Need some help with a lying roommate.
November 14, 2008 2:37 PM   Subscribe

My new roommate (of 2 weeks) lied to me about why the gas was turned off. I'm subletting, and I'm getting out. Do I have any option for recourse?

I moved in to a new place on the first of this month. I met the roommate through Craigslist. She seemed to be personable (a bit of a chatty Cathy, but oh well) and responsible. This perception changed drastically yesterday.

When I went over on the first to pay my first month's rent and get the keys, she let me know that the water heater had been working intermittently, and that the landlord's son would be over within a few days to fix it. Apparently he never came by. I dealt with this for a week or so, because my parents live a few blocks away so it's not difficult for me to walk over there in the morning to take a shower. She told me a few times that she had talked to the landlord's son and to PG&E (the gas company) and that it would be resolved soon. Come to find out that the gas issue also involves the heat and the stove, so I'm unable to sleep without a space heater and many blankets, and I can only cook in the microwave.

I had my dad come over and take a look at everything, to see if we could get the pilot light lit on the heater, on the water heater, etc. No dice.

Fast forward to this last Saturday (the 8th), where I put my foot down and let her know that there's no way that I would have moved in as quickly as I did (I had 17 days of overlap with my previous house) if I had known about this issue. She explained that she was very sorry, and would raise hell with the landlord and her son. (The reason why the landlord's son is involved is because the landlord barely speaks English) She got on the phone with PG&E and scheduled the first available appointment to have someone come out and determine where the problem was.

This appointment ended up being yesterday. I took the day off of work to be at home to meet the PG&E guy, and the landlord's son. I hung around the house, played some video games, did some organizing of my new room, etc. About 3:30 I started to get concerned and called PG&E to see about the status of the technician, and when I should expect him to come. The person on the phone let me know that not only was there no technician scheduled to come, but there is no active account at my address. I asked if I could set up an account and was told that due to non-payment of the previous account, I would need to fax a new lease agreement to set up new service.

So the situation is that I'm 2 weeks into my new place, and there is no heat, hot water or a working stove. I have been lied to by my roommate (I was in the room with her when she was supposedly making the appointment with PG&E, I wonder who she was actually talking to). I cannot set up a new account with PG&E because since I am subletting I don't have a lease agreement to send them. I have signed no paperwork with the landlord or with my roommate. I have paid a $500 deposit and first months rent (which, conveniently, just cleared today).

I called my roommate yesterday after I got off of the phone with PG&E. She didn't answer (she was at work), I left a message explaining the situation and asking her for an explanation. She did not call back. I called back later on in the evening, she didn't answer, I didn't leave a message. I called her back today (she is not working today), and got no answer. I left her another message. I sent her a text message asking her to please respond to my voicemails. I called again, she didn't answer, I didn't leave a message.

What do I do now? In the last voicemail I left, I told her I would be moving out by the first. I get the feeling that I have been scammed. Is there anything that I can do to ensure that I get my deposit back? Also, am I able to take her to small claims court for lying to me about the gas situation (and therefore coercing me to move into a non-livable living situation)?

I apologize for the long rambling nature of this question, but I'm pretty heated (or not) right now and not making much sense.
posted by sacrifix to Law & Government (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There is likely to be a law in your jurisdiction requiring rented residences to be habitable, which may include cooking facilities and heating. Your landlord might be violating your rental contract implicitly by not providing these.

You might win in small claims court, but do you think you're going to collect money from someone who can't pay her delinquent gas bill? Good luck.
posted by grouse at 2:47 PM on November 14, 2008

Maybe. What state are you in?
posted by lockestockbarrel at 2:48 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster: @Grouse: Good point. It's more the principle of the matter than actually getting the money.

@lockestockbarrel: Should have mentioned that also. Sacramento, CA.
posted by sacrifix at 2:50 PM on November 14, 2008

While it's shady she hasn't been returning your calls, it is not uncommon for a utility company to a) not properly sign someone up for an account at an address (or lose that account info) and b) completely blow off appointments. Many places are listed as completely different addresses in the gas company database (due to having initially been another address or building, etc.) and it is sometimes difficult to get accurate information from them.

Paying the delinquent amount off usually gets the ball rolling. Reach out to the landlord, they may be able to help.
posted by shownomercy at 2:52 PM on November 14, 2008

My RE class just covered this yesterday. Heating is certainly part of the implied warranty of habitability -- anything related to health and safety is. Not providing this is considered constructive eviction and you can walk if this is not taken care of ASAP.
posted by troy at 2:54 PM on November 14, 2008

Here is a link to a tenants rights center. This is a san diego local link, but I assume most of these laws are statewide. The site has helped me in the past do research on similair situations. Have a look.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 2:57 PM on November 14, 2008

Check out "implied warranty of habitability" in your state's statutes and see what it says.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 2:57 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster: @Troy: But what if the issue is that the roommate, not the landlord, created the situation?
posted by sacrifix at 2:58 PM on November 14, 2008

I would say to contact your local tenant's right association or the city. In Los Angeles, if an apartment does not have heat or hot water, it's technically uninhabitable and the city's got an agency to help people with this. BUT, from my investigations, the first thing you need to show this city agency is a lease, to prove that you're legally permitted to be in the apartment. You don't have this.

If it were me, I'd go talk to the landlord or his son first: it's highly possible that they don't even know Cathy's subletting to you (You've never met them, filled out no paperwork, roomate wanted you to write her a check for $500 + rent?). Hell, she may have been evicted, or might have skipped town already.
posted by holyrood at 2:58 PM on November 14, 2008

Best answer: sacrifix: If you are subletting, your roommate is your landlord.
posted by grouse at 3:03 PM on November 14, 2008

She defrauded you--I would call the cops when she gets home.

Dramatic, yeah, but maybe they'll convince her to pay up.

Bonus, I bet she has a warrant for an unpaid ticket.
posted by sondrialiac at 3:04 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Grouse: Yeah, that's what I was figuring. Unfortunate, but bad news comes in 3's, so I think I should be good from here on out.

@sondrialiac: Good idea. I will definitely be pursuing that angle.
posted by sacrifix at 3:32 PM on November 14, 2008

I called my roommate yesterday after I got off of the phone with PG&E. She didn't answer (she was at work), I left a message explaining the situation and asking her for an explanation. She did not call back. I called back later on in the evening, she didn't answer, I didn't leave a message. I called her back today (she is not working today), and got no answer.

So, she's not actually a roommate? Where does she live?
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:33 PM on November 14, 2008

I doubt it will do you much good, but do you have a receipt for your $500?

It's probable that the master lease specifies that the tenant cannot sublet. Unfortunately you probably don't have any recourse.
posted by mattoxic at 3:33 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster: @JimN2TAW: No, she lives there. She just hasn't come home since Thursday (when PG&E was supposed to come by).

@mattoxic: Well, I have the receipt for the money order I used. That's probably not good enough. We'll see what happens when I get home, if she's there or not.
posted by sacrifix at 3:41 PM on November 14, 2008

My RE class just covered this yesterday. Heating is certainly part of the implied warranty of habitability -- anything related to health and safety is. Not providing this is considered constructive eviction and you can walk if this is not taken care of ASAP.

The apartment is a heated apartment. If the tenant doesn't pay the bills and the heat is cut off, not the immigrant landlord's problem. You've never heard of tenants paying their own utilities?

However, considering that the woman referred to as "roommate" (though she apparently sleeps somewhere else) is the "landlord" vis-a-vis the OP, *she* certainly has failed to supply heat. But you knew that already, and that's just one more reason that the OP has the right to break the non-lease with that woman.

Sure, try Small Claims. You certainly were lied to about at least one material fact (no heat). Hope you collect something.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:43 PM on November 14, 2008

Sorry our posts doubled. OK, she's a roommate, at least for now.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:44 PM on November 14, 2008

In my lease it was stated that I was required to keep and pay for the heat at at least 50 degrees since the owner doesn't pay utilities. I think your beef is with the roommate/subleter if the landlord/owner does not pay utilities.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:47 PM on November 14, 2008

Best answer: I was trying to figure out why PG&E would turn off the gas and not the electricity, and then I realized that your electricity is probably through SMUD, right?

Anyway, if you're subletting and you are not on the lease, then your roommate is considered the Main Tenant under California law. She therefore has the responsibilities (and many of the rights) of a landlord. If the lease -- which you presumably do not have a copy of -- states that the roommate is responsible for paying the utilities, and the service was suspended because she was delinquent with the bill (btw, PG&E only shuts off service after 3 months of delinquent payments), then yes, she is violating the habitability clause.

The good news is that a landlord's refusal to deal with habitability -- specifically, with refusing to provide heat -- is one of very few things that entitle California tenants to withhold rent.

I don't want to be responsible for you getting evicted from the sublet, so check with a tenants' union first, but my advice would be to calculate the number of days you're without heat. Don't pay rent on the first if the service is not back on by the first. And when the service is finally restored, you should deduct the days you didn't have heat from the total you pay.

A couple other things to know -- on my PG&E bill, at least (and I'm in the Sacramento area, too, so we're living in the same climate) the gas portion of the bill is much, much less than the electric portion of the bill. I can't imagine that three months' worth of gas would really amount to that much, especially since winter hasn't started yet.

However, not only will PG&E require a fee to restore the service, if she's chronically delinquent, they could be asking for a deposit as well. This might be a big chunk of money, and that could be the reason she's having a hard time paying.

Finally, there are a couple local services that can help her if her problem is money, instead of irresponsibility. If you think it's warranted, try contracting the Salvation Army's Reach program, or the federal HEAP program. PG&E accepts payment from both agencies, provided that the customer meets certain requirements.

As for dealing with the roomie in the future -- I have no advice. Hopefully the above will help you deal with the current situation, though.

DO look into withholding/pro-rating the rent. California law rarely entitles tenants to do that, but this is one of those cases where you probably can.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:06 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's very weird that she hasn't been home, to the place she supposedly lives, since all this occurred. It smells pretty scammy to me, but could just be flat-out negligence and stupidity.
posted by joshrholloway at 4:14 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster: @mudpuppie: Thanks for the information, that's exactly what I needed.

@joshrholloway: Yeah I'm trying to believe I'm not being scammed but it's getting harder to believe.
posted by sacrifix at 4:16 PM on November 14, 2008

One little problem is that you may not have many/any legal rights in this situation if you didn't sign any paperwork. I'd check up on this.
posted by number9dream at 5:46 PM on November 14, 2008

Do you have any way to contact the owner and their son yourself? (Do you even know for sure that they exist?) If your roommate doesn't show up soon, I'd want to doublecheck whether she even has a valid lease. You could start here, maybe, or the city might have an office.
posted by hattifattener at 5:49 PM on November 14, 2008

Unfortunately, I don't think you are entitled to much more than an apology since you are a subletting.

I would get out of there, forget the cash, and run screaming if this girl comes at you with the ugly side of a stiletto...
posted by junipero at 7:55 PM on November 14, 2008

Oh, and also (although I don't know the Craigslist rules, or whatever), I would try to warn other potential victims of this crazy girl...does Craigslist have any sort of follow-up report thing?
posted by junipero at 7:58 PM on November 14, 2008

Unfortunately, I don't think you are entitled to much more than an apology since you are a subletting.

This seems to be completely wrong, given the info posted earlier by mudpuppie and others. Please don't guess if you don't have relevant information to offer.
posted by mediareport at 9:14 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

You absolutely need to contact the Sacramento Human Rights and Fair Housing Commission, which appears to be your local tenant-landlord law advocacy group. They have a weekday-hours hotline, so you're screwed for the weekend.

But basically your landlord is your roommate and you're being denied necessary services. This is housing fraud.

Long term I would make plans to move ASAP and sue your roommate for your fraudulently-obtained rent (after trying a firm letter explaining your rights). Seems like you're already there. Skeevy roommate probably thought she could use your deposit to get her heat back on or some house-of-cards scheme like that. You may never see your $ again, frankly, but you have to put it on record.
posted by dhartung at 11:09 PM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you still can't reach your roommate you may want to try calling her boss, explain that you are her roommate, you have been unable to reach her for several days and there is a safety issue with the apartment you want to let her know about and then leave your contact info. Don't act all crazy or tell the boss the gas has been cut off. Call the boss back the next day if you haven't heard from her leaving your contact info again. Obviously she has major money problems and will pay whoever is the most annoying/embarrassing. She is too embarrassed to come home, and if you move out without your money in hand from her I think you can kiss it goodbye. Yeah, you would win in small claims but how would you collect?
posted by saucysault at 3:13 PM on November 15, 2008

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