TCM Fest O’Pests Reminds Us: Close Those Gaps!

Turner Classic Movies today screened a few entomological-themed films that are guaranteed to make the insect-phobic squirm. Them (1954) and Genocide (1968) play on our fears that when insects organize against us we don’t stand a chance. We can’t beat ‘em! Yet we can’t join them. The Fly (1958) and Wasp Woman show the horrors of human-to-insect transmutation. This TCM Fest O’Pests is a reminder to take a look around our apartment: is it as pest-proof as it could be?

Housing stock when not continually renewed simply degrades over time. The structure settles and when doorjambs go out of square the doors fit poorly. Cracks emerge. Gaps open around baseboards and aging windows don’t fit like they should. All of it makes dwelling spaces less secure from the penetration of pests.

It is a problem that affects many residents in Beverly Hills rental housing. Half of renting households live in a building built before World War II. Some buildings have stood for 90 years without any significant renovation. These buildings need constant attention but often they are overlooked…until too late and an infestation or rodent problem emerges.

Why do tenants face these problems? Some of use may not be as scrupulous as we could be to keep the place tidy. State law obligates tenants to maintain clean premises:

1941.2. (a) No duty on the part of the landlord to repair a dilapidation shall arise under Section 1941 or 1942 if the tenant is in substantial violation of any of the following affirmative obligations, provided the tenant’s violation contributes substantially to the existence of the dilapidation or interferes substantially with the landlord’s obligation under Section 1941 to effect the necessary repairs:
(1) To keep that part of the premises which he occupies and uses clean and sanitary as the condition of the premises permits.
(2) To dispose from his dwelling unit of all rubbish, garbage and other waste, in a clean and sanitary manner.
(3) To properly use and operate all electrical, gas and plumbing fixtures and keep them as clean and sanitary as their condition permits.

Tenants are not responsible for maintenance, of course. Too often hack maintenance by unprofessional handymen contributes to premises where large, unseen gaps in the interior walls invite critters in. Under cabinets we can find holes that allow us to peer directly into the framing of the building. Bad! We have seen holes large enough to accommodate a basketball. That’s an open door and welcome mat for vermin.

Another too-common problem is poorly sealed exterior doors. It’s one thing for the building door to be insecure; it’s another thing when one can fit a finger under the front door of the apartment. Perhaps the door tread has gone missing during a long-ago carpet replacement. Even a half-inch gap between floor and door can allow a critter to enter.

All of these problems came to our attention once our building experienced a mouse problem. Turns out that the critters were snacking on cat food in a first-floor apartment and then evidently traversing the building (using the interior structure behind the unit walls) to access apartments on the upper floor.

The mice were able to easily access the first-floor apartment because of a wide gap under the front door that led right to the outside walkway. Easy! The mice were then able to access apartments because every apartment had big holes leading to the interior. We looked under cabinets and within closet built-ins and there they were. Ant that problem plagued multiple units because the building has been poorly-maintained over decades of single ownership.

The whole affair came to light when the first-floor resident trapped a mouse in her stove and a resident in the upper-floor unit noticed mouse droppings. So management was called and the holes were patched and we ourselves installed the transoms and doorsweeps.

Remember: insect and vermin infestation is one area of state law where the landlord’s habitability obligation is not ambiguous. He has to step up to make the repairs.

We recommend every tenant should….

Inspect all under-cabinet walls for integrity. Start in the bathroom because it’s the space closest to the sleeping area. Check around the toilet for gaps. Check under the vanity for holes where a past plumbing repair left a hole in the drywall. While you’re in there, use a flashlight to locate any crevice or gap on the inside of the vanity between the vanity carcass and the wall.

wall cavity
Crappy plumbing fixes can expose the interior of the structure. Not good for pest protection!

toilet caulkingWhat to do: small gaps like those around the toilet can be caulked.

 

Larger gaps at the baseboard can be covered with quarter-round stock. (Larger gaps still can be covered with a wood furring strip.) The DIY tenant can cut these with a simple hand saw and tack them in place.

quarter round closing baseboard gapsLarger holes can be closed with 1/4 inch wood luan (cut to order at local lumberyards) screwed into place. Alternatively, foam board in 3/16 or 1/2 inch thickness can be cut with a mat knife and affixed with a ring of adhesive caulk.

Inspect under all kitchen cabinets and behind the stove and refrigerator for holes from an old plumbing repair and gaps between the cabinetry and the wall. Each cabinet should be a sealed space. Any sign of an opening to the interior of the building must be closed especially in the kitchen. Foam board can be cut-and-fitted tightly around a water or gas pipe that enters the kitchen and caulked.

wall gap at baseboard Inspect living rooms for gaps along the baseboards and for electrical outlet covers that are ill-fitting. All outlet covers should fit tightly. (This is also a good time to check for loose outlet sockets.) Inspect around windows, under window sills on the interior side, and check window screens for gaps.

baseboard caulkingSeal any baseboard gap with caulk. Ditto for any gap around the window itself. For gaps between the screen and the window frame buy a thin double-sided adhesive weatherstripping and press it into place. For electrical outlets the socket may need to be reposition to center the cover.

Inspect exterior entry door(s) for space between the door tread and the door bottom. Any gap greater than 1/8 inch recommends a doorsweep and door tread.

door tread
Oak door tread can be bought for a few bucks. Looks great too!

If the door tread (aka transom) is missing one can be bought and cut to length at a hardware store as illustrated at the top of the post. (Read more about fitting tips.) The point is to provide a flat surface that will contact the doorsweep. Where the interior floor is carpeted the door tread is necessary so that the doorsweep can clear the carpet.

doorsweep installation
Installing a doorsweep above a transom is something almost any tenant can do.

Once the door tread is installed then fit a simple doorsweep (which can be cut to door width at the hardware store) and screw it into place so that it makes snug contact with the door tread. Not only does a doorsweep keeps critters out; it adds additional weatherproofing for winter months when heat seeps out.

It Should Not Be the Tenant’s Responsibility

To be clear, weatherproofing is the landlord’s responsibility; the dwelling must be fit for human occupation (as we note in our explainer, Interior Habitability: Weak Standard, Few Violations). These problems persist because the city has no systematic rental housing inspection program. And Beverly Hills has no habitability standard beyond the state’s ‘fit for human habitation’ requirement.

Where curb appeal ends
Where ‘curb appeal’ ends, so does the landlord’s interest unfortunately.

Here we provide DIY tips because some landlords are not responsive. Indeed some operators of rental housing feel no responsibility to invest in anything beyond the property’s ‘curb appeal.’

That’s why we advise prospective tenants to think like a housing inspector when viewing the apartment. Seniors: the city provides federally-funded block grant money for interior repairs through the city’s ‘home handyworker’ program. Download the flyer and read more in our explainer, Grant-Funded Home Repairs for Qualified Tenants.

Watch a few of the films in the fest o’pest this Friday on TCM and you’ll find renewed motivation to get that caulking gun ready!

Friday September 6th on Turner Classic Movies

7:45 AM Microscopic Mysteries (1932). This short film takes a look at insect life through a microscopic lens. BW- 9 mins.

8:00 AM Genocide (1968). The insects of the Earth rise up against humanity in this horror film. Color 84 mins.

9:30 AM The Cosmic Monster (1958). A scientist’s experiments open the doorway to a strange and deadly world. BW- 72 mins

10:45 AM The Wasp Woman (1960). A cosmetics executive’s search for eternal beauty turn her into a monster. BW- 61 mins.

12:00 PM Highly Dangerous (1950). A female entomologist investigates enemy agents using insects to carry disease. BW- 89 mins.

1:30 PM Them! (1954). Federal agents fight to destroy a colony of mutated giant ants. BW- 92 mins.

3:15 PM The Fly (1958). A scientist’s experiments with teleportation produce a deadly hybrid. Color 94 mins.

Visit the schedule online.