Q: I am currently renting an apartment that I have been living in for over 20 years. This year, for the first time, the lease requires the residents to pay for water and garbage removal, which residents will be billed back for later.
The apartment building is a multi-unit complex, with one- and two-bedroom apartments. I am a single resident, retired, and inquired how management was going to determine how each unit was going to be charged for water usage. It sounds like a lot of guesswork and averages to me.
The management company began releasing monthly statements to the residents in December. These statements describe the amounts owed for rent and garage space, and are listed under a category of charges. There is a category for payments, a category for balance, and then at the bottom of the statement is a listing for balance forward.
I have paid my rent and garage space amounts monthly as I always have, yet the monthly statement says that I have a balance due. I know that I am being required to pay for water and garbage removal now, but there is nothing in the monthly statement that states that is what the amount represents.
Shouldn't there be some explanation for what the balance due is for? Should I just assume that this is what the amount due is for?
I know from past experience that assumptions can backfire. I have e-mailed the apartment management company about this and have yet to hear back. There is no on-site management office or office manager.
I have not paid the balance due yet, because I don't know exactly what that amount is for. I would greatly appreciate any advice as my landlord will start to charge late fees at the end of the month.
A: It is legal to bill multiple tenants in a single-meter building for utilities, such as water and garbage removal, so long as the landlord follows the correct procedure.
Common utilities typically include water, sewer, electric, gas, trash/garbage, and recycling, but can also include phone, cable and internet access. If the utility you are being billed for, which is water and garbage removal, is being controlled by a meter that only measures your rental apartment, then your landlord is allowed to pay the bill and pass the cost onto the tenants.
However, in your case, where the meter covers more than just your rental unit, it is considered a shared meter and there are specific rules your landlord must follow regarding shared meters.
If your landlord has a single-metered residential building and they are billing tenants for utility charges separate from the rent, they must provide prospective tenants notice of the total utility cost for the building for each month of the most recent calendar year. Your landlord must also state in writing how they will fairly split up the total utility bill, which is water and garbage removal in your case, and how often they will bill the tenants for these utilities.
Your landlord needs to include a lease provision that indicates if a tenant requests to see the utility bill, the landlord must provide a copy of the actual utility bill for the building along with each apportioned utility bill. If a tenant requests to see past copies of the bills for which they are being billed separately for, the landlord must provide these copies for the past two years the tenant was being billed for that utility or from the time the landlord acquired the building, whichever is more recent.
This doesn't apply to you right now, but in the future if your landlord bills for gas and electric charges separate from your rent payment, then your landlord must also inform you and the other tenants in writing, by Sept. 30 of each year, of the energy assistance program available from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, including the toll-free phone number of the specific agency.
In your case, your landlord indicated they would be billing the tenants separately on a monthly basis, which is legal if done correctly.
The best practice would be for the landlord to separately identify each amount as opposed to simply including it in a lump sum identified as balance forward. However, your landlord hasn't indicated how they are apportioning the water and garbage removal amount equitably by unit.
You should immediately contact the landlord, as you have done, and request to see how they are fairly allocating the water usage and garbage removal charges. It looks like you're being billed monthly for these two utilities, so that question as to how often you'll be billed has been answered.
However, you need to find out how your landlord is arriving at these fees, since you should not be billed for the same amount of water usage that a family of four in the same building is being charged. Once your landlord provides you with the information, you will be able to easily understand your monthly statement.
Since you've lived in the building for over 20 years, you have been a great tenant and I'm sure they will be open to answering your questions. If you don't get your answers from management before the late fee accrues, you should request that the late fee be waived due to your concerns that need to be addressed before you pay these utility charges.
You can also request that your bill for these charges be changed from "Balance Forward" to "Water" and "Garbage Removal" with specific dollar amounts so that you can better understand what your apartment expenses are for each month.
There is a law in Minnesota that requires landlords to provide this information to tenants upon request or be subject to penalties, and your landlord is most likely aware of this law. If they aren't aware, you should let them know about it and they can also contact me for verification.
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 email@example.com. Information provided by readers is not confidential.