Tenants won't pay gas bill - or reply to landlord

  • Article by: RENTING and THE LAWKELLY KLEIN
  • Updated: March 7, 2012 - 11:04 AM

Q My tenants are responsible for paying all utilities. Their lease doesn't expire until July.

However, they haven't paid any gas bill since they moved in six months ago. The gas company is going to disconnect service any day due to nonpayment. The gas company and I are unable to get any response from the tenants.

If the gas service is disconnected, the heat will shut off. The pipes might freeze and burst, which puts my property at risk.

What can I do?

A Under state law, if the lease requires the tenants to pay the gas bills and they fail to do so, your tenants have violated their lease, which is grounds for immediate eviction.

As far as contacting the tenants, there is no legal limit on how many times you can call, e-mail or text them, but at some point it will be considered harassment.

Because your tenants aren't responding to your attempts to speak with them, you have the right to stop by when you believe they might be home. If you give them advance notice that you intend to come by, you're protected from any complaints. If you end up entering the property when your tenant isn't there and prior notice hasn't been given, you need to make sure you place a written note disclosing your visit in a conspicuous place inside the premises.

If you're required to pay the outstanding gas bills to preserve your property, you can take your tenants to conciliation court to recover these expenses or deduct the amount from their security deposit. Make sure that the lease terms required your tenants to pay these gas bills and that it wasn't just something both parties discussed but never had a formal agreement.

Even though you have every right to appear on your tenants' doorstep, it might prove unproductive and not resolve the problem of the unpaid gas bills. You also should write them a letter stating if they don't contact you within a week to resolve the issue or pay the outstanding gas bills, you will be forced to evict them. Writing the letter might give you the results you need, because you are giving them a deadline by which they need to either pay or dispute the gas bills.

If they don't pay, you will know you have done everything you can to resolve the matter.

Changing to nonsmoking

Q Can my landlord all of a sudden change the building I've signed a 12-month lease on into a nonsmoking building and not allow me to smoke in my apartment?

A A landlord can't change the terms of your lease while it's still running, unless both parties agree to it. A landlord may change other units in the building to nonsmoking, but the change can't be enforced on a current tenant unless both parties agree to it.

Once your lease expires and it's time for renewal, your landlord may enforce a nonsmoker's clause in your renewal lease. At that time you will have to make a decision to renew or move.

Minnesota's Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits smoking in all "public places," which includes common areas of rental apartment buildings. But the law doesn't prohibit smoking within individual rental units.

Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to kklein@kleinpa.com, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.

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