Do rental units in Washington State have to be sub-metered (have one meter per individual rental unit)?
No. There is no requirement for landlords to sub-meter individual units. Seattle tenants are protected under the Third Party Billing Ordinance that requires landlords to provide information on how they calculate tenants’ bills.
What is third party billing?
Third party billing is when the landlord has a utility service in their name and passes the charge on to the tenants in a unit or complex. It only applies to properties with three or more units. The landlord is billed for utility usage based on the entire building’s charges or master meter, and then divides the bill up and sends it to individual units. Tenants are charged based on the divided total bill, rather than their individual utility usage. Third party billing is legal in Washington State, and unregulated outside the city limits of Seattle. Seattle renters have additional legal protections under the Third Party Billing Ordinance. See Seattle Utility Billing for more information.
Do I have to put utilities in my name when I move into a unit?
Look to your written rental agreement to find out what has been agreed upon regarding utility billing in your rental unit. Some landlords require tenants to put utilities in the tenant’s name, while other landlords prefer to keep the utilities in their own name and then send separate bills to the tenant. Seattle Public Utility water/sewer/garbage accounts must be kept in the landlord’s name. See Seattle Utility Billing for more information.
Are there any protections in the law to stop them from shutting off utility service in units with renters who are elderly, disabled, or parents of small children?
There are currently no protections in state law against utility shut offs for renters with disabilities or small children. It’s possible that Individual utility providers provide some such protection. Contact your utility provider directly to find out more information. They may be willing to delay shut offs for tenants who have good payment histories. In addition, low-income tenants have some protections against shutoffs of heat during the winter months. See the Washington Law Help publication Public Utilities for more information.
Are phone and cable service considered utilities?
No. Other services in a rental unit, such as phone service or cable, are considered amenities and the sole responsibility of the renter to set up and maintain independent of the rental agreement and landlord.
If I am late making a utility payment, can the landlord charge me a late fee or serve me with a 10-day notice to comply or vacate if the bill is in my name?
Yes. Keeping current on utility bills is a condition of your tenancy. If you do not pay utility bills, the landlord may charge late fees or serve you with a 10-day notice to comply or vacate, even if the utility bill is in your name. Look to your rental agreement to see if the landlord can charge you late fees on utility payments.
I make payments directly to the utility company, but my landlord often uses my utilities. Does the landlord owe me for the use of my utilities?
Possibly. The Landlord-Tenant Act is silent on this issue, so you should look to the language of your lease if it states the landlord can do so. If the lease doesn’t spell this out, and the landlord is using the utilities for purposes that do not benefit you, then in some situations you may be able to seek compensation. For example, if your lease agreement states that you will maintain the lawn and yard, it may be reasonable for the landlord to turn on the sprinklers to do so. However, if the landlord was renovating a property they owned next door and used your electricity to power their tools; this might not be an appropriate use of your utilities.
If the landlord improperly used your utilities use previous utility bills to document the discrepancy in amounts if possible. You can request a rent credit or payment from the landlord for the difference you are owed. The law does not clearly state your rights in this situation, so you must negotiate with your landlord. Have any agreement signed and in writing. If the landlord refuses to compensate you can go to Small Claims Court, but always consult an attorney before taking action.
My utility bill is three times as much as my neighbor who lives in the same size unit. Is this legal?
It depends on if you are both using the same amount of utilities, which can vary depending on how many people live in the same unit, or even personal habits of an individual tenant’s use of gas, water or electricity, etc. However, assuming there is no substantive difference in usage, this can be an indication of a faulty pipe, wiring, or insulation. It may also be an indication of a faulty meter. For a faulty meter you can call the utility company to come out and inspect the meter. If the company finds no fault with the meter, ask for documentation. Using the Repair Process, you can include this documentation to the landlord and request they correct the defective utility issue. Use previous utility bills to document the discrepancy in amounts if possible.
The previous tenant didn’t pay the utility bill. Am I responsible for the bill?
No. You are only responsible for the utility use during the term of your tenancy. If you have a lease you can use that as documentation that you are not responsible for the previous tenant’s bill. The lease will state your term of tenancy.
Can the landlord charge for utilities retroactively?
Look to your rental agreement to see what utilities the landlord requires you to pay and what late fees, if any, you are responsible for. The contract dictates what the landlord is allowed to charge you for utilities.
Does my landlord have to put in extra insulation and double paned windows to keep my utility costs down?
Generally no, but the landlord does have to make sure your unit is habitable by ensuring that it has adequate heat and maintain the property in compliance with local building codes. State law also requires that the unit be reasonably weather-tight under RCW 59.18.060.