Landlord splitting electric bills between two tenants
January 27, 2014 6:43 PM   Subscribe

My (now previous) landlord split the monthly electric bill between us and the downstairs apartment. We had oil heat, neighbors had electric. We had no a/c, downstairs had central a/c. Electric bills run about $400/month, which we never saw, but were invoiced for as "lease extras". Landlord told us we were responsible for 1/2 the monthly bill. I'm not sure this was equitable. Details to follow.

My roommate and I had the main floor of a very small one-story cape-style house. In the basement is a separate 4-room apartment that housed a couple. Separate entrances, separate rent, separate everything.

Our apartment was heated by oil, and electric was for appliances, tv and lights. The furnace was in a section of the basement that we could not access without their permission. The single breaker box for the whole house was in their bedroom, also unaccessible by us. The house was old and had a poor electrical system, and when a fuse would blow (which was often), we would have to call them to flip the breaker. If they weren't home, we were stuck without power until they came home and reset the box. Their apartment was heated by electric baseboard -- they did not use the furnace, nor did they pay for any of the cost. They also had central a/c, we did not.

When we moved in, the landlord told us the deal with the electricity - we pay half of the monthly bill, they pay half. We would pay the landlord based on an invoice generated from his office, so we never actually saw a bill from the electric company. We also got oil delivered for heat, which we were solely responsible for, as they did not use the furnace for heat.

After the first year, when the lease was up, we asked for a renewal. Landlord hemmed and hawed and never ended up executing a new lease for us, so we were on a month-to-month. At the end of year 2, we asked him if perhaps the downstairs tenants could pick up a bigger share of the electric, as they were clearly using more than us (for heat and a/c). Landlord told us, "this is what you agreed to in the lease, so tough shit". But, we had no lease after year one was up. Okay, fine.

My question is this: Is this legal? I'm not seeking legal advice, it's more of a curiosity. I moved out last November and am in a new place, and I have no reason or desire to pursue any legal action. Roommate is still there, forking out $200/month in electric, plus oil for heat. I have a hard time accepting that this is okay. No access to our breaker box, no access to our furnace, and we were paying for our heat and a good chunk of their heat AND a/c, so it was year-round.

If it matters, this was in NY State, Westchester County. Thanks, MeFites.
posted by sundrop to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The access to the breaker box and furnace seem like red herrings here. Yes, it was annoying when circuits blew, but what could/should have been done differently?

There is little question in my mind as to whether the splitting the electricity 50/50 was fair; it's pretty clear that it was not. On the other hand, I don't see anything illegal about it, particularly if it was clearly spelled out in the lease.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:53 PM on January 27, 2014

When we moved in, the landlord told us the deal with the electricity - we pay half of the monthly bill, they pay half.

Nothing I read indicates the landlord did anything other than exactly what you agreed to at the place. Everything about whether that is "fair" is completely irrelevent since you agreed to the terms of the agreement. Your lease terms almost definitely continued when you went month-to-month (this is how almost all leases are worded and is the case in all states I'm familiar with). Why you mention anything other than your only real question - about the legality of the practice - is beyond me.

New York State does require landlords to provide tenants with minimum temperatures for water and heating for various times of the year. Beyond that, I am not aware of, nor could I find with a quick Google search, any requirements to split electricity costs "fairly", or to provide access to a breaker box, or to provide access to the furnace.
posted by saeculorum at 6:56 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

New York State law does not permit shared meters, point blank. If the landlord could not split the meter, for whatever reason, then you were within your rights to demand that your payments be in proportion to your actual usage.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:57 PM on January 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

Another link that explains the situation with less legalese.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:58 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is incredibly sketchy, i've never heard of a place where this wasn't illegal city ordinance or state law wise like thomas j wise is saying.

I second that the breaker box and furnace thing is a red herring, but i'd also look in to what the fire code and other laws/ordinances are for electrical in your area as not having access to the breakers might be against something(sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't)

Unfortunately, the best solution probably isn't just to challenge this but to move the fuck out. For the cost of that much additional electric+oil you could likely get a nicer place with way lower utility bills.
posted by emptythought at 7:05 PM on January 27, 2014

With few exceptions, a legal rental unit has to have a separate meter that corresponds with that unit's usage. The downstairs neighbors are getting a major and illegal subsidy.
posted by quince at 7:10 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

$200 monthly for electric is ridiculous. My two bedroom apartment uses almost exactly $35 of electricity during non-A/C months. I don't think it ever gets up to $200, even with two A/C window units in the summer. (Note: we have neither a dishwasher nor a dryer, which along with the A/C are the major electricity using appliances)
posted by maryr at 7:29 PM on January 27, 2014

$200 for electric is insane. My electric bill in my house in Florida in August with AC literally running 24/7 doesn't touch that.

The fact that you never saw an actual bill is a 1000% guarantee that this shyster was making up numbers and gouging you for as much as he thought he could.
posted by gnutron at 7:36 PM on January 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Agree with above that it is most likely illegal and the amount is suspicious. I assume the meter is outside, so if your old roommate wanted a pretty good estimate of what the electric bill should be every month they could start keeping track of the meter readings and get the unit cost from the utility company. It is very odd that they wouldn't let you see the bill.

It is pretty obvious that this was a single family home where the basement was converted at some point. It is likely that to properly split the units metering, the whole electric service would have to be replaced. There are probably still a few shared circuits between the units.

On the upside, the floor of your apartment was not likely well insulated, so you probably did receive some benefit from their electric heat as some of that heat would rise to your unit. In college I lived on the 4th floor of an apartment complex where heat was included in the rent. We never turned our heat on once. We usually had to keep the window open, even when it was -40 outside, to keep the temperature under 80 degrees inside. Otherwise it would get up to 85 or above inside and be unbearable. So you most probably reclaimed some of that shared heat.
posted by Yorrick at 8:33 PM on January 27, 2014

Oh, and to expand on my previous post now that i had some time to think i'm pretty certain that rebilling like that is also grey area to not legal in most places.

Either utilities are included in rent, or you pay them directly. There is no "you pay the landlord, then the landlord pays the bill". I've fought it out with slumlords on this before, and that specific part might be your crowbar if you really want to fight this. It's probably going to end with reporting it to the city and a bunch of tired crap though.
posted by emptythought at 8:36 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's legal in Arizona, some apartment complexes split utilities across tons of units. I've always avoided those complexes, and they aren't very common anymore. Probably not legal in New York. On the other hand, why are you just now asking about this?

Also I'm ridiculously jealous of all of you who think $200 is a ridiculous electric bill. I'm in Arizona, and that's pretty standard for a 2-bed apartment in the summertime (aka May-September). Urgh.
posted by celtalitha at 9:12 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Either utilities are included in rent, or you pay them directly. There is no "you pay the landlord, then the landlord pays the bill".

Also probably local, because this is definitely legal and common where I live.
posted by celtalitha at 9:15 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

(celtalitha: We do our part with $300 gas bills in the winter.)
posted by maryr at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2014

Thanks to all of you who gave constructive answers. Not really sure what the "red herring" reference was all about. Or the "Why you mention anything other than your only real question - about the legality of the practice - is beyond me" snark. I guess I was trying to give as much detail up front in order to provide clarity. If I came off as a whiner, sorry folks. I have moved on and was simply looking for someone else's take on a situation that seemed sketchy. Thanks.
posted by sundrop at 10:14 PM on January 28, 2014

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