Bedbug Busters: How the BedBug Epidemic Could Take a Major Bite Out of Real Estate

Texas real estate investors, pay attention to Sarah McElwee. Know how bedbugs are invading our homes, offices, stores, dorms, theaters, churches and even our food system? Sarah wants to change real estate leases because of bedbugs. The woman is on a mission I am holding in high regard these days: she wants to stave off a NYC or Cincinnati-like infestation in Texas.

Because guess what folks, bedbugs are in Texas. And multiplying. Sarah is with Pest Management Corp out of Austin, offices all over the state. She came to Dallas to see me after reading I was freaking out about bed bugs and had, in fact,been at the Times Square AMC 25 when bedbugs were found. (No infestation, yet, thank God.) And she was in Dallas working, exterminating for bedbugs. In fact, she had just been in a Plano apartment right before she came to our offices. That apartment was loaded with the critters. She told me she thinks a local government office may have problems here next because the guy who lives in that infested apartment works for a federal government office and also rides a bus and DART train to work. Bedbugs are great hitchhikers. They can cling to pants legs or hop into a purse — even a Todds — and seek out the next blood-sucking party.

We know they are all over New York City — stores, offices, apartments , several cities in Ohio, Washington D.C. and even Canada. They are also in dorms and Sarah agrees we are going to be getting more reports of dorm bedbugs very soon. They must be studying at the University of Texas because Sarah’s company has treated dorms, homes and apartments in Austin loaded with the critters.
“Our call volume is up 1000%,” she says, ” In the last two years we got maybe three bedbug calls a week — now we get at least ten per day.”

The problem, as Sarah and I see it, is that there is no bedbug regulation in Texas, and we’d like to change that. Regulation, you say?

Yes. If a hotel has bedbugs, we think it should be reported. But no hotel in the USA has to report a bedbug infestation, says Sarah. It’s up to us, the consumers, to check on our own. In New York City, landlords have to report bedbug infestations and treat for them. Renters have a right to ask for a bedbug-free apartment, and knowing about the pests is the only way they will be controlled. When you lease a home or apartment in Texas, we also think you should know the home’s bedbug history. Same thing when you buy used upholstered furniture. Cities should adapt a protocol to deal with picking up and destroying bedbug infested pieces. Sarah told me about a vacation rental property in Kerrville, where the landlord had an infestation but refused to treat them, thinking the critters would just die after a few months. (Bedbugs can survive without food for at least six months.) Leases, for example, cover roaches and rats but not bedbugs. Yet they are every bit as much of a public health issue as are rats. One solution, says Sarah, is to have the state order bedbugs declared a vermin; most promulgated Texas leases say the home must be kept free of vermin. Then we need to figure out if property insurance should cover the destruction or cleaning — extermination treatments are $1.50 per square foot and come with a 90 day certificate. They basically heat the house up hot as hell — 120 to 135 degrees for several hours, removing anything that will melt like vinyl records (bedbugs rather like these) and candles. Huge fans circulate the heat to every cabinet, drawer, nook and cranny, even pictures and the backs of frames — bedbugs love to hang in these spots. The heat nukes these suckers — that plus chemical applications usually does the trick. Treating a 2000 square foot home costs about $3000.

I had to ask: are bedbugs bugging pets, like the hound dogs that are being rescued and trained to sniff them out? For some reason, she said, bedbugs do not bother dogs because they cannot get through animal fur easily to suck blood. (That’s it for body waxing.) But strangely, they may be adapting: Pest Management recently got called about treating an infested chicken farm in Arkansas — that’s right, chickens, our future Coq Au Vin — the chickens were being devoured by bedbugs. No humans to prey on, says Sarah, so they latched onto the chickens since it was their only life force. A call to Texas A&M confirmed: couldn’t heat the chickens to kill the parasites because it would cook the poultry. So Pest management couldn’t help — someone else came in to dip them, much like cattle and pets are dipped for fleas. There goes pesticide-free free-range chicken.

It’s bad enough they’ve invaded our homes, offices, stores, dorms, theaters, churches and public seating, now they’re after our food system?

I am still amazed that, despite all the publicity, so many people still don’t know about these pests. At our D Home editorial meeting Tuesday, someone asked if you could use Skin So Soft as a repellant — no way. Sarah says her company is testing out a product called Rest Easy Bed Bug Repellent. (If it works, I’ll be buying a few hundred cases. If not they’ll have to bring backpropoxure .)
Meantime, travel with care — empty your suitcase in the garage and wash all clothing before it goes back in the closet. I also stick my suitcases outside to let the hot Texas sun cook ‘em. Wash and vacuum your suitcases. Never stick them on the bed. Use metal leg luggage racks in hotels and do what I’ve done:shop here for plastic luggage covers. Don’t let your kids come home from college. One of the other reasons why bedbugs have spread, says Sarah, is interesting: the internet. People are buying used furniture off Craigs List when some sellers know the upholstery is infested. (Sick.) Don’t buy second hand furniture unless it is guaranteed to be bedbug free.How you do that I am trying to figure out.

Hmm. Looks like bedbugs might even be taking a big bite out of Craig Newmark’s empire.