Rats and rentals: Who pays to clear the rodent invaders?

There are three types of rat in New Zealand, and all are devastating our native wildlife.

When a South Canterbury farmer advertised for a minimum wage farm assistant who would have to share an "old house" with occasional rodent visitors, it caused a social media stir.

It turned out the advert was more of a fanciful bureaucratic box-ticking exercise to please New Zealand Immigration.

But rats invading homes are a reality for some renters, and it's not always clear whether they, or their landlords have to pay to eradicate them.

Rats are unwelcome guests in many homes.
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Rats are unwelcome guests in many homes.

A steady stream of rat-related disputes come before the Tenancy Tribunal giving some insights into where the fault lies for rat intrusions.

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In April, frustrated Hamilton landlord Kay Montgomery went to the tribunal seeking unpaid rent, and money to clean up her rental, after a tenant left it in a terrible state.

Landlord Andrew King from Property Investors Federation says sometimes tenants and landlords share the cost of repelling ...
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Landlord Andrew King from Property Investors Federation says sometimes tenants and landlords share the cost of repelling rats.

She'd served the tenant with a 42-day notice for rent arrears and for "not keeping the premises reasonably tidy and having a rat problem".

She was awarded $1357 by the tribunal.

A similar thing happened in another April judgement, with Mount Wellington landlord Kenneth Karunanayake seeking $1633 to clean up his rental, including dealing with a rat problem.

But sometimes the rat problem is not of the tenants' making.

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Jonathan Cave and Lynne Tomokino from Otara in Auckland took their landlord to the tribunal and were awarded $5952.48 including exemplary damages of $2600 to get the place cleaned up and deal with a rat problem.

The tenant said the property was in a filthy condition, infested with rats and with multiple repair and maintenance issues outstanding at the start of the tenancy, and the tribunal agreed.

The rat infestation at the property was a breach of section 45 (1) (a) of the Residential Tenancies Act, which says a landlord "shall provide the premises in a reasonable state of cleanliness".

"The tenant laid bait for the rats and paid for pest control to eradicate fleas," the tribunal referee found. "The tenants water blasted the garage to remove dog and rat urine with a water blaster provided by Mr Khan (the landlord). The presence of rats and fleas inside interfered with the tenants' quiet enjoyment of the property and created unsanitary conditions."

In another rat-infested case, a landlord seeking money from a former tenant failed when the tribunal was presented with evidence of the tenant finding a dead rat in a cupboard the day they moved in.

The referee found: "the presence of a dead rat in a cupboard suggests a lack of thoroughness in ensuring that, at least some parts, of the premises were reasonably clean at the commencement" of the tenancy.

Tenancy Services says if rats are present when a tenant moves in, it's the landlord's job to deal with them.

The law is hazy however on who pays if rats move in during the tenancy.

It advises: "Tenants should let the landlord know as soon as they see signs of a possible pest problem. Where the infestation was not present at the beginning of the tenancy and neither the landlord nor tenant has done anything to cause it, responsibility for the eradication of the infestation is uncertain."

Landlord Andrew King, executive officer of the Property Investors Federation, said: "The problem can be that the property is in a poor condition, and has attracted rats, or it can be that the tenant is treating the property badly, which has attracted rats."

Providing a pest-free home at the start of a tenancy is a landlord's responsibility, but if rats put in an appearance after that, it was common for tenant and landlord to share costs.

It's not always rats. One of King's properties ended up with a flea infestation thanks to the cats of a former tenant. When the problem became apparent to a new tenant, King paid to fumigate.

Older cases that have been before the tribunal show some real rat horrors, including gaps in a ceiling through which rat droppings fell onto a bed, and one in which some Foxton tenants fell ill, with the source of their disease traced back to the decaying corpse of a rat in the water tank.

 - Stuff

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