To pay or not to pay?
May 28, 2009 1:58 PM   Subscribe

A few months ago, I lived in a four-bedroom group house. Since then, one of the roommates and I have moved into another place, two months before the lease on the group house ended. We've dutifully paid our portion of the rent on the old place, as we're legally obligated to do. Now one of the roommates is asking us for money for utilities that, of course, we haven't used.

My default position is not to pay these bills because, well, I didn't use the electricity, water, or cable at that house, and I didn't sign a year-long contract to pay those bills, only a contract for the house itself.

But I realize that there are some differences between these bills; I think it's reasonable to pay my portion of the gas and electric bill, for instance, since heating and cooling a house is a pretty constant expense regardless of how many people live there. I don't, however, understand why I should pay for cable for the roommates who are still there, especially because it's not like they would have bought a different cable package had it just been the two of them (both are pretty constant TV watchers and web surfers). In other words, my roommate and I are not causing any extra per-person expense on these guys; they would be paying the same for cable regardless. What's more, these guys haven't even attempted to find new roommates, so its not like there's been any action on their part to bring down their costs.

I fully realize that I could be being an utter asshole here - what do you think?
posted by downing street memo to Human Relations (31 answers total)
You're being very reasonable, and generous to pay the gas and electric without arguing about it. I wouldn't budge on the cable or water, and as long as they aren't in your name I don't know what recourse they would have.
posted by handful of rain at 2:03 PM on May 28, 2009

When you moved in, did you agree to the cable and internet bills?

If so, I think you should pay all the bills, because you left two months earlier than you promised, and yes, the physical contract only applied to the house, but you broke your word with the roommates--while they might not have bought a different cable or internet package for just the two of them (and they didn't lower it once you left), they expected that it would be split four ways. It was your choice to leave early.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:13 PM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

If the four roommates agreed to split utilities for term of the lease, then you have to split the utilities until the lease is up. If the four of you never made this explicit of a verbal (or written) contract, then you should refuse. You have no obligation to pay. Now, IANAL, but I do watch a lot of Judge Judy :).
posted by Pineapplicious at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2009

I think there's a reasonable argument to be made that when the four of you rented the house together and decided on whichever cable/internet package you were going to use, you chose that package based on all four of you paying the bill together.

Your argument that "it's not like they would have bought a different cable package" might be true, but it doesn't change the fact that the four of you all agreed to pay it for the duration of the lease, even if you didn't sign an official "contract".

I don't think you're being an asshole, though. A lot of people I know have left shared leases and tried to get out of paying the remaining rent, not to mention utilities etc. which you have already paid some of. But in my mind, cable and certainly internet are "utilities" just as much as power and gas.
posted by hamsterdam at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was going to say not to pay the cable and water bills, but I think that peanut_mcgillicuty has pretty good point. And by that logic I think it is right for you to pay the gas and electric bills, as well.
But definitely not the water. Don't budge on that one.
posted by Brody's chum at 2:19 PM on May 28, 2009

I don't think you should have to pay for any of the utilities. You are being overly nice.
posted by caddis at 2:37 PM on May 28, 2009

I think your logic is flawed, in that you're saying that you're willing to pay gas and electric because the expense doesn't change w/the number of people living there, but you're not willing to pay the cable bill, which also doesn't change w/the number or people living there.

Also, while the heating (gas) and cooling (electric) bills are stable regardless of the number of occupants, were you gone during heating and/or cooling season? Because if the heat's been off for most of the time since you moved out, and if AC season hasn't kicked in yet, then the gas and electric being used has all been for cooking and showers (unless the house is on a budget plan that spreads heating bills out over the whole year).
posted by jon1270 at 2:41 PM on May 28, 2009 and showers and lights and computers and other stuff that you definitely shouldn't be paying for...
posted by jon1270 at 2:42 PM on May 28, 2009

Two things on the cable bill: first, I see it as optional entertainment; and secondly, it could have pretty easily been lowered (getting rid of movie channels, getting rid of extra cable boxes that went unused when we moved). The reason they're paying so much for cable is because they're lazy, basically, and didn't want to call Comcast.

I think I'm mostly just upset because there was no effort made to find new roommates the whole time we were gone. I mean, it's not like they had to find new ones since we were obligated to pay our rent, but there was no good faith gesture there, and it's difficult for me to justify a good faith gesture in response to that. The roommate that's asking for the money is a friend, so not paying would probably jeopardize that, but it's not like he's a particularly good friend (as you can see here).
posted by downing street memo at 2:51 PM on May 28, 2009

I think your old roomies also enjoyed lots of peace and quiet. Paying the rent was required, although you could have initiated the new roomie search. Paying any portion of any utilities is a very nice gesture.
posted by theora55 at 2:54 PM on May 28, 2009

Well, with your logic, you should be paying at least cable - you're paying for a room you're not using, so why not pay for the cable you're not using? If you thought that it was an optional expense, you should have discussed this with them before you signed up for the fancy-dancy cable package. Or, while you lived there, brought up the "hey, do we really need this much cable?" discussion. Part of being a roommate is compromising, and you (whether it was on paper or not) agreed to the cable package, apparently.

I dunno, as the leaseholder on my place, if I sign an agreement with someone for a year, we're splitting costs for a year, regardless of whatever else you do. It's one thing if they decided to up to the Super Duper Movie Channel package the month you left, but if it was like this when you left, I don't really see why you're upset.

How much notice did you give your roommates/the person in charge of bills? You say that they haven't looked for a new roommate, but honestly, what incentive did they have to do so, especially if the lease is up in two months? If they're leaving, why would they bother to try to find 2 two-month roommates? It's more hassle than it's worth, especially since you should still be paying your share of the bills.
posted by AlisonM at 2:55 PM on May 28, 2009

Are these people your friends, or friends of friends? I ask because I had a similar situation and wound up in a truly ridiculous fight with a roommate/friend over a utility bill when I moved out early. We never spoke again once I left, and more annoyingly, the roommate then went on to bad-mouth me to mutual friends. Ultimately it was a huge hassle and really stressful and I wish I had just paid the money, even though in our situation I still don't think I owed it, and moved out peacefully with a minimum of bad feelings.

If these people aren't friends or people who have any impact on your life, it may be more worth it to stick to a principle.
posted by Stacey at 2:58 PM on May 28, 2009

I wouls argue that for all of these things then you can make a case for paying a share of any fixed elements of the bill, because you created an expectation that you would contribute your share, and an expectation as to what housemates could expect to pay. Certainly this would apply to the water, if there's a fixed price element then you might consider a contribution on an equitable basis, though this might be complicated if this fixed price entitles you to a certain amount of services also, but there is no need to pay towards billed items linked specifically to consumption.

Something similar might apply to cable.

The same argument could apply to other utilities but as you say is complicated by the non-linear relationship between heating the house and number of occupants, you might have to come to an accomodation for that. You might be able to come up with typical stats for your house type and how occupancy impacts it to work out some sort of cost estimate to quantify the cost reduction attached to your leaving, but I wouldn't recommend it.
posted by biffa at 2:59 PM on May 28, 2009

The only one it seems to can absolutely opt out of paying is water, since you only pay for what you use and you haven't used any. As for everything else, I'd offer to pay half.

They didn't have any duty to find new roommates, but it seems like it's in bad faith to ask for the utilities two months after you've moved out. I'm betting someone got caught short this month and is trying to figure out a way to get some extra cash.
posted by electroboy at 3:05 PM on May 28, 2009

At the time we left, they were planning on staying another year. They've changed their minds since, but we made our decision under the impression that they'd be finding new roommates at some point.
posted by downing street memo at 3:06 PM on May 28, 2009

Until I dived in here and saw the general line of responses, I thought of myself as reasonably fair-minded. Hmm. Maybe I'm not as nice as I thought I was

You're paying your remaining rent because you're party to a contract. It's right for you to do this.

Utilities, to me, are for the benefit of people living at a particular address - you're not living there & enjoying those services, so why would you pay for them? To take this point further, I assume that you're paying for utilities where you're currently living - why should you pay twice? I'm not a particularly confrontational person, but I would be saying GTF-out-of-here if someone was asking me to do this.

The obvious counterpoint to this is that if any of the utilities are in your name, well, that's a contract between you and the utility company; you'd be contractually obligated to make up any amounts they didn't pay. But this doesn't sound like the situation you're in.
posted by MatJ at 3:26 PM on May 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've been on the other end of this- having a housemate leave early and then not pay utilities for the remaining term of the lease. I certainly saw it as an asshole move, since one of the main incentives of such a living arrangement is to save money. By abandoning the arrangement early, you are causing financial damage to those remaining in the arrangement because they are not in a position to reap the benefits of having housemates for the term that was expected. You are not contractually obligated to pay these for the term of the lease, but the expectation that you would entered into everyone's decision whether to live in a four person house with you.

Also, I've always observed the responsibility of finding a sublet for the remainder of a lease fall to the person leaving early, not those staying.
posted by nowoutside at 3:32 PM on May 28, 2009

If your agreement was anything like every roommate relationship I've ever been in, you agreed to split utilities without being even somewhat specific about what that means.

Does it mean "for the duration of the lease" or "for as long as you're living there"?

Fact is, there probably is no answer because the difference between those (and other) options were never contemplated and what the parties now claim is whatever suits them best.

My take, in situations like these, has always been that once you move out, you no longer need to pay the utilities, period.

A much more generous stance is that those utilities which are both necessary to live in the house and those that are mostly constant regardless of how many people live in the house (electric, gas) should be paid. You can make a decent case for this because they really can't be avoided or mitigated in any significant way by the remaining residents.

Water, cable, and internet, though, you should completely refuse to pay absent a specific agreement that you would pay them for the duration of the lease.
posted by toomuchpete at 3:40 PM on May 28, 2009

We tried to find new roommates; we were told that that was unacceptable because they wanted to decide who would live there next, so they would handle the search themselves. Suffice it to say they've been sitting on the couch smoking pot - it'd be way too much effort to clean up the place and put up a craigslist ad.
posted by downing street memo at 4:02 PM on May 28, 2009

This bit:

By abandoning the arrangement early, you are causing financial damage to those remaining in the arrangement because they are not in a position to reap the benefits of having housemates for the term that was expected.

is difficult to worm around. Splitting utilities is a big part of sharing a space.

That said, they do sound like jerks, and you've been great to pay up on the rent already. I'd pay them something toward all of the bills except cable for the last two months. Tell them the reason you're not paying a full share is they didn't allow you to look for replacement roommates and did nothing to find a replacement themselves, which means they clearly benefited from more space and quiet during the time you were gone, and should therefore share that benefit with you. End of story.

Then tell them the cable bill is not negotiable - they could have lowered it, and didn't, and it's a luxury. Then pay at least half of what you owe on the other utilities and sit back and enjoy the future Good Roommate Karma coming your way.

To me, that seems like the most fair compromise here.
posted by mediareport at 4:13 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you've already decided what you think the right answer is, and just want affirmation from MeFi about it. It seems most of MeFi disagrees with you, so it's up to you if you want to take that or leave it.
posted by srrh at 4:20 PM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

We tried to find new roommates; we were told that that was unacceptable because they wanted to decide who would live there next, so they would handle the search themselves.

Yeah, fuck 'em then. They've already cost you too much money.
posted by electroboy at 5:07 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

By abandoning the arrangement early, you are causing financial damage to those remaining in the arrangement because they are not in a position to reap the benefits of having housemates for the term that was expected.

In my opinion something like that only applies to utilities. Cable and internet are NOT utilities. They're nice to have, but they fall into the same category as things like home milk delivery in that they're an optional service that increases enjoyment of a residence. Not having cable and internet is boring but it doesn't decrease the habitability of a residence in the same way that not having power, heat or water would.

If you want to be nice, pay the power and gas. Tell them to go pound sand on the cable/internet.
posted by barc0001 at 5:13 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anecdotal data: I share a five-bedroom house with friends, and sometimes one or more of us spends the summer doing an out-of-state internship. To avoid the hassle of strangers living in their room, people haven't sublet for those months, and have continued paying their share of rent (easily doable, as internships pay much better than grad school). However, the utilities have been split between just the people who were there.

This is just how we've agreed to do it, not the one true way to do things. It ultimately comes down to what you and your former housemates can decide on, but I don't think you're out of line in not wanting to pay all of the utilities.
posted by JiBB at 6:05 PM on May 28, 2009

They didn't like the new room mates. Yeah. These guys do not deserve a dime on utilities. The difficult part is continuing relations. Sometimes you pay what you do not owe to preserve a friendship. That is real. In terms of what your deal was, it was rent, not utilities. They can go pound sand on this. I have paid stuff for friends in similar situations. You do not owe them, but in wanting to keep up relations you might pay it anyway. They may see it differently, they may not be thinking your payment is charity. I think you owe zero, except rent. If you were my room mate and moved out I would want the rent, but would never expect anything else.
posted by caddis at 6:06 PM on May 28, 2009

Generally, I think that there's an obligation for any party to the lease to pay their share of rent and all utilities, whether or not they're living there, unless a subletter is paying for their share of each. However, given that you offered to find new roommates and your former roommates declined, saying they'd take over that responsibility, it stands to reason that they would also be responsible for the cost of utilities if they failed to find new roommates (just as you would be responsible for the cost if you had failed to find new roommates).

Of course, ideally this would all have been worked out ahead of time. But you know that for next time.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:09 PM on May 28, 2009

(My comments above are based on my sense of fairness, not on actual law. I don't know what your legal obligations are.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:11 PM on May 28, 2009

I was going to say you're unequivocally being an utter asshole. Because sharing a space includes sharing rent and utilities unless you've previously made other arrangements (like a non-TV watcher not paying cable) and leaving early throws a wrench in that big time, and can seriously mess with monthly budgets.

Until you posted with this:

We tried to find new roommates; we were told that that was unacceptable because they wanted to decide who would live there next, so they would handle the search themselves.

The party leaving the lease early is, IMO, responsible for finding a suitable replacement. Suitable being someone reasonably nice, not creepy, appropriate gender, if important, and so on, but that isn't a carte blanche for the person(s) staying to ixnay any and all potential tenants arbitrarily.

So now I don't know. They were going to handle the roommate replacement, didn't get around to it, and now it sounds like are also leaving at the end of the lease which, if known earlier, wouldn't have even made much sense to try and find subleters for a two month period anyway. And they shouldn't have said they were going to handle it and not done so but you aren't off the hook there, either. You had to have been aware that your lazy (former) roommates that would rather sit around smoking pot all day might not have had the necessary follow-through to accomplish such a task. You also should have discussed the upcoming bills when you were leaving.

At the end of the day I think you're still responsible for your share of the bills because your leaving early created the situation to begin with.

But they're assholes.
posted by 6550 at 7:23 PM on May 28, 2009

I think this largely depends on what you agreed to and what was said before you left. You originally went into this contractually agreeing to pay everything. Okay, fine. You paid rent, which is probably the only thing that has your signature. Cable is entertainment and falls under utilities just because the designation is an easy catch-all. You're not there to garner any kind of benefit from it. Could they have reasonably reduced the bill after you left? Did you ask them to? You could kick down a few dollars down for that to be nice. As far as utilities go those generally should fluctuate to a lower level with both of you gone. You could ask to see a comparison with last months bills, and if it didn't quite come down as much as it should've, maybe give them the coverage of what didn't come down. I'm more partial to the view that these aren't your bills.
If you did give them outs such as offering to cancel certain extra expense or getting new roommates for them, then you know what, sometimes you just gotta say "fuck 'em" and be done with it.
"Dude, seriously, why are you coming to me with this shit. Not only has the rates lowered on X,Y, & Z but I offered to cancel those extra charges. Not to mention the fact I would've gotten you a new roommate, which would've saved me two months rent, but it would've saved both of us the hassle of you calling me up for this crap."
posted by P.o.B. at 10:12 PM on May 28, 2009

Based not on any legal knowledge, it seems to me that if you're responsible for those 2 months of rent you're responsible for your share (1/4) of all utilities for those 2 months as well, regardless of whether or not you approve of their cable package.

I get that you're pissed at them, but I don't think that nitpicking over the cable bill is really the best way to address that.
posted by KAS at 7:01 AM on May 29, 2009

I assume there were some personal reasons why you didn't just finish the final two months on the lease agreement. Seeing as we dont know the reasons, and seeing as these social laws are almost entirely unwritten, you're never going to get a consensus.

From my perspective, I agree with those that say you are responsible because you took away the benefit of communal living, and are thus forcing the others to lose money. And, if you originally agreed to pay the cable (without complaint) then you still should pay the cable, because it was part of the package deal.

And that's why living alone is the shit.
posted by Think_Long at 9:10 AM on May 29, 2009

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