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Rent it Right by Janet Portman, Inman News

Dirty waterQ: I’ve lived in a 40-unit apartment building for the last five years. Until now, I have paid for water, as required by my lease, based on a submetered water system.

Recently, the landlord said the meters are broken and she has decided not to fix them, claiming that they are inaccessible. She is now billing us on an allocation system, based on square footage and number of people in the apartment. My water bill has doubled!

Can they bill us for water this way or are they required to use meters? –Leslie P. A: Shifting the cost of water to tenants is becoming increasingly popular with landlords. Doing so reduces their costs of doing business, and though they could build in the cost of water when setting the rent, many hesitate to do so for fear that they will end up with a higher-than-market rent. Some will argue that when tenants pay for their specific usage, they tend to conserve more, which is important in drought-plagued parts of the country.

Submetering each rental unit is the best way to shift water costs to tenants. The meters read only what you use, regardless of the size of your family or the size of the unit. But submetering can be expensive if it’s done as a retrofit, and as a result, landlords with nonsubmetered properties use what’s known as the “RUBS” method (“ratio utility billing system”). This system attempts to estimate each unit’s usage based on the number of persons in the unit and its square footage. But as we all know, no two people will use the same amount of water — one tenant may be frugal to the point of taking “Navy showers” only or showering at the gym, while another may indulge in 20-minute soaks twice a day.

The key to answering your question lies in the specification, in your lease, that you will pay according to what the submeter says. Your landlord is bound to follow this term of the lease, just as she is bound to deliver parking, if it’s included; or to continue to pay for garbage, if that’s what the lease says. A decision to abandon the meters in favor of an imprecise system just won’t cut it. One wonders, besides, about the motive behind her decision — it’s hard to imagine that the meters are truly out of sight and inaccessible. No utility company would place them where they can’t be serviced, let alone read. One can’t escape the suspicion that the owner is simply looking for a way to make a little money, by having tenants’ water payments add up to more than her actual bill.

Have a talk with the landlord and point out that she is bound by the terms of the lease, just as you are. When the lease expires and she asks you to sign a new one, she is free to abandon the submetering system and use the RUBS method. Until then, she needs to either fix the meters or figure out a way, with tenants’ input, that will result in a fair allocation of costs (your water usage history is the place to start).

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected]. Copyright 2009 Janet Portman

See The How-To’s of Submetering Water.American Apartment Owners Association offers discounts for landlords on products and services related to your rental investment, including real estate forms, tenant debt collection, tenant background checks, insurance and financing. Find out more at

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