“I wonder if anyone has had a similar experience to advise on a situation I have encountered as a tenant.”

tenant
Photo by PoPville flickr user LaTur

“Dear PoPville,

I wonder if anyone in the community has had a similar experience to advise on a situation I have encountered as a tenant. We lease a row house to a property management company that oversees our space (in addition to others) owned by a landlord living outside the country. We have been living here for about 2 years and have never been directly billed for our water use. The first several months of our residence we were continually receiving bills and delinquent payment notices addressed to homeowner, some of which included DC Water. After notifying the property manager several times, including expressively inquiring the status of the DC Water account, we were assured that it would be taken care of.

Our lease states that we are responsible for ‘individually metered’ water utility charges but the bills have since sopped arriving in our post box. However, we’ve just received a call from the property manager that the landlord has (only now) realized that he has had the water account setup to automatically debit the full bill amount from his personal credit card/bank account each month and has unknowingly paid for our collective water usage for over 24 months.

This is not the first occasion where our management company has shown exteemly poor oversight for the properties they are responsible for. We have always minded their absent, “hands off” approach in the past, including delinquent responses to pest control issues, badly repaired structural maintenance tasks, and an overall lack of authority for the legalities of renting a home. This attitude came off at first as a minuscule tradeoff for the autonomy we felt as tenants but this has gone to far. How much recourse is the landlord owed and what is the worse case scenario for us as tenants? Looking at the math, this could be between 60-80$/month X 24 months = ~$1500-1800! Are we to be expected to refund the landlord? Can it be deducted from our security deposit? Might he sue us? The property managers? Help!”

32 Comment

  • This is the landlord’s fault. They didn’t realize their account was being debited for 24 months?! Come on! Our tenants pay for the water, but I still receive the bill every month as well because the homeowner cannot completely transfer the account. Therefore I’m still on the bill along with the tenant. The landlord should eat the cost for not paying attention. And I hear a lot of bad stuff about property managers, but pretty sure they couldn’t have helped here. LL needed to add tenant to water bill and cancel auto payment. It’s also really weird that it was delinquent at first. So the LL wasn’t paying, and then set up auto payment? At that point they should have paid up AND added the tenants to the water bill.

  • Talk to a lawyer.

    • And to add, not trying to be flippant or unhelpful. But you want something more than what we can give you if they try and ask for the money. If you start negotiating without understanding the consequences, that could hurt your position. So talk to a lawyer.

      • Yes, you need to do this. Good luck. It is hard to find a lawyer in DC who does not automatically take a landlord’s view and laugh at the idea that tenants have rights.

        There is a DC law firm called the tenant’s rights center that only represents tenants that you could get some legal answers from with a consultation for a very small fee. It seems to me that you first need to find out the answer to the legal question (if there is a clear answer) of whether the landlord can back bill you for stuff he and the property management company didn’t bill you for when they should have. (If I was a landlord, I’d be looking to blame the property management company for not taking care of this stuff earlier.) They gave me an opinion on the legal answer to my question.

        You can ask free advice from the Office of Tenant Advocacy, but if you get one of the lawyers there who is a landlord may not get good tenant-helpful advice. You can get advice at the L-T office at the courthouse, but again, their advice (in my experience) tends to be landlord sided in situations like yours and mine (i.e., questions from tenants who pay their rent but have some issues with landlord and questions about interpretation of the lease and relevant laws and applicability to their situation v. tenants who are being evicted.)

        I read an article online just recently about a DC lawyer who helps tenants sell their TOPA rights – they might be a useful source of info or help, because they get that tenants have rights, and that that’s an OK thing (surprisingly rare in DC) and also they are used to negotiating $ settlements between landlords and tenants.

    • OP could try the Landlord-tenant resource center for free legal help. http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/public/ltresourcecenter.jsf

      • I called the resource ctr with similar issue and they told me that if my lease stated that i was responsible for water bill, then i had to pay it one way or another.

        DC water will not add you to an account (if your are the tenant –renting a townhouse or house), unless landlord gives authorization to add your name to the account.

  • My water bill ranges from ~$50-$80/month for a house with 2-3 people. I would be ready to negotiate, but expect to pay something to cover your usage over. I personally believe that something like splitting the cost 50/50 is fair.

  • You totally rent from Nest!

    • Immediately thought this too! We had the same situation occur, but our owner didn’t ask us to pay back the water she had inadvertently been paying by automatic credit card payment. Nest was pretty oblivious the whole time.

    • I was thinking the same thing!! How is that company still in business!?

    • My thoughts exactly. Had same issue with Nest. Granted it was only for 4 month time period and the owner didn’t make us pay back either. Nest basically told us to figure it out with landlord, despite them being there so that the landlord didn’t have to manage the tenants.

    • Had EXACT same thought. I was a landlord with Nest. We actually played hardball with them a couple times and got them to refund or fully pay some items. So, don’t stop pressing.

    • LOL, yes! Who votes for them in those City Paper “Best Of Washington” surveys all the time?

  • I agree with talking to a lawyer, but not until the landlord actually asks you to pay the money. And also, demand that your names be added to the bill.

    Honestly, given the situation and level of shadiness/unprofessionalism, it wouldn’t surprise me if the landlord was using the water bill under his/her name as proof of residence for some kind of benefit that he wouldn’t otherwise get while living outside the country. Is your row house officially designated as a rental property in the city’s property records?

    • +1 on Anon4eva’s comment.
      Check and see if the LL is getting the homestead exemption on the tax bill.

      • I’ve twice reported to DC’s fraud hotline an absentee owner in my condo who rents out his unit while claiming the homestead exemption. (With documentation, including a Craigslist ad that made clear this had been a rental property for years.). Nothing happened. Apparently enforcement is nil.

    • Probably just screwed up. But yeah, you can look up online in the tax records for your address whether your landlord is getting a tax break by pretending to lo live there, or if he is renting it out – it is very clear when you look it up. (I had an out of country landlord who I could have reported for this, but never did because I figured being hit with higher taxes would make him want to raise my rent.)

      More to the point, you can also go to the appropriate DC office and find out whether he has a current business license for his rental (which he is required to have) with the city for a fee of something like $2 – mine had let his expire, as many do – it has to be renewed every 2 years or so – and if it is not current, then the steps he can take against you are limited in many ways – and may (or may not) apply to or be helpful to your cause in this situation. So ask your lawyer about that, too.

    • For most D.C. Utilities you can transfer ownership of a utility in your name using only the address, your ID and social, etc. This is true for Pepco and Washington Gas so maybe also water? Try adding yourself right away – this should cancel the ownership of the account for the landlord and managers.

    • The water bill would not provide any sort of proof because as I mentioned above you cannot completely transfer the water account into your tenants name. You can only add people to the bill.

      Also, $2 fee for a business license? HA! Try $190 every two years.

      • Pretty sure anon was referring to the fee to find out about the status of the landlord’s business license. “More to the point, you can also go to the appropriate DC office and find out whether he has a current business license for his rental (which he is required to have) with the city for a fee of something like $2 – mine had let his expire, as many do”

  • Am I missing something? You’ve lived there for 2+ years and you were aware that you are responsible for paying for water per your lease contract. You were clearly using water and knew that you weren’t paying for it each month. I understand it sucks to make a bulk payment now but I assume you knew it wasn’t included in the rent and never inquired as to when you were going to start receiving the bills. Having a ‘hands off’ property management company or an absent-minded landlord does not absolve you from the responsibility of paying for the utility services you use. I agree with others to consult a lawyer but I’m not sure what legal standing you have in this situation.

    • “I assume you knew it wasn’t included in the rent and never inquired as to when you were going to start receiving the bills”

      OP states they notified the property manager “several times, including expressively inquiring the status of the DC Water account, we were assured that it would be taken care of.” I don’t see how you can get “never inquired as to when you were going to start receiving the bills” from that.

    • That was my first reaction too, Anonymous. How are the tenants not on the hook for the water bills? You reap the benefit, you pay, per your lease. Perhaps the LL can get Nest per their contract to foot some of the bill if Nest (or whatever company it is) did drop the ball. Also, man water is expensive in DC.

  • In negotiating over who pays what, get together any documentation you have that you raised this issue with the management company (if you have it in writing, that would be ideal). I agree that you should talk to a lawyer or the DC office of tenant’s advocacy, but even if you have to start paying for the water, you’ll likely have a good argument for not paying back bills based on an email raising the issue and hearing nothing back from the management company.

  • Latches. Equitable estoppel. Statute of Limitations (maybe – not sure the SoL for a small debt). Tenant friendly DC Courts.
    I would be surprised if you had to pay to reimburse past amounts. But you may have to sue (or threaten to sue) to get your security deposit back.
    .
    I had a friend whose landlord was a total flake and did not cash her rent checks for years (and I think lost a bunch of the checks). Then, landlord asked tenant to pay all the back rent in a lump sum. My friend – who totally knew her landlord had not been cashing the checks (and should have saved the money but didn’t) – did not have, say, $15,000 to pay the lump sum for the uncashed/lost checks. Lucky for her, landlord then flaked out again, never followed up, and my friend ended up with like 2 years of free rent.
    I share this story, not because I think it’s useful, but just bc it’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard.

    • *laches. None of those legal doctrines apply here based on the facts that we’ve been told.

      • Really? I hope you are not a lawyer.
        .
        Latches: “lack of diligence and activity in making a legal claim, or moving forward with legal enforcement of a right…it is an unreasonable delay that can be viewed as prejudicing the opposing [defending] party….Put another way, failure to assert one’s rights in a timely manner can result in a claim being barred by laches.” I.e., landlord sat on rights for 2 years, now wants lump sum that tenants may not have.
        .
        Equitable estoppel: “bars a party from alleging a certain fact based on that party’s previous conduct, allegation, or denial….to prevent injustice owing to inconsistency…protects one party from being harmed by another party’s voluntary conduct [including] silence, acquiesce.” I.e., landlord said two years ago that it was “taken care of,” tenants did not budget to pay this and may not have funds now, and now landlord wants lump sum to reimburse for amount that tenants didn’t pay initially bc landlord said it wasn’t due.
        .
        Statute of limitations: bars suits after a period of time. Landlord claims he was owed money each month, the oldest two years ago. If the SOL to bring a breach of contract claim is 1 year, then the whole first year is barred by SOL.
        .
        The first two are equitable defenses. Meaning, I’d like my odds in DC’s extremely tenant friendly court.

  • Your D.C. Water bill is tied to the deed of the house meaning the owner remains on the bill even if tenants are are added – that may be why this bill is so tricky for lots of people. We actually use nest to manage our place while we’re overseas and they told us they are in the process of switching over to include water for properties as leases renew, since it’s all but impossible to control D.C. Waters billing system. Doesn’t sound like them but if you do have nest, definitely reach out to management – the few times we’ve had question or concerns, everyone there is happy to discuss and make it right.

  • Per DC Law, the Water account has to be in the property owner’s name. Tenants can be added as a courtesy which gives them rights to discuss and inquire about water for the space as well as receiving a copy of the bill. My experience with DC Water, I wouldn’t put full blame on the Landlord just yet. DC Water is very inept at doing the simplest of tasks.

    • +1 to “DC Water is very inept at doing the simplest of tasks.”

      And just here to say that landlords in DC should really just include water in rent (raise rent by whatever the avg water use is per month) because being a tenant and trying to do anything with the DC Water account is a JOKE!!!!! I lived in a rental for a year with friends and was the person who took care of paying the bills so our landlord added my name to the account. This was my first time being responsible for water as a tenant, so I naively set up an online account and autopay once I’d been added. Well I’ve since moved out and my friends stayed. The LL added my friend to the account. I transferred my account to the house I now own. My friend set up a new online account and pays through it. And YET! I STILL RECEIVE THE F-ING EMAILED BILL TWO YEARS LATER!!!!!!!!!!! Numerous calls from both of us to DC Water to update the account on their end and still I have to forward the bill to my friend every month. It’s insanity. And thank god my friends still live there- no idea what I’ll do when they finally move on.

      All that to say, DC Water may be the root of the problem. And until they allow accounts to be in tenant’s names (fully), LLs should just not make tenants deal with it.