P-Lab problems for landlords

When I first write about P Labs a couple of years ago lab discoveries were rare and newsworthy. Today the police are finding a new lab every 45 hours, and about two-thirds of these are operated from rented accommodation.

It is such a problem nowadays that it can no longer be ignored. In my view landlords and property managers need to consider incorporating methamphetamine checks into their property management regime.

Meth contamination is a serious risk to those living in a contaminated building, especially children. According to some reports the short-term health problems range from migraines, nausea, respiratory difficulties, and skin irritations. Long-term problems may include cancer.

Unfortunately the presence of a P lab is usually not obvious – it is after all a clandestine activity, so don’t expect a “Warning: P Lab” sign at the front door. The “signs” to look for are:

  • Unusual smells, particularly solvents such as paint thinners and nail polish remover.
  • Stained glass equipment and cookware.
  • Plastic or glass containers fitted with glass or rubber tubing (not to be confused with home brew!).
  • Portable gas tanks or other cylinders.
  • Chemical stains around household kitchen sink, laundry, toilet or storm water drains.
  • Yellow/brown staining of interior floor wall ceiling and appliance surfaces.
  • Expensive security and surveillance gear set up around the property.
  • Rent paid in cash!
  • Windows blackened out or curtains always drawn.

Tests kits are readily available online (have a look on Trademe) and are relatively inexpensive. According to the owner of mednz.co.nz buying the test kit refills is the most economical way to go, costing $130 plus GST. A kit has 10 swabs.

The number of swabs one needs to take per test is debatable, but four sample points in a house would appear to be reasonable (total cost therefore $52). The most likely areas to sample are the kitchen, bedrooms and hallway.

Some contamination removal firms also carry out tests. In my view this is a clear conflict of interest and should be avoided, especially given the test kits are so available.

In terms of when to test I would suggest:

  1. The first test to be done at the start of a tenancy, or at the next inspection of an existing tenancy. Test with the tenant present so the tenant knows regular testing will be done and there is no disputing the results, which should be noted in the inspection report.
  2. Each sample should swipe one wall or surface per swab. Using one swap to do multiple swipes is likely to produce an exaggerated result.
  3. Test during the regular (quarterly) property inspection where contamination is suspected (have the tell-tale signs listed above on your checklist).
  4. Test during the final inspection of the tenancy, again in the presence of the tenant. Photograph the swab results, and provide copies to provide to the incoming occupants/tenants.

So, what if the tests show contamination. Are you covered by insurance? Maybe. It will depend on the wording of your insurance policy. Most policies should include an “unlawful substances” clause, but it is conditional on the property manager complying with the “landlord obligations” stated in the policy. Those obligations are likely to include:

  • Exercising reasonable care in the selection of tenants by obtaining satisfactory written or verbal references, and
  • Undertaking an internal and external inspection of the property at least once every four months and whenever there is a change of tenancy, and
  • Keeping a written record of each inspection.

If you don’t meet those obligations a claim is likely to be declined. Please check the fine print in your Home Insurance Policy to see if you are covered, or give your broker a call.

This yet again shows the importance of managing your property professionally, or having a professional manage it for you if you do not have the time or know-how to do it properly yourself.

If you are having your rental investment(s) managed by a professional ask them:

  • What they do to manage the Meth risk for your property,
  • Whether they test for the presence of Meth,
  • Do they inspect the property at least once every four months, and
  • Whether their check-list includes looking for signs that the property may be used for baking of the illegal kind.

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