Q: I have been renting a duplex unit for more than three years. A week ago, my landlord told me that the water bills have been getting very high and that she was thinking about charging me for water. My lease states that I am not responsible for water unless it’s more than $30 per month.
I received a bill from her recently for an entire year’s worth of water bills, or almost $480. I understand that this is an average of $40 per month, but is it legal for her to back-charge me for water bills? It is a duplex with only one water meter. How can she prove that I used half of the total water? Also, I water her lawn. Should I have to pay for that as well?
A: Your situation illustrates the growing challenge for the rental housing industry. Back in the 1970s, most rental housing properties were master-metered for electricity and natural gas and these utility costs were included in the rent. The increasing cost of electricity and natural gas as well as separate metering for each unit in new construction have resulted in very few rental properties that still have master-metered utilities, except for water. Water continues to be provided at many rental properties through a single water meter, which is billed to the owner of the property and included in the rents paid by the tenants. Master-metered water is becoming a major issue as we all strive to conserve our natural resources while water rates are increasing dramatically in some portions of the country. Even in areas where water is plentiful, the sewer and waste water treatment programs are adding to the overall cost of the water.
Many studies have shown that when tenants are actually paying for the water they use, they will implement conservation techniques. While I think your landlord does have a valid concern, I also believe you are correct to question the sudden efforts to collect for all of last year’s water bills. Your lease agreement implies that you are not responsible for water up to $30 per month and you are apparently exceeding that amount on average over the year. I would suggest that you contact your landlord and attempt to negotiate a more specific lease provision for your next lease.
Your concerns about how to allocate the water usage between the two units as well as the water for the landscaping are extremely valid. I am sure that both units benefit from the landscaping. You may be able to get some information from your local water utility or municipality that shows the average amount of water used domestically per dwelling unit and for irrigation. This varies greatly depending on your location and even the type of plant material. You could then determine a formula to estimate the portion of the water usage attributable to your unit versus the other unit and the exterior usage. Your landlord may also find that it is possible to submeter each of the units in your duplex and measure the actual water usage. This would give you the most accurate method and then it would be reasonable for you to pay your share of the water bill.
Q: I applied for an apartment, but the landlord turned me down. I admit that my job history hasn’t been that stable, but I just got a new job and I make enough money to afford the rent. They couldn’t give me a specific reason but said that they had applicants that were "more qualified" economically. I really wanted that apartment. Is this legal?
A: I agree that economic reasons for denying an applicant can include the fact that another applicant has much stronger financial qualifications — and such reasoning can be a legitimate business decision and not necessarily illegal discrimination. As part of the pre-tenancy application process, landlords have the right to screen prospective residents regarding credit, income and tenant history. As long as the landlord’s screening has followed uniform policy and fair housing guidelines, you really have no basis to complain. I believe that you should have been notified in writing stating the reason you were declined. If it was based on information in your credit report, then you have the right to a free copy of your credit report under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But remember that the landlord is not responsible for any error on your credit report, and you will need to clear up any mistakes directly with the credit reporting agency.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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