Pests & Insects: 10 Renter Red Flags

Look out for signs of pests when you're apartment hunting.
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Whether pests fascinate you with a scientific curiosity or disgust you completely, we have to admit that pests don't make good roommates. Pests can bite, spread disease among people, invade our food supply and cause damage to structures. What's worse -- even if you rent a place for only a brief amount of time -- the pests can hide in your stuff, allowing you unknowingly to bring an infestation with you when you move out. So, before you move into a rental apartment or home, it's best to make sure it doesn't already have some pesky occupants.

This can be difficult, however, as pests know how to hide, especially during the day, and apartment complexes provide plenty of hidden pathways and easy entry points for pests to use. Luckily, many pests do tend to leave clues that they're there, lurking behind walls or in holes. That's why it's important to know what to look for.


10: Seeing Pests and Insects

This may go without saying, but if you actually see rodents or bugs while you're touring a rental property, this is a blatant red flag. To do this, you'll need to recognize pests and differentiate between them to understand what kind of infestation may be present. For instance, seeing a fly or two may not be big deal, but spotting and recognizing cockroaches is a very bad sign. And an ant problem is more easily controllable than a bed bug infestation.

Look carefully in the kitchen and bathrooms for any bugs. Some renters may have a wishful hope that spotting a pest doesn't mean there's necessarily an infestation. This may be true, but spotting a pest does indicate that even if there isn't an infestation yet, there soon could be. And don't give landlords the benefit of the doubt if they claim to be unaware of an infestation.


9: Nearby Breeding Grounds

Mice and rats tend to hide behind walls.
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Because pests usually hide, it's likely that you won't see one on your initial tour -- even if an infestation is present. But you'll do well to identify some likely breeding grounds for pests in and around the property. This will give a clue as to whether the place is already infested or if it has a high potential for future infestations.

Mosquitoes, for instance, breed in stagnant water. Pools of stagnant water around the property suggest that mosquitoes could be a problem in the summer (something to keep in mind when looking at a property in the winter). If you rent a house where there's a pond, ask the landlord for a circulating pump, or consider purchasing one yourself.


If the apartment building is adjacent to an unkempt alley with garbage from adjacent establishments, this is a bad sign. And because both mice and rats love wires, look for electrical wires hanging in unenclosed areas. Check around gas and water pipes, which are also favorite hangouts for rodents.

8: Pest Droppings

Although rodents and insects like to hide from sight, they do tend to leave evidence of themselves behind. One of the telltale signs of rodent and insect activity in a rental unit is the presence of their excrement. And gross as it may seem to study pest droppings, learning to recognize them will save you from renting a place where you'll have to deal with the pests on a daily basis.

Mice and rats leave as many as 50 fecal pellets a day, so chances are you'll spot some if you have an infestation. Mouse droppings are about the size of rice grains, while rat droppings are as big as raisins. When fresh, the rodent droppings are dark, moist, soft and shiny. Old droppings will be a dull gray.


Roach droppings will look different, however, and actually resemble black pepper pellets. Also, watch for roach egg cases, which can be brown, dark red or black, and appear smooth and shiny. Bed bugs leave behind dark brown or black excrement that appear as small spots, usually on mattresses or around tiny holes that serve as hiding spots (such as gaps in a bed frame).

7: Evidence of Nesting

Pests tend to flock to dirty areas.
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If the former tenants are still living there when you tour a rental unit, observe how clean (or unclean) they are. A dirty kitchen will, of course, attract both rodents and bugs. But if you see papers everywhere, or spot holes in their couch cushions and carpet, they've also given rodents plenty of fodder for nesting material.

Rats and mice love to make nests out of whatever they can find. Their favorite materials are paper, cushion stuffing, tissue, hair and cloth. Take a flashlight with you when you visit the rental unit and check all the nooks and crannies for red flags like shredded paper. Don't forget to check inside cabinets and behind appliances in the kitchen.


6: Odd Smells

If you've ever had a pest infestation before, you may have noticed a distinct smell associated with it. This isn't your imagination. Many pests give off recognizable smells. So, if you're familiar with it, you should be very suspicious if you ever think that you smell that particular odor again in a rental unit.

For instance, experts say that mice give off a musty, urine smell, while rats smell like ammonia. Bed bugs have a sweet, musty odor. Some experienced exterminators can even determine what kind of roach infestation you have based on the smell. Roaches have an oily odor, which some have described smells like "fecal soy sauce" [source: Hurt].


But remember that rodents and pests rummage through garbage, so they pick up those smells as they go along. A garbage smell is a bad sign in any case because it attracts more pests.

5: The Pattering of Little Feet

If you listen closely, it's possible to hear larger bugs, too.
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In addition to searching for odd smells, you'll also want to keep an ear out for rodents. Because mice and rats love to hide behind walls or under floorboards, it can be difficult to spot them. But if you get the chance to listen attentively, you may be able to actually hear rodent activity.

Listen for sounds that seem like scurrying, scratching on walls or gnawing. It can help if you're able to visit the rental property at night, when the nocturnal rodents tend to be more active.


Aside from movement, you could possibly hear rodents squeaking. Both mice and rats squeak when they're fighting with each other or when they communicate.

4: Gnaw Marks and Holes

If you find holes this large, it might be time to back away.
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Researchers still don't really know why, but for some reason, rats love to gnaw on things. And while this is an unpleasant habit that could ruin some of your stuff, it's fortunately an observable red flag for a potential tenant to suspect an infestation. If you spot chewed-up electrical wires, this could be a sign of rats or mice. Rats love to gnaw on all kinds of material, from plastic to wood or even metal. If you spot little gnaw marks, there's a good chance rats roam the place at night.

Holes in or around the property are also important giveaways that indicate a possible infestation. If you find burrows in weedy areas and garbage areas near the property, this is a bad sign. And don't discount even small holes in walls and floors. Small insects, of course, can enter rooms this way, and even rats can squeeze through holes less than an inch wide by collapsing their skeleton [source: Sullivan]. Of course, small holes are common, especially in older buildings. But you can point them out and ask the landlord to seal them off.


3: Tracks and Grease Marks

Curiously, rats and mice like to travel the same path every day, which can leave noticeable evidence of their trails. If you notice what looks like a rodent trail, be very cautious. Rats love to touch things (biologists call this thigmophilic, meaning "touch-loving"), and they use walls to help navigate.

As they run along walls, they tend to leave dark grease marks. You may also notice fecal droppings along the paths of rodents and pests. If the rental unit is dusty, you might be able to see footprints and trail-paths in the dust. Rats often drag their tails through their urine, which also leaves a trail.


2: Signs of Termites

Termites can cause severe damage on wood.
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Termites are extremely destructive pests that feast on wood, causing structural damage to a building. This can not only cause unsafe conditions for you as a renter, but the bugs can eat up your wooden furniture. In addition, the termites could hide in your furniture and come with you to your next dwelling.

Check the wood in the rental unit for evidence of termite damage. This could be wood that sounds hollow when tapped, and visible holes or sagging floors. Because termites shed wings, they leave them behind as a telltale sign of infestation. Hard, tiny and elongated fecal pellets are another red flag that indicate termite presence. These pellets are often tan in color and resemble sawdust at first glance. Be sure to check any spider webs for these discarded wings and fecal pellets.


1: Complaints from Neighbors and Former Tenants

Luckily, if you're renting a place, you'll probably have some reliable sources to contact about pest activity. For one, you might be able to contact the former tenant. If he or she is still living there when you tour the place, take that opportunity to ask about any pest problems. Also, notice how clean the person is. If it looks like the garbage piles up often, bugs could be frequent visitors. You don't want to inherit a bug problem due to another's lifestyle.

In addition to the former tenant, you can also try asking the neighbors in an apartment building. If you take a few minutes to knock on the neighbors' doors and introduce yourself, you can ask if they've ever had pest problems, which will give you a great indicator about whether you'll have pest problems.

Talking to former tenants and neighbors will give you an opportunity to ask if they have any other complaints about the rental property. Of course, this is also just a great excuse to make friends with your future neighbors.

Lots More Information

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  • Berger, Lisa, et al. "Food Safety for Managers." Berger Food Safety Consulting, 2010. (Aug. 7, 2010.
  • Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. "Signs of an Infestation." Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. (Aug. 7, 2012)
  • Gouge, Dawn G., et al. "Drywood Termites." University of Arizona. June 2001. (Aug. 7, 2012)
  • Hurt, Harry, III. "The World's Most Despicable Bug." Texas Monthly. June 1976, Vol 4, No. 6. (Aug. 7, 2012)
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