Not such a fun-guy

As the cooler weather arrives, so does the increased risk of mould in rentals. While the fungi may be small, they can cause big problems. And as damage caused by mould is not covered by landlord insurance, it’s best to nip it in the spore before it spreads.

Steaming hot showers. Tumbling clothes in the drier. Warming soups and stews blipping away on the stove. Every door and window closed with draught stoppers to keep the warmth in. Subdued lighting to create a cosy atmosphere. Thermostats heading northwards. The arrival of the cooler weather often means tenants go into hibernation, but it also creates a perfect storm for mould growth (of course mould is a perennial problem in the tropics/humid parts of the country).

Moisture, heat, dark and a lack of air flow are the BFFs of mould and mildew.

The mould growing on old fruit and veg in the crisper, or multiplying on the bread, is not the same beast as the mould/mildew that can be found on walls, ceilings, and other hard and soft surfaces in homes.

This fungal growth can pose health risks for occupants. When mould dries out or is disturbed, it releases spores which can cause illness in some people or exacerbate existing health issues like asthma, respiratory infections, sinus problems, rashes and watery itchy eyes.

In addition to ill-health, mould can also cause odours and damage to building materials, contents and structures. lf left untreated, mould can grow into plaster, ceiling cavities, behind walls, in and behind gyprock and under carpets and floorboards – potentially causing structural damage. This can lead to expensive maintenance, replacement or management costs such as professional cleaning.

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 (and their agent) or with the tenants.

Mould caused by structural issues is the responsibility of landlords and their agents to remedy. Mould could result from:

  • a leak in the roof
  • cracked roof tiles
  • 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
  • lack of ventilation in roof cavities or under the floor

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 timeframe. 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: Agents 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. Agents should then ensure landlords remedy the issue promptly. They should also schedule routine maintenance (such as cleaning out gutters) and be ready to address any issues as they arise (e.g. 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).

On the other hand, a tenant could be responsible for cleaning up outbreaks if their actions resulted in the mould forming. For example:

  • showering without switching on the exhaust fan or opening a window
  • leaving pools of water on tiles
  • cooking without engaging the extractor fan or rangehood
  • using a clothes drier without adequate ventilation or drying clothes indoors and then not airing the room afterwards
  • using un-flued heaters, which can release water vapour into the air
  • failing to properly clean up indoor liquid spills
  • getting the carpet wet and neglecting to properly dry it out
  • neglecting to wipe condensation from walls or windows
  • storing large volumes of water-absorbent materials such as books or cardboard boxes in a damp space
  • not cleaning the home properly
  • leaving windows or doors open during rain

Tenants are responsible for keeping the rental property in a reasonable state of cleanliness, not intentionally or negligently causing or permitting damage, and informing landlord or agent of any damage as soon as possible. If the tenant has caused the underlying problem that led to mould developing, or hasn’t informed their landlord or agent 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: Agents should remind tenants of the need to adequately ventilate the property – air the home by opening doors and windows, use exhaust fans in bathrooms, open a window when the clothes drier is on, use the extractor fan over the stove etc.

If the premises or contents are damaged as a result of mould, the affected party (landlord or tenant) can seek compensation from the responsible party. While the responsible party may be at fault of causing the damage, the affected party must make every reasonable effort to mitigate their own losses (e.g. a tenant should remove clothes from a wardrobe where there is mould growing; a landlord should attend to any reports of dampness promptly).

However, neither landlord nor tenant can claim for damage caused by mould on their insurance. Damage caused by mould/mildew/fungus/algae is a standard exclusion in most building and contents insurance policies in Australia.

Why? For two reasons. Firstly because mould growth is frequently unavoidable. And secondly, because it usually doesn’t cause any damage if it is taken care of quickly (i.e. damage is preventable).

Cover is usually not provided even if the mould is the result of an insured event. For example, if a pipe bursts and floods a room, cover for the damage, such as destroyed carpet, resulting from that leak is likely to be covered under ‘escape of liquid’ provisions. But if that leak causes mould growth, then the policyholder may not be covered for the removal or cleaning of the carpet, or any damage that can be attributed directly to the mould rather than the burst pipe.

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 – as the cost of damage caused by mould and mildew will rest solely on the shoulders of the party who was responsible for its presence. Claiming for mould damage or for mould cleaning/removal on landlords’ or renters’ insurance is generally not an option.