I recently was asked by one of our property management clients if tenants can be made to pay for water bills in Massachusetts. The client, who has just purchased a multi-family rental property in Brighton, said that the prior rental agreements stated tenants were to pay for all utilities, including water. He noted that there is not any sub-metering in place for water.
In other words, the rental property’s water bill now represents the entire property, and there is no way to split the amounts. His valid question is: “Is it okay to bill Unit 1 for 50% of the bill?” My first response was to revisit the Massachusetts law regarding water billing and sub-metering at https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartII/TitleI/Chapter186/Section22.
Here are some of the key points that touch on answers to questions about charging tenants for water bills in Massachusetts:
- A landlord can’t charge a tenant for water usage unless the water the tenant controls is specifically metered.
- Fully functioning water conservation devices must be installed by a licensed plumber on all faucets, showerheads, and water closets.
- The landlord must make a specific certification to the tenant regarding the eligibility of the water charges, and installation of water conservation devices and the sub-meter.
- These rules also apply to dwelling units that are directly connected to a meter installed by a water company (such as single-family homes).
To answer our property management customer’s question, my interpretation is multi-family tenants can only be responsible for water usage when a certified sub-metering solution is in place, and when all of the guidelines under the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are adhered to under Section 22, which covers definitions; sub-meter installation; testing; water use charges; and public housing development exemption.
Disclaimer: This blog is not meant as the advice, suggestion, or knowledge of a real estate lawyer, which I am not. Please consult an attorney if you are looking for legal advice on any issue concerning water bills in Massachusetts.
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What can a landlord legally do if the tenants are excessively using water?
This is a tough one. There are three steps:
1. Educate your resident. Explain the problem to them and seek their cooperation. Most residents are reasonable and understand that their rent will have to go up if the expense can’t be managed.
2. The first step that is completely within your rights is to check for leaks. A leaking toilet can lose hundreds of gallons of water per month. Die test all toilets and look around the water supply lines coming into the house and around any hot water heaters for signs of leaking. Also look at the walls and ceilings below where the supply pipes run. There may be signs of water damage, indicating a possible leak.
3. The next step is to install water saving devices. Most toilets are already low-flow, but replace shower heads and add low flow water aerators to sinks.
4. You may want to have the meter inspected. You’ll need to read the requirements for your area and who pays for this expense.
5. The last step is to contact your attorney to see what legal steps can be taken if the above ones don’t work. You’ll want to do the previous steps and document them to show you’re acting in good faith. An attorney can look at your specific situation and the lease in place between the resident and you.