“Rental/Utility Bill – is this legal?”

tenant rights
Photo by PoPville flickr user Jordan Barab

“My trainer was telling me that she just received an $800 utility bill from her landlord. She lives in the basement apartment rental and a separate couple rents the house above her. The people upstairs control the heat/AC for both units.

The LL presents them with a utility bill for elect/water/gas every few months – split 3 ways (each actual occupant.) These bills are never itemized nor do they ever see the actual verifiable utility bill.

This most recent bill is for the last four months and each portion is $800!! Even if the total was $800 – that seems insanely high for four months.

They are fighting with their LL to see the actual bill. Is any of this legal? Im beginning to wonder if the LL keeps utilities. in his/her name for tax purposes.

Anyone been in a similar situation? Thanks in advance for your input.”

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24 Comment

  • This is why you NEVER enter into a lease until it’s either all utilities included or each individual tenant is responsible for his or her utilities. I don’t want my utility bill to be subject to the whims of other residents.

  • Why are they only paying quarterly when at least gas and electric come monthly?
    Asking to see the bill is absolutely reasonable esp. If those 3 utilities = $2400 over 4 months
    I don’t know of any law saying utilities have to be in the tenants name, but ll can only get a legal tax deduction if they’re paying the bills. You can deduct actual expenses only.

  • I don’t think this seems that high considering it’s for 4 months of bills. How does this compare to bills from the previous quarter?

  • If they are separate units rented legally, then each unit should have a separate meter for electric, and the basement unit must also be able to control its own A/C and heat. Not sure about gas, and I doubt it’s the case for water.
    .
    But to ballpark it: 200 per month for electric is reasonable in the dead of summer, plus 50 gas 50 water. But the one upside of basements is they stay cooler in the summer, which should bring down her portion if she were on her own meter.
    .
    Check out ota dot dc dot gov.

    • I live in my small house (1300 sq ft) by myself and my electric bill comes to something like 60-80 in the summer (58 and change last month). I do have all LED lights, which def. reduced my bill, but 200 seems really high unless the system is really old.

  • Tell her to review her lease.
    When I rented basement apartments, my leases specifically said that basement tenant was not responsible for utilities. Even so, at my last basement apartment, the upstairs tenants did try to hit me up for the utilities, but they had no way of knowing what my lease spelled out (until I told them).
    If the lease does not mention the utilities, then I imagine the best thing to do is demand to see the utility bills.

  • I’ve been trying to find (in case it has any bearing on this situation) the thread(s)/subthread(s) from that guy who was all up in arms because he was in a basement unit with shared utilities and thought the upstairs tenants were using too much air conditioning and jacking up his bill.
    .
    No luck yet, though.

  • $800, or $200 a month to include all the utilities doesn’t really seem out of whack, especially with the AC load of the summer.

    What is weird is that the LL doesn’t make you pay your utilities every month. Consider it a free loan I guess.

    This person signed a lease with this utility arrangement, I have a hard time feeling bad for them especially since the monthly combined bill doesn’t really seem that bad.

  • Yep, and as a homeowner I am conscious of energy use, so I have the LED bulbs, temporary tarp canopy over my western-facing windows, scheduled thermostat, etc.
    Reading between the lines, the LL did not bother splitting the meter or the HVAC for the basement unit, so I expect the windows and weather seals are probably in “original” condition as well. Renters, especially when utility costs are shared, tend to make up for poor insulation by cranking the thermostat down to 60. Thus $200 being *feasible*
    .
    The shame is that she doesn’t have her own meter and A/C, which is illegal if it is rented as a separate unit. If she’s just in the basement bedroom of a row house, then she’s what we call SOL.

  • That was in reply to Tsar. These replies dropping off has been funny to watch this week.
    .
    This post reminds me of the time I came home from a weekend trip to find out that my toilet was running full-flush for several days straight. 800 painful dollars later…

  • Our house is about 1300 sq feet (without the basement) and our electric is around $200 in the summer. We don’t have any gas appliances though so that includes laundry and cooking. With 3-4 people and someone home all the time I can easily see $200 a month for a group house.

  • My 2500 sqft row house (which includes a basement apartment) is usually about $150- $200 a month in the summer for electric and $200 in the winter for gas. Water was about $90 a month when we had downstairs tenants (which I thought was quite high). That said, we are very conservative with the thermostat and with making sure all windows and doors are closed, lights are off, etc. In the summer we keep it between 73-75 and the winter we keep it around 68. April and May (and October and November) are by far the cheapest months, so if that bill includes those months, then I would definitely want to see it.

  • If I’m reading this correctly, the total bill for those 4 months wasn’t $800, or $200/month, but $2400 (three people each owing $800)? So the monthly utility bills are allegedly $600?

    That seems ridiculously high. I would demand a copy of the bill.

    • This exactly! Everyone is focusing on how $800 for four months sounds reasonable for a full house – it’s $2400 for for four months!

  • janie4

    Actually, it doesn’t have to be separately metered to be a legal apartment, just separately paneled. each party has to be able to get to their own breaker panel without going into the other unit. I have a legal basement rental, but couldn’t quite swing the cost of the new metering when I was putting the apartment in, so the apartment has a sub-panel. But yes, tenants are supposed to be able to control their own heat.

    That being said, it depends on what she means by all utilities. If she means heat (gas or electric), hot water, electric and sewer, it seems high. My worst month is usually July/August, and even with a $300 electric bill (old A/C, not enough insulation at the time), I was never above $410 for everything – ($70 for water for my basil and plants, and $25-$30 for gas). Even with extra people, I can’t quite see a water bill so high that it would jack up the price to where it was $600 for the month.

    If she means cable included too, well, it depends on the cable package, but still a touch high?

    • I don’t think it’s a requirement that tenants be able to control their own heat… but if they _can’t_ control the temperature, the unit has to be kept at a minimum of 68 F in winter and a maximum of 78 F in summer.
      .
      Usually in a situation like this, utilities are included because it’s one boiler or chiller providing the heat or A/C for multiple units.

  • If the bill is for the last 4 months, it wouldn’t really include much of the summer.

  • I’m the landlord in a somewhat comparable living situation (two people in the upstairs house and a single tenant in the English basement, which is separately-metered for electric). Based on the past four months (which is really Spring, not Summer, and is normally the lowest heating/cooling period of the year), my total electric, gas, and water for the house and apartment is roughly $1000, or $333.00 per person. In addition, Excelon (Pepco) issued a one-time $54.59 rate credit per account in DC a couple of months ago in connection with the merger. So unless you are using an extraordinary amount of electric, gas, or water in your particular living situation, $800.00 for the past four months seems very high indeed. I would certainly insist that the landlord produce the bills before I paid a dime of that amount.

  • I dunno, hard to say. I rented a place with old windows for a long time and the cost of the summer AC/winter heating could go very high. (It was a crummy old place and our rent was super low so we just took somewhat higher utilities as part of the tradeoff.) So possible it’s a legit bill but I’d want to see the proof.

  • I was in this exact situation. I lived downstairs, 4 people upstairs. LL lived elsewhere and billed us via email for utilities each month. Never saw bills, and never were allowed to put utilities in our names despite requests. I had thought it might be because she is claiming the house as her primary residence still….for tax purposes. Can’t remember how it all worked, but I remember that was all of our strong conclusion. She was also a sketchy character…

  • My understanding is that this practice is not legal. In order charge you for your utilities in a multi-unit apartment, the utilities must be separately metered and accessible by the specific tenant. Absent separate metering and accessibility/control, the landlord pays utilities, and cannot charge utilities in bulk as in the OP’s situation. The fact the landlord won’t share documentation on what’s been charged demonstrates why: there is no way to determine who used what absent separate metering and control.

    I am not suggesting you do this, but if you wanted to withhold payment from the utilities until either the landlord agreed to pay them his or herself, or to install separate metering, you’d be within your rights. I’d place the money in a bank account separate from your own, and inform the landlord that you are keeping utility payments there until he comes into compliance with DC law. If/when he /she balks and makes demands or threats, just file an action in housing court. Its easy, takes maybe five minutes to fill out a form, you get a hearing date, and when the landlord sees they have to show up in front of a DC official, they generally fold. If they threaten you with eviction, that’s illegal too.

    Good luck.

  • a legal basement rental must be metered separately. So they should start there and ask to the landlords certificate of occupancy AND their business license.

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