There are very few regulations about utilities in the Landlord-Tenant Act, so it is a good idea for tenants to take precautions to ensure that no problems regarding utilities arise during their tenancy.
- Ask questions about utility service and billing before you sign a lease. Common utilities in rental units include electric, gas, water, sewer and garbage. 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. Your rental agreement should specifically state any and all policies regarding utility service and billing, including any late fees that may be assigned by the landlord for late payment. Look to your rental agreement to see what utilities you are responsible for paying, and whether or not those utilities need to be in your name.
Some good questions to ask include:
- Is my unit on an individual meter or a master meter?
- Are the utility accounts in my name or the landlord’s name?
- What is the contact information for all of the utility providers?
- How many other units share my meter, and what formula is used to determine how the cost is divided?
- What utilities are you responsible for? What utilities are being paid by the landlord?
- Are there outstanding utility charges on the accounts?
- How is the landlord calculating your portion of the utilities? Is there a third-party billing company?
- What kind of heating is in the unit? Where is the thermostat located? Who is in control of the temperature setting? When is the heat turned on? Do other tenants have access to the thermostat?
- Where are the fuse box and the hot water heater located?
- Does the landlord charge you a fee for late utilities? Is this fee in addition to the utility company’s late fee?
The landlord may ask you to put the utilities in your name, or they may do some kind of 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. 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 below for further information. You can also try to get a sense of the utility costs on a unit before you move in. You can try to ask the electric or natural gas company how much utility service cost on the unit for the past 12 months.
- Set up your utility accounts quickly. If the utilities must be put into your name, transfer them as soon as possible after you move into a unit. You may even be able to schedule a utility transfer or hook up before you move in and your rental agreement begins. Keep in mind you are only responsible for your actual utility use during the term of your tenancy. Seattle Public Utility water/sewer/garbage accounts are no longer being put in tenant names. See Seattle Utility Laws below for more information.
- Know your rights with utility companies. Utilities can be provided by public or private entities. Public utilities are governmental agencies, usually a city or county, or a public utility district. Public utilities are regulated by the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). Public utility providers cannot refuse to put utility service into someone’s name, but they may first require them to pay off past due bills, pay a connection fee or a security deposit, and/or provide them with basic identifying information and sign papers agreeing to pay for the provided services.
- Pay utility bills promptly, and keep documentation of all your utility payments. Whether you pay utilities to the landlord or the utility company, it is a good idea to document all payments, communication and any problems that arise relating to your utility service. You can make copies of your bills, letters, checks or money orders and keep them in your records. It is also a good idea to send all your correspondence certified mail, return receipt and regular first class mail. 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.
- Take steps to protect yourself with the landlord. There is no requirement for landlords to sub-meter individual rental units, so your utilities may be billed by the landlord who estimates your cost based on a percentage of the master meter. Seattle landlords are required to provide information on how they calculate tenants’ bills (see Seattle Utility Billing for more information). There is very little regulation for landlords outside Seattle regarding utilities, so it is up to tenants to take proactive steps to protect themselves. If you have concerns about your bill, you can try calling the utility company directly for more information. They may not always agree to share information with someone who is not directly named on the account. Keep track of all payments you make, and get all documentation you can if you have concerns that you are being charged too much. You may be able to bring a Small Claims Court suit against your landlord if you can document overcharges. Talk to an attorney for more information. See our tenant Legal Assistance Guide for resources and contact information of legal services in your area.
- Take action to resolve utility disputes. As with all landlord-tenant disputes, documentation is key. If you believe your utility bill is inaccurate, contact the utility company and have them test the building meter. If they find no defect have them provide you with documentation. If you have previous utility billing statements use them to document a jump in your rates. Keep in mind that you may want to use billing statements for the same month from the previous year depending on the type of utility. This is because a winter bill for heating costs may look very different than a summer bill. Also, ask the utility company if there was any change in their rates from the previous bills. You will want to use the utility statements to document the discrepancy of the higher costs. This will help document the difference in what you may be owed if there is a faulty pipe or wiring that is causing irregular high costs in utilities.
It is also a good idea to talk to your neighbors and ask them if their utility rates are similar to yours. If your neighbors are living in a similar sized unit with the same number of people living there, and your utility costs are considerably more it could be an indication of faulty wiring or plumbing, etc. You can use the above documentation to request a repair from the landlord, see our Repairs section. If the landlord agrees you have been inappropriately charged you can request a rent credit or direct payment for that amount. Be sure to get all payment agreements in writing from the landlord.
Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.