Q: I signed a one-year lease with my landlord to rent a house. The lease was set to expire at the end of April 2017. However, after living there for eight months, I gave my landlord notice and vacated the rental house at the end of December 2016 to move into a residence I had purchased.
To honor my lease, I continued to pay my monthly rent in January, February, March and April, even though I was not setting foot in that rental residence, and my landlord was using those four months to repaint the place for his next tenant.
Now that my one-year lease has expired, I received a check from my landlord for the return of my security deposit. The amount of this check included deductions for utility bills, including CenterPoint Energy, Xcel Energy and city water/recycling bills for the four months I did not live there.
I can understand that my landlord expected to keep the house at a certain temperature throughout the winter months, so I am not disputing the CenterPoint Energy bill deductions. However, it seems unfair that my landlord is passing along the bills for electricity, water and recycling, since I neither generated nor used any of those services, and, in fact, notified each of those utility companies to close my accounts as of the end of December.
I have countered in a note to my landlord, asking him to write me an additional check for the amount of the electricity, water and recycling services that I neither generated nor used, but that he deducted from my security deposit. What do you think I should do?
A: As you indicated, you are required to pay rent for each month until your lease expires, whether you are living in the unit or not. Some utility bills, such as heat and garbage, accrue even though the unit is empty. Others, such as water and electricity, may have reduced significantly once you moved out. Some leases require the tenant to pay the utilities whether or not they are occupying the unit. If your lease has such a clause requiring you to pay all the utilities through the end of your lease, then you are responsible for those utilities even though you weren’t living there. If your lease does not have such a clause, then it is an open question whether a court would require you to pay them.
The statute governing security deposits permits a landlord to deduct from the deposit all amounts owed by the tenant to the landlord. One important issue for you to raise is that after giving notice, the landlord knew you had vacated the unit. He could have turned the heat down to a lower temperature and turned off the lights and the water, except when he was showing the unit. If your landlord did not do that, then he increased the amounts you were responsible to cover, and most courts won’t look favorably on that. You should consider bringing a conciliation court action against your landlord to recover the amounts you think you should not be responsible to pay.
Don’t cash the security deposit check your landlord sent, as he may argue that cashing the check shows your acceptance of the lesser amount owed. Instead, you should wait to see how your landlord responds to your request. You may also request a copy of the actual electric, water and recycling bills for your apartment from January through April. Your landlord may agree to split the cost with you or pay the entire amount to avoid conciliation court.
If your landlord refuses to negotiate with you, you may file a claim in conciliation court in the county where the rental house is located. If your landlord does agree to split the bills and write you another check, make sure to get that agreement in writing.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.