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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