Management may be overcharging for water bill

April 16, 2012 23:22 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I live in an apartment and have to pay my water bill to the management company.  My bill has risen by about $50 per month since a new management company took over.  I have spoken to others in the complex and their bills have gone up the same.  I believe the company is overcharging us.  How do we get someone to correct this?  With over 500 apartments in the complex, they could be pocketing thousands each month.


Consumer Ed says: 

Under Georgia law, the management company can charge tenants for water usage in the apartment complex, including the common areas, calculated by either installing meters measuring individual usage or by mathematically dividing the amount on the water bill among the tenants (also called allocation). Note that residential buildings constructed after July 1, 2012 will be required to have individual water meters. 

In your lease (or in a separate document given to you before you signed the lease), it should state how your water usage will be calculated.  If this information isn’t in the lease, or you’ve lost the paperwork stating how the water bill will be allocated, you can ask the management company for another copy of it.  If the paperwork detailing the allocation of water bills says that the billing will be determined by individual meters, you may be able to call the water company directly and figure out your individual usage. 

If there’s only one meter for the entire building complex, you can ask the management company to see the water bill for the entire complex (which will show the total amount for everyone).  Take the amount the complex’s bill shows for your individual water bill and multiply it by the total number of units in your complex. Then compare it to the total amount shown for the complex.  Georgia law says the sum of all the bills of the tenants in your apartment building cannot exceed the bill paid for the water in the complex.  However, the management company can charge an additional, “reasonable” fee for providing water and maintenance; this figure can vary by unit, simply because there may be more people in one unit as opposed to another.  Unfortunately, the law does not provide any way of calculating just how much would be considered “reasonable”.  A safe guess is that surcharges totaling at least half or more of your actual water bill may be excessive but, again, this isn’t written in stone.  If you decide to sue, it would be up to the court to decide whether the surcharges are reasonable.  We should point out that making these threshold calculations will rest on your ability to get the complex’s total water bill from management; you may or may not have the right under the lease to be shown anything except your own water bill, so if management resists showing you the entire bill, it may be difficult to force them to do so. 

Even if the management company refuses to give you the total water bill for the entire complex, you can still estimate the total usage, if you know where the water meter is located for the complex (please note that this would be an estimate, and may not reflect actual usage over a month).  To figure out the apartment’s water usage, read the meter at the same time, two days in a row.  Subtract the first day’s reading from the second day’s reading to see how much the complex uses in a day; repeat, including weekends and weekdays, then calculate the average reading.  With this rough estimate, you can see how it compares to your water bills and the allocation documents. 

Remember, generally your rights are determined by the terms in your lease and/or whatever document outlines how the water bill will be calculated.

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Breaking an apartment lease

March 15, 2012 20:17 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

What can an apartment complex do if I do not pay the fine for breaking my lease?  My apartment was broken into.  I decided not to continue to stay at the apartments.  I submitted the required 60-day notice.  I feel I should not have to pay the fee or all of the fee to leave the apartment early.

Consumer Ed says: 

We don’t recommend that you ignore the fee.  If you don’t pay the amount owed, the landlord can sue you.  If the landlord wins, the judgment against you could include not only the early-release fee you mentioned, but court costs and accrued interest until the judgment is paid.  If you continue to withhold payment, the landlord can turn the judgment over to a collection agency, which will actively pursue collection.  This will have a negative impact on your credit.

That being said, you should get some legal advice tailored to your individual situation and lease contract.  If you cannot afford your own lawyer, get in touch with your local legal aid office or contact tenants’ rights organizations.  If you do get legal representation, you should have your attorney review your lease to see if it allows your landlord to impose these fees and whether the fee amount is reasonable.

Another possible avenue, known as “constructive eviction”, may be available to you.  While not grounds for termination of the lease, constructive eviction is a defense you can use to avoid further rent and possibly an early-release fee.  A constructive eviction defense will not work against the actions of a third-party, such as a burglar; it must be the actions of the landlord that are making the premises unfit to live in.  This means you would need to show that your apartment was broken into due to your landlord’s continued neglect, or his or her failure to exercise reasonable measures to keep your premises and the apartment complex safe (e.g., the landlord fails to fix broken locks or replace a broken door, making it probable that someone will break into your apartment, or fails to repair gates or fences on the property).

Again, you should never make a decision not to pay on any grounds without first talking to a lawyer.

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Landlord won't resolve bug infestation

January 5, 2012 23:54 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

A month ago my fiancée and I moved into a rental home under a two year lease.  The second day we moved in, we discovered black ants all over our bathroom.  The landlord never disclosed that they had an ant problem.  They do have a pest control contract they took out a few months before we moved in to spray for the ants.  Yesterday, I discovered that we have a massive infestation of carpet beetles in the house.  I saw one of these beetles on the wall during our initial walk-through, but when I questioned the landlord about it, she said the house did not have carpet beetles.  We had a pest control company come over and they said our house is massively infested with them.  I am concerned that the landlord will not pay to have the exterminator remove the pests in the best way possible, because she has already done something [which was less expensive, but not effective].  These bugs have eaten through our carpet, the fabric of our furniture, and our personal possessions.  They are in every room of the house including in the cupboards and the counters where we prepare food.  I do not want to live there anymore.  Do we have a say in how these pests are removed, or are we at the mercy of the landlord’s decision?  Do we have a legal right to terminate the lease?  Is this landlord liable for anything?

Consumer Ed says: 

In this situation, we would recommend that you consult with a private attorney about reviewing your lease and advising you as to any rights you may have.

Having said that, there are some things that you should know and that you may want to discuss with your attorney.  First, you need to carefully read your lease. A landlord is generally responsible for keeping the property in good repair. However, pest control is not usually the landlord’s responsibility, unless your lease states otherwise.  Nevertheless, in situations where the pest problem is severe, as it appears to be in your case, the landlord may be required to address it.  Consult your local housing and health codes to determine if the landlord has the responsibility to fix the insect problems.

If you have not already done so, you should give the landlord written, dated notice of the problem that needs to be fixed and give her an opportunity to resolve it.  Keep a copy of your letter for your records.  The landlord must respond in a “reasonable” period of time.  In your situation, it is reasonable to assume that the landlord should respond quickly—i.e. within 36 to 48 hours.

If you have already notified the landlord of the pest problem and she has failed to adequately take care of the issue, you may be able to hire someone to take care of the problem yourself and then deduct that cost from your rent.  This is what’s known as the “repair and deduct” remedy.  If you decide to pursue this option, you should notify the landlord in writing of your intentions before you arrange for the services to be provided. Ask the service provider to write a description of all the work that was necessary and the problem that was corrected.  Be sure to keep copies of this and all receipts related to the work.  Then, you can subtract these repair costs from your next rent payment by submitting the receipts and the remaining balance of the rent to your landlord.

Alternatively, you may be able to file a lawsuit against your landlord for the damage to your personal property caused by the bug infestation. You should also look to the specific provisions of your lease to determine the grounds for terminating it. 

Another avenue that may be available to you is what’s known as “constructive eviction.”  While not grounds for termination of the lease, constructive eviction is a defense you can use to avoid further rent obligations.  For the problems with your house to constitute a constructive eviction, there must be a failure by the landlord to make repairs which leaves the house unfit for you to live in, and the conditions must be more than just “uncomfortable”.  To show there has been a constructive eviction, you will need to show two things:  First, you must show that the landlord’s failure to fix the problem has made the house an unfit place for you to live; second, you will need to show that the unit cannot be restored to a fit condition by ordinary repairs.  You must also vacate the house if you want to argue that you have been constructively evicted.  Some of the factors to be considered when determining whether an infestation like yours amounts to a constructive eviction are:  the time at which the leased dwelling became infested; any fraudulent misrepresentations or concealment by the landlord; and the number and kind of vermin infesting the house. 

For more information, you can look to your local housing and health codes, as well as the Landlord-Tenant handbook available on the Department of Community Affairs’ website at www.dca.state.ga.us.  To reiterate though, you should obtain the advice and counsel of a competent attorney.

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