If you talked to me a few months ago, you might recall my saying something about the flooding in our slightly skanky basement apartment in Brisbane, during the city’s first cyclone/hurricane storm warnings ever. Or maybe I mentioned the low ceilings in the basement apartment, or the cockroaches. Or the moldy smell from the carpet and the ancient couch and mattresses (from the 1980s, at least!).
All of those things were fairly tolerable. But the bedbugs were not.
Hotels are required to hold bonds in case of bedbug infestations, and they must respond quickly to complaints about them and clean a room immediately, while offering the affected guests another place to stay. That’s good practice, even if it’s not legally binding: One client’s claim of bedbugs can send potential guests screaming the other way.
Our landlady in Queensland certainly responded with alacrity when we reported to her that we were being bitten by something in the rental house. Within a day, a pest company had entered the house with a bedbug-sniffing dog, in search of the insects. We found out later that the dog detected evidence of them everywhere, even in the downstairs basement where we’d stayed without trouble for several weeks (the dog may have smelled an old infestation). After a second visit, the exterminator found a nymph on one of our bags. Suddenly, we became persona non grata.
We had been staying in the basement of the Queenslander house, with windows that didn’t close, gaps in the walls to the outside, and a mildew smell, for over a month by this time. After the summer rains had started in earnest, and the cyclone/hurricane hit town, the bedroom walls started weeping. My books sitting on a shelf under a dripping leak in our bedroom ceiling were soaked, and pools of water grew on the floor by the hour.
Our landlady, whose house was also flooding somewhere else in town, had come over, taken pity on us and let us move upstairs to the unoccupied upper-level flat (with air-conditioning!). We felt like princes for a little while. Our guests for the rainy weekend departed, and we settled in upstairs, with our landlady’s permission until the next guests were to arrive. I left for Tasmania for a few days; Matt stayed behind. When I got back, he was covered in bug bites. And then the next day, so was I. A few days later, our lives were turned upside down.
If you have never experienced an infestation of bedbugs, let me assure you that it’s not nice. The bites physically itched, and Matt and I scratched ourselves until we bled. I washed with pungent pine-tar soap to ease the itching. I awoke early every morning, at around 3 or 4 am, anticipating the bites, and I would search with the faint light of my cell phone to see if I could discover the bugs myself. Every morning we checked our bodies for new bites: three in a row, “breakfast, lunch, dinner.” We lost sleep and got increasingly stressed out by the situation over the course of a week.
The day that the exterminator came, we moved out all of our stuff — we had already taken some belongings with us, treating everything in an industrial dryer for at least 20 minutes on high. It was such a relief to be gone, and even so, it took weeks for me to get over the desire to search every nook and cranny for bugs, and I examined every bump on my skin to see if it was another bedbug-inflicted bite.
Giving up possession of the apartment was a mistake, in retrospect. We returned our keys and left the day the house was being treated, as we were so uncomfortable sleeping there, after being awoken every morning in the early hours, getting bitten or imagining being bitten. When we asked to stay in another property, as we had paid for the rest of our stay, the landlady insisted she would have to inspect our belongings if we wanted to return to the basement. She sent us long letters bemoaning how expensive it is to treat bed bugs — she even sent the receipt from the exterminators.
And she blamed us for bringing in the bed bugs.
We thought the bugs came from an unused bedroom, where we had stored our luggage, and from which Matt had taken some extra pillows to use. Our landlady did not see it that way: perhaps our guests had brought them. Maybe our luggage had picked them up on the plane, or in the trunk of a taxi (we had taken the train to her house, I wanted to argue, but it turns out that the trains in Brisbane also have had bedbugs).
She told us that the exterminator also pinpointed us as the culprits. But he explicitly told us there was no way to lay blame on either party. We met him while he was heating the house up to 50 deg C, along with our belongings that we had left there for treatment; only heat kills the bed bugs, which are pesticide-resistant in Australia.
The same company had treated the house the year before. While our landlady insisted we had brought them on our bags, we wondered why we had lived there for weeks without a problem.
In the end, she kept all of our pre-paid rent, a decision to which we have had no recourse — all because we tried to plan ahead. We had found this place online, several months before we moved to Brisbane. We hadn’t wanted to get stuck in an expensive rental or hotel. To secure the place, we paid all three months’ rent upfront. If we had paid the deposit as well, we would have had legal recourse against the company from which we rented — but we didn’t know that at the time. The landlady had not mentioned that we had not paid the deposit until we were there, a week or so before the bed bugs surfaced, and we thought that because we had paid several months’ rent, that would do.
In the end, we lost a lot of money ($2,000 AUD) because of these seemingly smart decisions on our part. Instead, we should never have secured a lease while we were outside of Australia; we should have waited until we got there.
We could have looked around at the neighborhoods, to choose where we wanted to be, and to see any candidate rentals in person. We would have seen how dingy and dismal the flat was, despite the landlady’s assurances that other people had lived there and said it was fine. Because of the height of the rooms, the rental was probably illegal. We also would have had the advantage of local assistance, to figure out the rules and regulations — it turns out that because we did not know about that one rule in particular about paying the deposit to an official bank account that the city recognized, we lost our rights as tenants.
An expensive lesson, as my mom says. But this is also life: there’s no way to plan for stupidity sometimes, your own or others’. Still, if you are reading this, and heading to Brisbane, please feel free to get in touch with me — you can take my advice; I’m not using it.