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How to make the landlord bill me?
December 9, 2007 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How can I make my landlord tell me what I owe for bills?

The landlord and I have an agreement that we split the bills (gas, electric, water, sewer, cable), as I live in the "mother-in-law" apartment of her house and the utilities are billed for the whole house.

Problem is, she's very bad at getting to the bills. I've been living here for about a year and a half and she's only given me a tally 3 or 4 times. I want to avoid having to pay a huge lump sum when she finally gets around to it.

Is there any leverage I can use? For example, is there some amount of time after which I am no longer liable to pay?

I've emailed her numerous times and the response is always something like "I am working on it right now", or "I will get to it soon". I also tried suggesting that I just pay a fixed amount every month similar to a utilities included setup. She hasn't replied to that one.
posted by jclovebrew to Home & Garden (21 answers total)
 
Rather than emailing, you ought to go and have a face-to-face negotiation. Right now, on the basis of a presumably verbal agreement, there is not "some amount of time after which [you] are no longer liable to pay." On the other hand, she would have to deal with collecting from you if you refused to pay old bills. But why let it get to that, and why be confrontational?

Go talk. Put a simple written agreement in front of her and tell her what your problem is. The agreement would spell out (a) that you agree to pay 50% of the bills if you are given a copy of them on or before the due date of the bill, (b) that you'll pay her within 15 days after she gives you a copy, and (c) if she does not provide a copy of any bill before the due date of the bill, you will pay a fixed amount that month to cover that particular bill. The agreement should spell out the fixed amounts applicable to each utility.

If she agrees, get it signed and live by the agreement. If she doesn't, see what she proposes. Don't accept "I'll try to do better", because that hasn't worked. Negotiate toward some version of the above.
posted by beagle at 11:35 AM on December 9, 2007


You're in Seattle WA, right? I figure it's important to make sure since renters rights hinge strongly on which state law that applies.
posted by chips ahoy at 11:35 AM on December 9, 2007


This might be overly obvious, but you could stick a fixed amount in a sock every month and when the lump sum comes around make up the difference (or get a tax-refund-like windfall.)

Or maybe you should actually just pay her a fixed amount every month and tell her to ask you for the difference when she gets her bills done. She would probably never get around to calculating the difference.
posted by XMLicious at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


You could also get her to agree to a payment plan. If she gives you six months of bills at once, you get six months to pay it off in smaller payments.
posted by grouse at 12:01 PM on December 9, 2007


I think you've got to do this in person. Moreover, I think that this discussion will be easier in person. E-mail can come across as either too informal or too cold. Maybe she's uncomfortable with confrontation. Maybe she hasn't responded to your offer of paying a lump sum because she's afraid that if she does that and doesn't properly account for the cost of heat in the winter, she'll get stuck with bills she can't afford. Maybe she's at a loss as to how to calculate a fair distribution of your share -- is there any way that you can help figure this out?

Explain your concerns, acknowledging that she's probably busy and that accounting is no fun. Frame is as a question of fairness -- you want to pay your fair share, but to do that, you need to know what your fair share is on a monthly basis. After all, utility companies bill monthly instead of yearly because it's easier for people to pay along the way then get socked with a big bill at the end of the year.
posted by desuetude at 12:08 PM on December 9, 2007


Pick your battles. Is this something you really care about? I mean really really care about? Is this dramatically decreasing the quality of your life, or is this a small inconvenience?

I have a few things like this in my life, and there's generally a simple solution. You want stability, your landlord prefers to do things as infrequently as possible.

If she agreed to the monthly payment, what would that be? Get an envelope and put that payment in the envelope every month. Then every few months when she asks for your share, take it out of the envelope. It may be over or under a little, but not by much. So you won't need to come up with a huge sum and she doesn't have to deal with it every month.

Of course this only works if you're able to take responsibility and put that money away every month. If you can't save that money when no one is making you (or no utility company is demanding you to), it's not your landlord's fault. Consider this an opportunity to learn a much needed financial management skill.
posted by ochenk at 12:33 PM on December 9, 2007


Budget. Then keep/make up the difference. Surely that is common sense?
posted by Brockles at 1:01 PM on December 9, 2007


XMLicious: This might be overly obvious, but you could stick a fixed amount in a sock every month and when the lump sum comes around make up the difference (or get a tax-refund-like windfall.)

It's a rather good idea — but if you do this, choose a high interest-bearing savings account, such as the online ones (ING Direct, etc.). Nice thing is with those, you can set up automatic withdrawals from a checking account, etc. — making your "putting money aside for the big bill flood" process as automatic as an EFT from the actual utility would be.

Also, another idea: call the utilities themselves, and explain the situation, and ask them for their advice. You're basically telling the utilities you want to facilitate the process of giving them money, so they will most likely be motivated to help you ... :)
posted by WCityMike at 1:05 PM on December 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


choose a high interest-bearing savings account, such as the online ones (ING Direct, etc.). Nice thing is with those, you can set up automatic withdrawals from a checking account, etc. — making your "putting money aside for the big bill flood" process as automatic as an EFT from the actual utility would be.

Seconded. Also, think about putting a little extra away every month. That way if you have some sort of unforeseen expense you don't have to go into debt. Use this as an excuse to start saving money and stop living paycheck to paycheck, if that's what you're doing now.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:13 PM on December 9, 2007


A follow-up to contacting the utilities. If your unit has a seperate meter - which it doesn't sound like it does since you call it a mother-in-law apartment, you could easily get a bill by agreeing to take responsibility for payment for utilities from that meter. But that will require some work by the owner - contacting the utility, written letters, etc. That's not very promising since your landlord is a procrastinator.

The other option for getting a copy of the bill (known as a memo statement bill at Puget Sound Energy) will require also permission from the landlord, usually in writing. I don't know what it's called at Seattle City Light. Do call the utilities. They've been dealing with apartment owners, room mate situations, and MIL apartment situations for years.
posted by slowstarter at 1:21 PM on December 9, 2007


WCityMike, it's doubtful that utility companies will give jclovebrew the time of day, as the bills are not in his name. As long as the bills get paid every month, they don't care who contributes how much.
posted by desuetude at 1:24 PM on December 9, 2007


Of course I have money set aside to pay these bills, as some answers suggest. Although, I'm not specifically budgeting for these particular bills. See, it's impossible: there has never been any regularity. I don't have a nice tidy history of monthly payments to extrapolate from. I frankly have no clue what the average monthly expenses are here.

When I get her final tally it's not going to bankrupt me or anything like that. But this is a very fucking annoying situation. I've lived my life debt free for many years now, and I feel this situation is essentially forcing me to carry debt. Sure I don't have to pay interest on it, and in fact I guess I'm better off that I'm actually earning interest on the money in the bank. But for whatever reason, maybe just psychological, I just want to my finances to squared away at all times. Actually another reason is that as time passes, it will be more difficult to calculate.

I think I'll try drafting up a written agreement. My guess is that she'll say that she'll read it over and get back to me soon, and then of course never get back to me.
posted by jclovebrew at 1:27 PM on December 9, 2007


My guess is that she'll say that she'll read it over and get back to me soon, and then of course never get back to me.

That's why I'm thinking: just give her the money every month as a 2nd check along with your rent, a low estimate of the average, earmarked as a utilities payment, without getting into a discussion with her - a solution that doesn't require any action on her part. Your effective debt will be reduced to a fraction of the lump sum.
posted by XMLicious at 1:37 PM on December 9, 2007


(Either she cashes the check or doesn't; if she does it's as good as a signature on a contract you wrote youreself, IMO - IANAL)
posted by XMLicious at 1:40 PM on December 9, 2007


(Either she cashes the check or doesn't;

Funny you mention that. She also has, on occasion, forgotten to cash checks here and there. It almost makes me just want to keep my mouth shut and eventually move out of here a few thousand dollars richer... almost.
posted by jclovebrew at 2:01 PM on December 9, 2007


Funny you mention that. She also has, on occasion, forgotten to cash checks here and there. It almost makes me just want to keep my mouth shut and eventually move out of here a few thousand dollars richer... almost.

Uh, I just found a check someone wrote me two years ago. Am I going to cash it? No. Might your flaky landlord? Yes. You might consider settling up in full (or closing that checking account) when you move out.

I do actually think there might be something in one of the Nolo law books about how promptly landlords should bill tenants for utilities. You might check out books like this or this at your public library.
posted by salvia at 3:40 PM on December 9, 2007


Can't you just arrange to get a look at the bills yourself when they come in? The only work to be done is to calculate what is half the bill, right? Offer to do the math yourself (of course, she can always check it herself). She just needs to place utility bills someplace where you can access them (for 30 seconds).
posted by winston at 5:40 PM on December 9, 2007


winston: I tried that approach and would certainly prefer to do it that way. I suggested that to her, and she agreed to leave them for me in the laundry area. But quite predictably, she has never once done so.

Wow, it's pretty frustrating to think about.
posted by jclovebrew at 6:34 PM on December 9, 2007


Can you read the meter and try to find out what the charge might be?
posted by salvia at 9:05 PM on December 9, 2007


Thanks for posting this. It reminded me to call the letting agent, who has failed for 2 months now to send our electric bill. In South Africa, they will turn off your power if you fail to pay by mid-month, every month. It's insane.
posted by Goofyy at 2:24 AM on December 10, 2007


Procrastination is, weirdly enough, a symptom of perfectionism. It typically happens because someone feels overwhelmed by the prospect of doing the task "right". She might not know how to break it down into small manageable steps, or maybe isn't confident she now how to do one or more of the steps required.

Since offering to do it for her hasn't worked, try asking her *what you can do* to make this very easy for her. You'd like to put money in her pocket, and relieve her of a burdensome task.

My bet is that, as a habitual procrastinator, she hasn't paid all of those bills ontime and is either (a) uncertain how to divvy up bills that include extra late fees/interest/whatever or (b) embarrassed to let you see bills that show signs that she manages her money noticeably less well than you do (especially if she's aware that you place such importance on paying bills promptly).

Or it might be something else, like she's unsure what formula is "right" for calculating your relative shares. Having had some experience with being a landlord in this position, believe me: there are a lot of different ways to split the bill, and everyone thinks the current formula is designed to shaft them. Since she seems to be unconfortable with confrontation anyway, avoiding commitment to a number conveniently avoid a confrontation with you over whether it's the right number.

I also tried suggesting that I just pay a fixed amount every month

Suggest an amount. (Hard, I know, since you don't have a clue what to base it on. If this place were advertised with utils included, how much would you be willing to pay as rent? That'll tell you where your boundaries are. It's up to her to decide whether it falls within hers too.)

My guess is that she'll say that she'll read it over and get back to me soon, and then of course never get back to me.

Then change how you communicate with her. Don't give her anything to read later. Speak with her directly, by appointment so you know she has time free to deal with it, and keep up the conversation until you two have reached agreement on a solution.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:02 PM on December 10, 2007


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