Blocking a Fireplace
February 15, 2005 6:48 PM   Subscribe

Tenant problems. Is there a way that I can temporarily block a fireplace so that it cannot be used? Is there a way that I can rig a washer and dryer so that they cannot be used either? [+]

I own an up/down duplex. My tenants live downstairs. They given notice to move May 1st and for some reason the have become extremely petty. I pay for the heat in both units. They have taken to using the fireplace, which sucks all of the heat out of their apartment. Then they complain that their apartment is cold. This is pretty costly and I've asked them not to use the fireplace during the cold months. The agreed, but continue to use it. Is there a way that I can temporarily block the fireplace?

They have also taken to washing ONE item at a time using the super-large wash and extra rinse cycle. This is resulting in a very costly monthly water bill. They then dry the ONE item using the extra heat 60 minute timer on the gas dryer. Even without these ONE item washes, they do six to 10 loads of laundry per week. The electric outlets in the basement where the washer/dryer are located are set up so that the people in each unit can plug the appliances into "their" outlets when they do laundry. Thus the electric is charged to the unit using the appliances. True to form, they are using my electric outlets. When they're not washing ONE item at a time, they fill the dryer so full that I'm afraid it will break. Is there anyway that I can control the use of these appliances.

I really don't want problems with these guys for the remainder of their tenancy. We've had a fairly good relationship in the past, but one of the guys is very petty and I'm sure that this is down to him. His partner is much more rational, but he's trying to keep his boyfriend happy so has joined him in this behavior. I've tried talking with them, but they're extremely defensive and very passive aggressive. I just want to get through the next few months without going bankrupt. Any ideas?
posted by Juicylicious to Home & Garden (31 answers total)
For temporary use, you could take the circuit breaker out for the washer and dryer circuits. You could also put the power cord plugs into a small lockbox such as a small pelican case. For a more drastic measure, just cut the plugs off the cords, and put new ones on when you want to use them again. As for the fireplace, just screw a sheet of drywall over it?
posted by tumble at 7:02 PM on February 15, 2005

I've seen washers and dryers where there have been small hinge/padlocks combinations installed to cover the door., also... could remove the water connections for the washer (or, find the water cutoff for it. Flip the dryer breaker and lock the breaker box...

Might be able to install a lock on the flue as well.

Go in and talk to the people at a local hardware store, they may have suggestions, and know of specific products
posted by edgeways at 7:12 PM on February 15, 2005

Not a fireplace. The tenants have common-law domain over their rented space. You could have a fireplace 'problem' that affects the building, however. Then you're acting in everyone's, er, interest.

If the washer is your property you could have it 'repaired' (zonk). If it's theirs, hands off.

Also: you could block a washer by cutting off water flow to it from a common area (ie not within the rented space). As to the dryer, depends on whether it's gas or electric. Again, common area applies.
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:14 PM on February 15, 2005

Are the washer and dryer mentioned in their lease? If you didn't promise them free access, and they're in the common space, stick a coin-operation thing on it. If they have to pay every time they use them, they'll use them less often...and more importantly, you'll recoup your costs.
posted by equipoise at 7:33 PM on February 15, 2005

I would see a lawyer before doing any of this. Could save you a lot more money in the long run.
posted by arse_hat at 7:39 PM on February 15, 2005

Regarding the elctrical outlets, depending on the layout of your outlets you should be able to screw a locking bar across the faceplate of the outlet. order to plug in a device, you would need to unlock the bar and swing it out of the way. This way your tenants would be unable to access "your" outlets. Pain in the ass, but it should be fairly inexpensive -- and if they try to defeat the locks, you can crucify them for damage caused.

A simple door hasp with padlock should suffice. I am not a lawyer, but it's unlikely that there's anything in the lease that would stop you from doing this.

As regards the chimney, simply hire someone to install a temporary plug in the chimney itself. These exist to reduce/eliminate heat loss where a fireplace has been decommissioned. You would, of course, need to notify your tenants that this will be done (ideally ON THE DAY that it's done, so that they don't use the fireplace 24/7 until the plug is installed).

The chimney guy won't be free, but it might be worth it from a heating perspective -- and possibly from a "personal victory" perspective as well. Whether there are any legal repercussions from sealing the chimney will depend on your lease & your location, so ya might wanna talk with a lawyer.
posted by aramaic at 7:45 PM on February 15, 2005

What arse_hat said. Retribution can be costly. You do have rights as a landlord, but you need to know exacly what they are before acting. They also depend on your state and jurisdiction, so you'll need to discuss it with someone who is familiar with your local laws.

As a landlord, I feel for you. Your tenants are assholes.
posted by casu marzu at 8:02 PM on February 15, 2005

I'm just a first year law student. But DIY (self-help) is theoretically illegal in MN as far as the _one_ case we've discussed on this topic in property says. However it appears from our discussion about this (yesterday) that self help remains prevalent. I have no idea how often cases of this type actually end up in legal proceedings. Payola is evidently the best and most efficient way to get rid of tenant problems according to my property professor.

Anyway, that and a quarter won't even buy you a phone call anymore, so good luck to you! Interestingly enough the one case we read was a MN case! Here's a link to someone else's skimpy brief of the case
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 8:17 PM on February 15, 2005

Push the washer and dryer in front of the fireplace?
posted by jewzilla at 8:18 PM on February 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

Lock the chimmney flue vent and the problems will take care of themselves. Of course, you'll then want to refer back to the "How do I dispose of a corpse" AskMe.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:20 PM on February 15, 2005

prettyboyfloyd, sorry, I may be misreading, but I wanted to clarify. Are you saying that landlords not allowed to work on their own property in MN?
posted by edgeways at 8:31 PM on February 15, 2005

IANAL, but I'd be very careful with this sort of thing for legal reasons.

Can you approach them with a proposal that you would lower their rent by $x, if they pay for the utilities in their unit? And use one of the locking gizmos that edgeways recommends to lock off your outlets in the shared basement?

(Who'd want a landlord that only wants you to use the fireplace in the summer? I can see wanting to keep them from using it all the time, but having the fireplace only available in warm weather seems to me like it kind of defeats the purpose.)
posted by Vidiot at 8:37 PM on February 15, 2005

Oh, now you're just looking for trouble...asking a law student to clarify his statements about the law???

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. That said the answer to your question is no, that's not what I was trying to say. But L/T law is tricky as far as I can tell. Once you rent a domicile to someone they take a kind of title to the premises. If a landlord does anything to the property the tenant has rented and inhabits without the tenant's consent, then the landlord may be subject to legal consequences. Not sure what "anything" means in this case, but I think shutting off the washer and dryer and fireplace in midwinter might count.

In the case I linked to the landlord changed the locks when the tenant had arguably abandoned and wasn't even there. He ended up paying $25k in damages, and this is back in 1978. That's a lot of dough! The worst part is that the landlord may have even been justified in his actions. He had seen a lawyer, and he brought a policeman along with him when he changed the locks.

But as I said, my take on the law at this point is probably not worth a hill of beans because IANAL too!
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 8:50 PM on February 15, 2005

Aramaic has a good suggestion on the lock over the outlet. Install one over the other outlets as well -- then everyone has their own padlock. When they move without taking the padlock (inevitable), snip-snip with the bolt cutters.

For the fireplace, I think you are perfectly within the norms of to do some maintneance to your property. The tenants have complained they are cold. You've read that fireplaces are a common source of heat loss. Upstairs, you've noticed some, er, problems with the masonry at the chimney (not uncommon for fireplaces which are on an exterior wall or chimneys without proper caps). You can't afford to fix things correctly at the moment, so your temporary fix is a piece of 1/8" sheet steel secured in the opening of the firebox. (This is actually not uncommon to see in fireplaces in urban apartments where fireplaces are no longer permitted. Cheaper than removing a fireplace.) Oh, and don't get me started on the insurance! ;-)
posted by Dick Paris at 8:52 PM on February 15, 2005

I guess my comments were based on a scenario where you did all of the shutting off/boarding up without the tenant's consent...of course if they consented, it would be a different ball of wax...
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 8:55 PM on February 15, 2005

Thanks for all the responses!

To clarify (in no particular order):

I don't want to stop the guys from using the washer/dryer. I just don't want them to use my electricity. And of course, I would like them to not wash one item at time, which I think is pretty much a lost cause.
Forgoing the above, I could shut off the waters valves, but they are adjacent to the washer, so the guys would just turn them back on without any effort.

I don't want to make them coin operated because I just bought them one month ago and I don't want them defaced.

The suggested outlet lock is probably the best alternative.

Plugging the chimney and/or locking the flue are both viable options. How difficult is it to unplug a fireplace. Would closing teh flue prevent heat from escaping?

Not using a fireplace in the winter is common sense in MN. Fires in fireplaces do not create heat. They just look nice. In fact, the fire itself sucks the warm air out of the room and up the chimney.

I cannot ask my tenants to pay the heat/gas bill because we have one furnace and one gas meter. Thus, it would be impossible to portion out their use and mine. Of course, I could offer to lower their rent by $300 and let them take over the bill. However, this is illegal in MN because you can't MAKE tenants pay for utilities that are not clearly attributable to them. But if they offer, that's a different story.

On preview: prettyboy, I've sent you an email re: your response.
posted by Juicylicious at 8:59 PM on February 15, 2005

Can you simply remove components of their unit, legally? Once you sign someone in, can you just yank the laundry? I'm glad you're not stuck in this situation permanently. Just be sure you don't cross the legal line with them, because once all bets are off with a tenant, you could be stuck with them, rent free, until it clears the courts. Paying for a little gratuitous laundry usage might start to look really good at that point.

In other words: what Vidiot said.
posted by scarabic at 9:24 PM on February 15, 2005

Can I suggest not going too far, because you might just push those passive aggressive tendencies to full on aggressive. Angry tenants can do lot of damage to your property that you aren't going to get back. Wouldn't the easiest solution be working with your tenants to see why they are angry, petty or not? If it's petty it isn't going to take much to fix the problem, and they are moving out soon, so it isn't going to be all that bad.

I know it isn't what you are asking, but I've been an angry tenant in the past and it is a very powerless role. The landlord has way more control, and the only way to get back is through bullshit like this. Playing power games just seems like asking for a more retaliation.
posted by aspo at 1:11 AM on February 16, 2005

I'm well aware of any legal issues regarding this situation. I really just need info on the questions that I asked. Thanks though.
posted by Juicylicious at 4:24 AM on February 16, 2005

I'd suggest that you think long-term in your solutions here. There's no guarantee that future tenants won't act the same.

If there are 2 separate outlets by the W/D pair, and those outlets go to different electric circuits and meters for the 2 apartments, then it should be possible to either (a) turn the outlet for your apartment on and off from the breaker panel/fuse box in your apartment, or (b) install a switch, to be located in your apartment, that turns your outlet in the laundry room on and off (and do the same for your tenant apartment and their outlet).

The expense of hiring an electrician to install switches would be directly deductible against your rental income, I believe. In the future, you'd benefit, regardless of the quality of your tenant.

On the fireplace: talk to a professional, someone who really knows fireplaces. They can install a breathing tube for that fireplace, so that using it doesn't suck heat from the rest of the apartment. Then you won't have to worry about it any more.

It's easy to get caught up in the immediate problem, but you really shouldn't engage in tit-for-tat petty crap with your tenant. Use this as an opportunity to make capital improvements to your property. The current tenants have no grounds for complaint about improvements.
posted by yesster at 7:05 AM on February 16, 2005

Put individual swinging doors with padlocks on the outlets. If they ask, tell the tenants it is because your next set of tenants might not be as trustworthy as they are.

As to the fireplace...Seems simple enough. If they are cold they must not run it and have the flue open. If they don't understand this, explain it to them. Don't turn up the heat and let them decide for themselves.

I hope you have a big security deposit from them. Judging by their current behavior I'm willing to wager the apartment will be in pretty bad shape when they move out.
posted by tinamonster at 7:58 AM on February 16, 2005

This is pretty penny ante stuff. If it was me I'd just let it slide. Better the tenant feel they have extracted revenge in this manner than complete trash the unit in their last couple of days.

The locks over the plugs or varient sound good but easier would just be a locking double pole switch set up. Save all that wear and tear the plugs. Any decent electrician can do this for you. I've done it often[1] to switch a curcuit between A/C and electric heat so tenants could not run both at the same time.

As far as the fireplace goes you'd have to write something into the lease to the effect that for conservation reasons the fireplace will be disabled during winter months. A reduction in services because you can't afford to fix it is unlikely to fly in most areas unless you also arrange a reduction in rent to cover it.

[1]Non locking but double throw locking switches are an electrical commodity item.
posted by Mitheral at 7:59 AM on February 16, 2005

Unless we're talking hundreds of dollars a month, suck it up and be nice to them. In the long run it will reduce the tension between you and them and they will just move out and leave you a decent apartment to rent instead of a ruined place.

The other option is to let *others* do your dirty work for you. Check water regulations and see if you can get the water guys to charge them with some sort of water abuse law (for example, in my town it's illegal to water the grass certain days of the week). If it's someone else, you could put it aside as "Well, I'm not the city, they must have checked their meters and seen all the water being used."
posted by shepd at 9:09 AM on February 16, 2005

These are pretty decent guys. It's just been over the last few months that they've started acting this way. I am certain that they will not trash the apartment. They're petty, not stupid. But if they do, I will certainly keep you updated.

This is costing me hundreds of dollars. The heat bill is up nearly $200 per mo and the water bill is up $20 per mo. The electricity so far is negligible.

I think that the electric outlet locks are a good alternative that will prevent some of this abuse in the future. I will probably move out of the building within one year and it will help prevent problems between tenants down the road. I plan to plug the fireplaces in both units, making new tenants aware that they cannot have live fires. I kind of that allowing people to have live fires is a risk anyway.

I've considered changing the heating system so that each unit controls its own heat and is billed for it. However, I've been told that it could cost as much as $15k to do this. I won't own the building long enough to justify that outlay.

Thanks for all of the advice. There is no one best answer, so kudos to everyone.
posted by Juicylicious at 11:02 AM on February 16, 2005

What aspo and Mitheral said. What they are doing now is penny-ante stuff compared to what they could do if this escalates. One big party can cause thousands, even tens of thousands, in damages. They could "accidentally" let the bath tub overflow, sabotage appliances, hell, there are a thousand ways they can get you.

Could you encourage them to move out faster? Let them out of their lease, guarantee their damage deposit back, give them a free month's rent if they leave by a certain date?

Short of that, maybe you could play dumb and try to inconvenience them in ways that send a message. "The water bills have been awfully high lately so I am having a plumber come. The water will be shut off for a day while he inspects the system." Same with the heat. But better still just to get them to move.
posted by LarryC at 11:50 AM on February 16, 2005

In Chicago, it's illegal for there to be a working fireplace in a rental unit. You could look into whether a similar law exists in your area, and if there is, you could claim a city inspector passing through the neighborhood saw the smoke from the chimney and made an inquiry.

Otherwise, locking the flue is probably the best route. It's pretty tough to temporarily disable a chimney otherwise.
posted by me3dia at 12:24 PM on February 16, 2005

Will closing the flue be enough to prevent warm air from escaping even when there is no fire?
posted by Juicylicious at 12:30 PM on February 16, 2005

As a landlord, I'd say just let it go. Any problems you make for your tenants, they can make more for you, especially when they know they're out of there on May 1st anyway. If you really piss them off they can cheerfully cost you tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of unrepairable dollars by arranging things like 'bathtub accidents' and such like.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:46 PM on February 16, 2005

Please let us know how it turns out!
posted by agregoli at 2:29 PM on February 16, 2005

Will closing the flue be enough to prevent warm air from escaping even when there is no fire?

Short of putting insulation above the flue (which I don't recommend), that's about all you can do. Chimneys are naturally going to let some air escape, but the flue is designed to limit this as much as possible.

Most flues offer no easy way to lock them, so it may not really be worth it, the more I think about it. And it really does risk pissing the tenants off further.
posted by me3dia at 2:44 PM on February 16, 2005


don't you sit down with both of them, show them your bills, and explain you cannot afford it. Ask them nicely if they will work with you. Invite them to your place, or ask to be invited to theirs. Make some small talk, be friendly and ask them how they're doing. Above all, show them this is not about personal vendettas. Strive very hard to show them monetary wise what is happening to you and offer some advice.

If someone literally walked behind me and did something that pissed me off, and I could do something about it, I would. You know, petty stuff.
posted by Dean Keaton at 12:30 AM on February 17, 2005

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