Generally speaking, landlord-tenant laws apply to all stages of the rental process associated with a commercial or residential property. Additionally, each state maintains its own set of laws governing different aspects of a landlord-tenant relationship. An example of this would be how state and local landlord-tenant laws determine the legal requirements for the rental process, such as rules associated with lease terms and security deposits.
This is why it is advised that both landlords and tenants review the applicable laws in their state, as there may be other legal rights that they are entitled to. There may also be other legal duties with which they must comply.
Tenants are not usually subject to the termination of, or reduction in, utility service when their landlord fails to pay a utility bill. Most states maintain laws preventing service from being terminated when it is because the landlord failed to pay their tenant’s utility bill.
What Laws Are There to Prevent Termination of Utilities?
Before discussing laws to prevent the termination of a tenant’s utilities, it is helpful to first discuss the duty landlords have that is associated with a tenant’s right to a habitable home. Landlords of residential rental units have a general duty to repair and maintain the premises for tenants. Under the implied warranty of habitability, they have a duty to fix any problems associated with:
- Hot water;
- Heat; and
- Vermin or rodent infestations.
Depending on the circumstances of each situation, a landlord may not be required to repair minor property damage; this is especially true when the tenant or one of their guests deliberately caused the damage. An example of this would be if a tenant punched a wall and created a hole. It would most likely be the tenant’s responsibility to repair the damage that they caused. If a tenant fails to make minor repairs before moving out, the landlord may legally be able to withhold their security deposit. Or, they may legally sue the tenant for any subsequent damages that were caused by the initial harm.
Arguably, the most significant right that is afforded to a tenant when renting property is the tenant’s right to a habitable home. This right is formally known as the implied warranty of habitability, which refers to a tenant’s right to live in a home that is:
- In habitable condition; and
- Is equipped with basic utilities such as:
- Hot water; and
This right may also apply if a rental property has:
- Poor wiring;
- Exposed electrical wires;
- Holes in the floor; and/or
- Is infested with bugs or rodents.
If a home is considered to be uninhabitable, or if a basic utility is broken, the landlord will be legally obligated to make any necessary repairs until the rental unit is restored to reasonable living conditions. Should they refuse to fix any issues that are covered by this right, the tenant can legally refuse to pay rent, or move out without risk of liability.
Most states have determined that if a landlord fails to provide a utility, they may be in violation of housing codes. Additionally, many states have provisions which provide tenants with remedies against a utility being shut-off. An example of this would be how if the water got shut off because the landlord didn’t pay bills, you could be entitled to damages as well as attorney’s fees. Some states also have laws which will impose civil or criminal liability upon a landlord for failure to provide service to their tenants.
What Should I Do If the Landlord Is Not Paying the Utility Bills?
What you should do if the landlord is not paying the utility bills will entirely depend on where you live. An example of this would be how in Texas, tenants have the right to take their landlord to court and use their rent to halt any threatened cutoffs. Legally, a landlord cannot interrupt a tenant’s utility service unless for repairs, construction, or an emergency. If they do so, tenants may request that the court immediately issue an order requiring the landlord to reconnect the lapsed services. This is referred to as a writ of restoration.
In Minnesota, if a landlord does not pay the bill, the utility company can shut off a tenant’s service. They must first post a notice at the property, or mail the notice, telling the tenant that they are going to shut off service if the bill is not paid. However, there is a chance that the tenant will not get the notice if the utility company thinks that the landlord lives at their address. As such, it is imperative for the tenant to contact the utility company whenever they get a bill that is in their landlord’s name. They should tell them that it is a tenant occupied property.
According to Minnesota law, if the landlord does not pay, there are 2 ways in which to stop the shut-off: an Emergency Tenant Remedy Action, or paying the bill and taking it off the rent. The tenant can file a court case called an Emergency Tenant Remedy Action (“ETRA”), which is also called a Petition for Emergency Relief Under the Tenant Remedies Act.
The court can then order the landlord to pay the bill; additionally, if the tenant has repair problems, the court can also order the landlord to fix them. Tenants can ask the court to let them pay the utility bills and take it off their rent. If they cannot obtain a court order before the shut-off date, they should call the utility company and ask them to keep service on until they get the court order.
Additionally, Minnesota has a pay-and-deduct law for utilities, although not got repairs. Some cities, such as Minneapolis, also have their own pay-and-deduct laws. In order to invoke the Minnesota law, the utility company must first agree to keep service on for another billing period if the tenant pays. The tenant must then tell or write to the landlord 48 hours prior that they are going to pay the bill, and to take it off of their rent.
They can give less notice if service is going to be shut off in less than 48 hours. From there, the process would be to:
- Keep a copy of the notice that was sent;
- Pay the most recent bill;
- Get a receipt from the utility company; and
- Send a copy of the receipt to the landlord, and take the amount paid off of the next rent payment.
The utility company might only provide the tenant with one more billing period before shutting off the utility. In such cases, the tenant may still have to file an ETRA in order to ensure continuing utility service.
What If I Choose to Pay the Bill So Service Will Continue? What If the Lease Requires the Tenant to Pay Utilities?
As previously mentioned, some states allow tenants to pay overdue utility bills on the landlord’s account. That amount would then be deducted from their rent in order to prevent a termination of service. Generally speaking, if a tenant chooses to pay the landlord’s utility bill, the tenant is only required to pay an amount that is necessary to maintain service. Meaning, they would not generally be required to make any back payments.
As with many aspects of landlord tenant law, the lease document is what controls the outcome of the dispute. Some states allow landlords and tenants to agree that the tenant will pay the utilities, as opposed to the landlord. In such cases, it will obviously be the tenant’s responsibility to maintain the utilities.
What If the Tenant Failed to Pay Rent?
In most states, it is illegal for landlords to shut off utilities, even if the tenant stops paying rent. Landlords have a contractual obligation to not disturb the tenant’s quiet enjoyment of the property; and, residential landlords have an additional obligation to keep the property livable, as previously discussed. Shutting off the tenant’s utilities would violate both sets of laws.
If a landlord has a problem with a tenant paying rent, they should try to negotiate with the tenant, or formally evict them. Refusing to pay the utility is considered to be an illegal form of tenant harassment in most states.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you are experiencing issues associated with your landlord failing to pay a utility bill, you should consult with an experienced and local landlord-tenant attorney. A local lawyer will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s landlord-tenant laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.