If you are a married woman, you have separated from your husband, and he has left overdue utility bills in his name, you are not responsible for your husband's bills unless you have property worth more than $2,000—and even then you are liable only to a maximum of $100 for each account.36
To obtain the benefit of this rule, you should call the utility company and ask that a new account be opened in your name. You should do this as quickly as possible. If you do not inform the company that your husband has left, a dispute will often arise as to when he actually left. The company may also claim that you accepted responsibility for your husband's old bills by leaving the account in his name for as long as you did. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you make the change promptly.
When a roommate who is the customer named on the utility bill moves out of an apartment, the remaining roommate is not responsible for the departed roommate's bills.37
Landlord Transfers Bill to Tenant
When a landlord wishes to transfer responsibility for a utility bill from herself to a tenant, she cannot simply do so by calling the company. The tenant must agree in writing with the landlord and the utility must be separately metered.38 If you have not agreed in writing to a utility bill being put in your name, call the utility company and ask that the bill be taken out of your name. If your landlord then refuses to pay the bill, the company cannot shut off your service without giving you notice. For more information, see the section in this chapter called Your Right to Continued Service.
Utility companies are required to read your meter on a regular basis. When they read your meter and send you a bill, your bill is based on your actual use. Utility companies are also allowed to send customers "estimated bills" based on your estimated use. The problem with too many estimated bills is that if the company estimates your utility use on the low side, you eventually will receive a very large "catch-up" bill once a company reads your meter and determines your actual use. Companies can also estimate on the high side and you may be paying more than you should.
You will know if it is an estimated bill because the word "ESTIMATE" must appear clearly on the face of the bill. A company may alternate between bills based on a meter reading one month and on estimated use the next month.
A company cannot, however, send you two estimated bills in a row unless:
- You deny the company access to the meter, or
- The company cannot read the meter for reasons beyond its control.39
If you want your bill to be based on your actual use every month, you can read the meter yourself. If you do this, you can report your reading to the company over the phone or through a meter reading card provided by the company. You can also contact the company and make arrangements for your meter to be read at a time when you will be home, including in the evening or on a Saturday.
Customers often complain that their utility bills are too high. Unfortunately, the reason in most cases is simply that rates are so high. If you heat with gas or electricity, your utility bills can easily exceed $2,000 per year. Even the electricity needed to run lights, a refrigerator, and a few other appliances can cost $75 or more per month.
A high bill may, however, indicate that you have a problem. In some cases, someone may be illegally tapping into your utility lines—that is, someone may be using utility service from the line you pay for. This is more common in apartment buildings, where all the meters may be accessible in a common area, such as a basement. If you suspect that your gas or electrical service is being illegally tapped or diverted, call the utility company and the DPU.
Although neither the company nor the DPU is required by law to conduct a thorough physical inspection of your premises for illegal tapping, they may offer to test a meter or help in some fashion. If the company and the DPU can't or won't help you, you may have to hire an electrician or plumber to locate the problem.
High bills may also occur when the landlord installs too few meters in a multi-family building or attaches common-area lights or appliances to an individual tenant's meter. For example, a renovated Victorian house may now have three apartments, but only two meters. Or, the landlord may have hooked up the hallway lights or a common dryer to your apartment's meter, so that you are paying for these on top of the charges for your own apartment. You may, therefore, be paying for your neighbor's utilities as well as your own. These sloppy metering practices are illegal under the state Sanitary Code.
If you believe that the owner has violated the provisions of the Sanitary Code regarding metering requirements, call the local Board of Health and ask for an inspection. If the Board of Health says that there is a metering problem, give a copy of the Board's report to the utility company within 60 days. The law requires the utility company to switch your entire bill to your landlord's name until the Board of Health certifies that the problem has been fixed.
If you paid for the heat, hot water, air conditioner, dryer, refrigerator, or freezer of another apartment or common area, the company must also refund you all of the utility bills that you paid during the period of improper metering, up to two years. If the incorrect metering resulted in your paying only for a common-area light, doorbell, and/or smoke or fire alarm, the company will refund you a total of $10 per month for the relevant period.40
There is another kind of incorrect metering, called cross-metering when the meters of two apartments are completely crossed. In this situation, each tenant is being billed for the utilities used by the other apartment. The DPU has ruled that when this kind of cross-metering is the fault of the utility company, the customer cannot be held responsible. If you think that you are being billed for someone else's energy use instead of your own, call the utility company and ask the company to "flash" your meter. If it turns out that your meter has been crossed with someone else's due to the company's negligence and that you have been overcharged, the company will not be allowed to collect for any excess usage that was not previously billed. If it turns out that you were undercharged, the company cannot require you to make up the difference if the cross-metering was due to the company's negligence.41
You may have defective or inefficient appliances that are using too much electricity or gas, thus causing unusually high bills. Again, you can try calling the utility company to see if they can offer any help. But you may have to hire a plumber or electrician to get a satisfactory answer to your problem. If the appliances belong to the landlord, she may have an obligation to keep them in good working order under the state Sanitary Code.
Your landlord may legally be responsible for utility bills that you have verbally agreed to pay. The state Sanitary Code requires a landlord to pay for the fuel used for hot water and space heating, as well as other electric and gas bills, unless you have signed a written agreement stating that you are responsible for these bills.42 If you have not agreed in writing to pay these bills, the landlord cannot make you pay them.
However, if you pay the bills under a verbal agreement, you may have trouble getting the landlord to reimburse you later. The Massachusetts courts agree that it is a deceptive practice under the state's consumer rights law for a landlord to force a tenant to pay utility bills without a written agreement. However, even if there is such an agreement, the courts usually will not order a landlord to reimburse the tenant for bills that the tenant has already paid. Instead, the courts simply award the tenant $25 in damages and require the landlord to pay the tenant's legal fees.
There are two exceptions to this: If the tenant can show that she had to live without utilities for any period of time as a result of the landlord's not paying the bills, a court may award more money. Also, if the tenant can show that the combined cost of her rent and her utility bills is more than the fair market value of the apartment with utilities included, the court may award the tenant the difference between the two amounts.43
37. Key v. Boston Edison Co., DPU 19355 (1978).
41. As the DPU noted in Rapice v. Mass. Electric Company, DPU 84-86-28, at 5 (Sept. 8, 1994), a "company may bill a customer retroactively for electricity used, but not originally billed, when that billing results from cross-metering that was not the fault of the Company [citation omitted]. . . . However, when the Department has determined that a Company was at fault for not discovering cross-metering after complaints from customers, it has found that a full abatement was warranted." See also Thomas v. Boston Edison Company, DPU 93-AD-30 (Nov. 1, 1994 Van Buskirk v. Boston Gas Company, DPU 3 (1982).
43. See Knott v. Laythe, 42 Mass. App. Ct. 908, 910 (1997) (if the combined cost of rent plus utilities does not exceed the fair market value of the apartment with utilities included, tenant can only recover $25 and reasonable attorney's fees under G.L. c. 93A Poncz v. Loftin, 34 Mass. App. Ct. 909 (1993), rev. den'd 415 Mass. 1102 (1993) (tenant cannot recover cost of paying for heat and hot water under verbal agreement with landlord when tenant never asked landlord to pay bills and cannot show that apartment was made uninhabitable by defective heating equipment or interruptions in service; tenant is entitled only to nominal damages of $25 and reasonable attorney's fees under G.L. c. 93A Young v. Patukonis, 24 Mass. App. Ct. 907, 908-909 (1987) (verbal agreement to pay for heat or hot water is void. These decisions were based on the theory that the Sanitary Code allows landlords to shift the burden of payment to tenants via written agreement and that the failure to reduce a verbal agreement to writing does not in itself make the apartment uninhabitable.