaning they come out at night to feast on the blood of humans. While they don't transmit diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bites are itchier than anything I've ever experienced.
If you think you can't get them because you practice a level of cleanliness that could rival Monica from Friends, bed bugs only eat blood, so it doesn't matter how clean your home is. As long as there is blood in your body, you're a very attractive meal for a bed bug.
In addition, bed bugs are notoriously hard to get rid of since the ban on the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, according to the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky. They're also very hard to see until they become adults, and even then they are only about as big as an apple seed. This is why you want to do everything you can to avoid getting them in the first place.
What's more, they can go up to 18 months without feeding. This means that even if you're moving into an apartment that's been vacant for a while, you should still check for bed bugs before signing the lease. Because bed bugs can travel on clothes and other items, a never-lived-in unit can also have bed bugs.
The first thing you can do before viewing a potential apartment is to read Yelp reviews of the building and/or property management company, and check the address against the Bed Bug Registry. This is a site where people report bed bugs at hotels and residential properties. Because this information is self-reported, there is no guarantee a unit is safe just because it's not listed on the registry, but it's a good first step. I have checked every apartment I have lived in during the last 10 years against the registry.
In addition, if any unit in the building you're looking at has been listed in the past year, know that bed bugs can easily travel from one unit to another in an apartment building. If the building is listed as having had a problem several years ago, it might be worth considering if you ask a lot of questions and get information from the property manager about their bed bug protocol.
Another thing you can do is take a playing card and run it along cracks between the baseboards and the floor and in between floorboards to see if any brown fecal matter or molted skin is visible. If the apartment is carpeted, try to pull up a section of carpet next to the wall to check for fecal matter or run a card in the area where the carpet meets the wall. The site Sniff K9s suggests using a blow dryer and running it over the same areas to check for live bed bugs. You can also hire a bed bug-sniffing dog to come check out the apartment before you sign your lease.
Overall, the best way to ensure the apartment you're moving into is bed bug free is to arm yourself with information. Look up the laws in your city and state to find out what your landlord is required to tell you and who is responsible for paying for extermination should an infestation occur. Physically check out the unit using the aforementioned methods, check the registry, and read reviews of the building.
If anything feels off, walk away. While bed bugs are easier to manage and eradicate than they were 10 years ago — because there is more information available now — this is one experience you definitely don't want to have. It's been 10 years since my bed bug nightmare, and I'm still not over it.