Possibly paying for utilities for both duplex tenants

newhomeseekerJanuary 23, 2009

My sister lived in a duplex for a year. Her lease is up the end of this month. She moved to a new apartment in December. Her landlord would not let her out of the last month of the lease so she just paid him for the month, and stops to check on the place once in awhile. The tenant upstairs is the landlord's daughter. He only owns this one property and rents out the downstairs to pay for the entire house (his daughter does not work) There are two electric meters and she thought there were two gas lines as there are two furnances in the basement. When she moved out she shut off her furnance completely and obviously turned off the cable and electricity.

She just received her gas bill for part of the month of december ( since December 15th) and part of january (to january 14th. Now she moved out of this apartment December 17 so she was only there (with the furnance on for three days. Her gas bill (supposedly for her 700 sq ft of the duplex) was almost $300. She looked back through the history of her gas bills and she had one almost as high last March (it was very cold but she was living in the apartment at the time, using the furnance and hot water) This is an actual reading. She now believes that there is only one gas meter and SHE is paying for both furnances. So the upstairs tenant gets free gas and my sister may be paying for everything. This is the only way she can explain the bill as she only used gas for three days of the entire month and it wouldn't cost $300 for that limited usage.

Is it even legal to rent a duplex and have one tenant (unknowingly) pay for all of a utility usage?

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First call the gas company and see if there are two meters. Then proceed from there, depending on the answer you get you will know how to proceed.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2009 at 4:44PM
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Newhomeseeker, I don't think that is legal at all! If your sister can prove that there is only 1 meter & that she was unknowingly paying the bills for both units, then she can legally sue the owner of that property. The owner will then owe your sister all the extra money she has paid out on these bills, plus court costs. I hope things work out in her favor. Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 23, 2009 at 8:06PM
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It turns out there are two meters. But she has the history of her bills (1 year) and her gas bill has never been as high as it has now. Her current bill is $289 and she was only in the apartment three days during this billing period. She shut her furnance off when she moved out(and has been stopping at the place to check on it and her furnance is still off every time). She had a bill of $223 back in March of 08. But she was living there full time using hot water and the furnance every day. And it was a very cold month for the area.

She is now concerned that the gas company has read the wrong meter. They will not give her the bill balance for the other tenant so she can see if this may have happened. The gas company is claiming they did read the meter correctly. Is there anything she can do? She doesn't understand how she could have used more gas when the furnance was shut off and she wasn't there at all, than she did when she lived there full time and had the heat set on 65 and used hot water for showers and the dishwasher and laundry.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2009 at 10:08AM
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Silly as it sounds, is this the first time she's lived in this situation (renting and paying utilities) and maybe just hasn't considered how much more it costs us all in winter because of heating?

    Bookmark   January 26, 2009 at 1:45PM
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No, she's lived in several apartments before, this is the 2nd one with natural gas. I know the cost of heating does vary but it doesn't make sense at all that an actual reading in a cold month (March) where she used the heat all month long as well as hot water for showers for two people, dishwasher, and hot water for the washer would be less expensive than three or four days of using the heat, dishwasher, hot water etc in a cold month (december).

No one can figure out how that is possible. She shut the furnance off totally (not turned it down) so unless there was a huge gas leak (would have been noticed) or the cost of natural gas tripled in december, we just can't figure out why her bill is so high for only four days of usage.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2009 at 3:29PM
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Your sister should request that the gas company come out again and re-read her meter, to verify that the reading is correct. Don't just take the word of the gas company that they didn't make a mistake.

Is she sure that the furnace is turned off? I wonder if the landlord might have turned it back on, so that the pipes wouldn't freeze if it got really cold. Depending on where you live, it can be a bad idea to completely shut the heat off. (My lease even states a minimum temperature that I must heat the apartment to.)

    Bookmark   January 27, 2009 at 7:44PM
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My sister talked to the gas company and they had her go to the house and read the meter and call them back. Her reading was LOWER than what the gas company took 16 days ago. I don't see how that is possible since meters do not run backward. The company told her they will credit her $30. They said there is nothing else they can do. She said she asked them to shut the gas completely off and give her a final reading. THe reading on January 14th was an actual reading and she took a reading yesterday and it was lower than their reading on the 14th. She doesn't understand why they only credited her $30 for this discrepency. They did verify they didn't read the wrong meter (not sure how they did this.) THey also told her that her bill is higher because last month was an estimated reading and they estimated her bill $52 too low.

I still don't see how even if you added $52 to a bill that it would come out to $200 for only 4 days of actual usage.

Her landlord has not turned the heat back on. There is nothing in her lease that states a minimum temperature. It is a duplex so the pipes shouldn't freeze because the other furnance is on. Is there any regulating agency one can report the gas company to? Does it make sense that the gas company would take a reading that is HIGHER than a reading taken 15 days later?

    Bookmark   January 29, 2009 at 8:14AM
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The fact that your sister got readings that are lower than the earlier ones by the gas company is puzzling. Either the gas company is lying about something (their readings, whether they are reading the correct meter) or your sister somehow messed up the reading. If the bill was estimated, I can see how it would seem really high. But taking everything together, something seems off. In the back of my mind, I'm wondering if the other unit's hot water heater (or something else) is hooked up to her gas. (I rent in a three family home. We just got a huge mix-up with electricty and hot water for the washer and dryer hook-ups straightened out--back when several branches of one family lived here, it wasn't a big issue who paid for what.)

I'd say she should try one more time with the gas company. Not that I think this will fix things, but it will show that she has tried to solve the problem with the utility company. At this point, she might try to get someone to come out and physically check to see what is hooked up to each gas meter.

Then she should look up her state's Department of Consumer Protection or Department of Consumer Affairs. They usually have a form you can fill out if you have a complaint with a utility company.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2009 at 11:20AM
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She says the gas company told her exactly how to read the meter and if she'd totally read it wrong they would have noticed. Her current bill is an actual reading, not estimated. It was the previous bill that was estimated and they said it was too low by $52 which of course they added onto this (actual reading) bill. The hot water heater which is shared by both apartments is hooked up to her gas meter but the only thing the upstairs tenant uses hot water for is dishes and showers and laundry. Unless she did an extremely large amount of laundry in the last month or takes five showers a day (she is disabled according to my sister and doesn't get out much) then we still can't figure out why the bill is so high. Thanks, I will pass on the info to her.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2009 at 1:06PM
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What kind of hot water heater is it? Is it a big tank that holds water that gets heated? If so, it is using a fair amount of gas to keep the water hot. If the tank is not insulated and the basement (or wherever the heater is) is cold, it will use more gas.

On the other hand, if it is an "on-demand" water heater, that only heats the water when you turn on hot water at the faucet, then the bill should be lower.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2009 at 5:05PM
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It is a 50 gallon hot water heater and she says it is in the basement. However, this doesn't make sense that it would use $200 + of natural gas because then all her other heating bills would have been astronomically high as well. The main thing that makes NO sense is she lived there for at least 4 cold months during the year and she was living there full time using the furnace (at 65 degrees) and using hot water for showers for two people (plus the hot water for the woman who lives above her) and she had a dishwasher she used practically every night (more hot water) and laundry that she did on weekends. And her bill was never as high as it is now (and during this particular billing period she only lived there four days and after that the furnance was shut off, no dishwasher was used, no showers, no laundry. The only things that could have used gas was the hot water heater (but not there was only one apartment using it, not two) and the hot water for laundry (but again, only one person doing laundry, not two)

She said she looked for foot prints near the gas meter (there has been snow on the ground for over a month) and there are none. Supposedly it was an actual reading and there is no sidewalk or anywhere to stand to read the meter and the gas company is claiming it was an actual meter reading. They did give her a $30 credit (probably the standard credit they give when someone calls and complains) but that doesn't make a dent in a $300 bill that occurred when noone was living there. She had them shut the gas off totally a few days ago and her landlord is furious (she called him and left him a message to call her two days before she shut the gas off so she could tell him and he could transfer it to his name if he wanted it left on. However he never called her back until he found out the gas was shut off (his daughter is the upstairs tenant and wouldn't have had hot water) He is threatening to take the reconnection fees out of her security deposit but i believe that is illegal.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2009 at 8:16AM
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So, $52 is really part of the bill for the previous month. And the gas company has given her a credit for $30. Which brings her bill down to $218. I agree it seems high for just a hot water heater for a month.

As for the footprints in the snow, there are some meters that can be read remotely, using some sort of electronic device. So, again, it's hard to figure out what's going on.

At this point, if your sister feels that she can't get any more cooperation from the gas company, she should file a complaint with the Department of Consumer Protection and let them handle it.

The only other thing I can think of is that the meter that everyone thinks is your sister's is really the meter for the other half of the house and vice versa. Is there any way she can track the gas line from the meter to the furnace and water heater? In any event, if she files a complaint with the state, a meter mixup would probably be found out in the investigation.

Your sister *could* ask the landlord for a "refund" for the gas used to heat the hot water for the other resident. However, since she apparently agreed to this when she rented the place, he doesn't have to give it to her. And he has every right to be upset if she turned the hot water off, if there is a clause in her lease that she needs to pay for it. (That's an odd arrangement, to be sure.) If she called and left a message that did not include the information that the hot water was going to be turned off, but just a request that he call her, she's got very little to stand on here. He may well be able to hit her security deposit for this.

Your sister needs to think about what she would like to have happen here. If she wants the gas company to lower the bill, she needs to file a complaint with the state, or make more calls to the company to see if they will send someone out to check on the situation. If she thinks the problem is with the way the gas is hooked up in the house, she can hire someone to come out and check it--but that might cost as much as the gas bill. She could take the matter up with her landlord, but given that she has upset him over the hot water, that might not be a good idea.

So your sister needs to weigh the costs and benefits of her options and decide if it is worth pursuing this matter.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2009 at 12:41PM
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She says there is no clause in her lease that says anything about utitilies other than she is responsible for paying for electric, gas, phone, and cable, and trash removal. She never knew she was paying for the hot water until her friend noticed where the gas line ran to and told her. The landlord never said anything about this. I don't think she is looking to get money back from him as she's been paying it all along without complaint.

The meter that the gas company says is hers is connected to the hot water heater and one furnance (she had a friend check this out). That was her first thought too, that the meter the company is charging her for is not the one that goes to her half of the house.

But if that were the case, says the upstairs neighbor would or the landlord would have noticed. The upstairs tenant is the landlord's adult daughter and he pays all of her bills. Also she had told my sister that she rarely needs to use her furnance since she is the upstairs apartment and heat rises and she doesn't like it very warm anyway. She told her she only turns it on during very cold days. So if the landlord were indeed paying for the wrong meter he would have expensive bills (because my sister always had the furnace set on 65, took showers, used the dishwasher etc) and if his daughter was telling him she rarely used the heat he would have questioned why the bills were so high.

She wanted the gas company to come out and verify they were reading the correct meter but they assured her they were. the rep told her the meter has to match the number on the bill and the one she gave them the reading off of did. Am I correct in thinking that if they just read the meter less than 15 days ago and SOME gas usage has taken place in that time that a current meter reading should be HIGHER than their last meter reading? Because the current meter reading was LOWER than the last one.

I don't think it is legal for her landlord to take any fees to have the gas turned back on taken out of her security deposit because unless there is physical damage to the apartment he can't just hold the money for whatever he feels like.

A few years ago I rented an apartment (month to month lease) for about six months and I gave my month's notice in writing and everything was fine until I went to take the electric bill out of my name. The landlady told me that she never puts the utility bills in her name and that I would have to leave it in MY name until the next tenant took over. I absolutely refused because she didn't have anyone lined up and would be cleaning and painting the apartment and USING ELECTRICITY that I would have to pay for. My lease was up and I had given her my key so I had no access to the apartment so why would I keep paying the electric bills? She threatened to keep my deposit if I did not do this and I just called the electric company and asked them to take the bill out of my name. They did not have an agreement to transfer it to the landlord's name so they just shut it off. I even told the representative what the landlord wanted me to do and she laughed and said she'd never heard of such a thing.

The landlady was furious and called me cussing me out the next tenant would have to pay fees to have the electricity turned back on. She was a very nice landlord up until this point. There was no possible way I would have left that bill in my name after my lease was out. No one would. Who wants to pay for electricity for possibly a few months until they found another tenant and what guaranteed that the new tenant wouldn't leave the bill in my name. I couldn't keep an eye on the place to see if it had been rented.
That landlady kept my deposit and I took her to small claims court, got my deposit back (she was dumb enough to tell the judge her reason for keeping it) and was awarded some extra for damages.

I have no idea what my sister is going to do. I think she just wants the gas company to verify that her meter reading is correct and that they are charging her for the correct meter.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2009 at 1:20PM
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