Cockroaches, mice, bedbugs and ants are among the most common pest problems in America, according to pest control experts, and there’s a good chance you will find yourself battling one in your home at some point. But the last thing you want is to move into a new house or apartment and find those unwanted roommates already making themselves comfortable.
Brian Schoonmaker, vice president of Capitol Pest Control in Bethesda, Maryland, says having insects, spiders or small mammals in your home is unavoidable, but there are ways to keep them from invading your space.
“[Pests are in] literally every home. If you go into a home you will find an insect or rodent dropping,” Schoonmaker says.
Even if pests seem harmless, the creepy crawlies are likely something you don’t want climbing in bed with you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn of the dangers to pregnant women in a home infested with mice that carry viruses, leading to birth defects or miscarriage simply from breathing in contaminated air. Many other pests also carry diseases or have potentially harmful venom.
Ron Harrison, entomologist and technical services director at Orkin says while pests may be everywhere, they shouldn't necessarily cause problems. “You say, ‘OK, I just bought my new home, and now I’ve got all these little silverfish that are in the bathtub, or in the sink, scurrying around on my couch. What did I just spend all this money for?’” he says.
Any pest problem can be dealt with, Harrison says, but it's best to have it taken care of before you move in to the apartment or house. He recommends putting it in writing that the place has to be pest-free before moving in.
Rather than waiting until they find you, follow these simple recommendations when you tour a place to find telltale signs that pests may already be squatting in your next home.
Take a good whiff. When you first step inside a home or apartment, let your nose tell you if something seems wrong.
Richard Estrada, president of ATCO Pest Control in the San Francisco Bay Area says many pests, especially mice and cockroaches, leave behind a smell you can notice in the air, particularly when the pest has made itself at home. “You should be able to detect the odor of a pretty heavy roach infestation,” which is typically described as musty or oily, he says.
Scan the room. Do you see any pests? Spotting a cockroach inside a cabinet or a mouse scurrying across the floor will immediately indicate a pest problem. Estrada says the sight of a pest in the flesh, or any traps or bait stations, should open up a conversation to discuss any pest issues. “Then you can just ask if it’s been taken care of, and the history of that [problem],” Estrada says.
Seeing them alive versus dead doesn't necessarily mean there's a bigger problem, but it serves as a good bargaining chip with the agent to stipulate that the home or apartment would need to be fully treated and rid of pests before moving in.
Keep a keen eye out for spots. Fecal matter is a sure sign that pests are in the home, so look for brown spots in and around cabinets that can come from cockroaches, or larger droppings from rodents.
If you see small maroon or brown spots on the walls, particularly behind a bed, or by outlets and switch plates, it may mean there’s a significant bedbug population in the room (more on that below). They could easily spread to other parts of the house if they haven't already, or even hitch a ride into your car or office.
Carpenter ants also leave behind evidence, but not of the fecal matter variety. As wood-destroying insects, they kick out wood shavings when they nest inside of wood, explains Doug Webb, manager of technical services at Terminix in Memphis, Tennessee.
What looks like sawdust on windowsills or elsewhere could indicate much more significant structural damage to the home due to these critters.
Bring a flashlight for dark areas. Looking in those hard-to-reach areas pests love to congregate in will help you spot signs of them, and Webb suggests bringing a small flashlight during tours to help see what may be there.
“Just shine in the cabinets, and see if you see a lot of little brown specks clustered around certain areas of the cabinets," Webb says. "That may be an indication of German cockroaches.”
He adds that closets are a good place to shine the flashlight to check for spider webs. Shining the flashlight along baseboards and behind radiators can also alert you to any holes created by rodents, which means you should....
Take a look at the baseboards. Mice or rats will chew holes as entry points into a room where the floor and wall meet, so keep an eye on the baseboards for any small holes.
The baseboards are also a place to spot bedbugs while the room is empty of furniture. Bedbugs are notoriously difficult to get rid of and can also be hard to see. Keep a close eye on the outlet covers and baseboards in the bedrooms in particular, as bedbugs prefer to stick to tight areas where they can squeeze in, Schoonmaker says.
“They love any crack and crevice, and if there is no furniture, really the only place for them to be is in the wall voids,” he says.
Ask about the landlord’s pest control policy. As larger buildings with many units, apartment buildings can be particularly difficult to eradicate a pest problem. Ask the leasing agent or property manager what company they work with and what their policy is when it comes to pests.
Schoonmaker says Capitol Pest approaches rodent problems holistically, closing up outside entrance points so new mice or rats aren’t able to come in, then setting traps and bait stations to get rid of the remaining population within the property.
However, when property managers don't grasp the extent of the problem, pest control companies are left simply patching up holes, which rodents will simply recreate nearby. “It’s almost like playing whack-a-mole sometimes, where you’re only able to treat one unit, and then two weeks later you get a call from the next door neighbor and three weeks later there’s a call downstairs,” Schoonmaker says. A leasing agent likely won’t want to tell you about any pest problems for fear of ruining their chances of making a deal, but asking what their policy is in the event of an infestation will give you an idea how they will handle any issue that may arise while you live there. That is, unless you don't mind sharing your home with a few extra guests.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.