Whether you are renting a first solo apartment, sharing with a roommate or renting a house, you need to pay attention to your lease agreement before signing. A properly prepared lease dictates the payment arrangement for all unit utilities, which include water, trash and sewer charges. However, a situation may occur that forces you to pay a bill assigned to your landlord. When this occurs, you have options for recovering your funds.
Utility Obligations and the Lease
When you first tour a prospective rental, ask about the split of utility payments between the landlord and tenant. Even though this discussion isn't a guarantee, it helps you determine if the apartment is a bargain based on the combined costs of rent and the estimated cost of utilities. If you decide to rent the apartment, review your lease before signing and make sure it lists each utility and states the party responsible for payments. Apply this same principle if you move in with a roommate. Draft an agreement that states whether utilities are included in your share of the rent or if you pay a certain percentage of each bill.
Despite the terms of your lease, you may encounter a landlord who doesn't pay the unit's utility bills. If this persists, the utility leaves a shut-off notice demanding payment within a set number of days to keep the service on. Attempt to contact your landlord if you see a shut-off notice. If he refuses to pay the bill, you need to review your state's landlord-tenant laws or contact an attorney to determine your rights. Most states and some cities allow renters to pay the most recent utility bill -- instead of the full past due balance -- and deduct it from the monthly rent as long as you provide notice to the landlord.
Security Deposit Usage and Utilities
New renters generally put down a security deposit of at least one month's rent in order to secure a unit. When you leave your apartment in good shape with your utilities and rent paid in full, you get the deposit back. For rental agreements that specify renter responsibilities for utilities, call and request a final meter reading and service termination scheduled for the day you move out to ensure you aren't billed for usage after you relocate.
Protect Your Investment
To protect your security deposit, keep a record of your rent payments by saving bank statements, money order receipts or copies of your credit card bills. Retain copies of your final utility bills and your payment records. If you ever paid a bill that was the landlord's responsibility and deducted the cost of it from your rent, keep a copy of the notice sent and copies of your payments.
Ashley Mott has 12 years of small business management experience and a BSBA in accounting from Columbia. She is a full-time government and public safety reporter for Gannett.