I'm in Wisconsin and my ex landlord (6 months out of the lease now) is contacting me about a utility bill from the rental property. We lived in the rental for about 3 years. All the bills were in our landlord's name because they ran a small business above our rental which shared the same utility meters. So the agreement was to pay the landlord each month for our portion of the bills. Well, the landlord just stopped coming over for the money despite me telling them several times that we needed the bill; it was our responsibility after all. In January 2011, the landlord contacted me and asked if I would put the utilities in my name, which I agreed to because it would help us make up what we owed (we were paying for the business too). It was definitely manageable, so no problem. Until we went to move out in July 2011. Suddenly, the landlord was telling me that we owed almost $1,000 for natural gas. I had no clue what they were talking about at first as I was not aware that we had a natural gas heater. We have never seen the bill nor did the landlords alert us of our oversight of the natural gas bill in 7 months. They kept our security deposit and did not give us a written statement of why, nor did we receive even a verbal notification of why. On one hand, we feel that this is our responsibility in as much as we used the gas. However, they didn't give us the bill or let us know about it for 7 months and they kept our $500 security deposit. What are our rights here?I'm not sure if it's applicable to the state of Wisconsin, but I had read and been advised by an attorney previously that if the utility meters are shared, the landlord must have them in their name to avoid any issues as described here. I've looked at the statutes, but I'm not in the legal profession so have a more difficult time interpreting legal jargon. Having said that, I am thinking that an attorney will be the best course of action here, although funds are very tight (story of everyone's life right now!!!).
While I agree with both the previous answers in the "try to work it out directly with your landlord" area, there are some additional considerations in what you've related that may turn the tables in your favor.
Under the Wisconsin Statutes and related Administrative Code, the landlord has a limited amount of time (21 days), from the time you vacate the premises to provide you with a written accounting of any damages he/she intends to withhold from your security deposit. If no such writing is furnished to the tenant, the landlord must return the security deposit, and potentially be liable for punitive damages for failure to comply with the code.
Additionally, it appears from your narrative that the natural gas bill was never part of the rent and expenses agreement you had - in that you lived there for three years and weren't aware of it.
A couple of items that are not quite clear though - You paid your share of the bills each month for some portion of time, but when did the landlord "just stop coming over for the money"? And, in January 2011, when you put the utilities in your name - first, you paid for the landlord's business' utility bills, as well? For how long? Did the numbers you paid seem equivalent to what would have paid for just your unit plus the back amount that you owed? How was the amount you owed determined? And, finally, did you or did you not have the gas utility put in your name?
It strikes me that the landlord is trying to collect from you for 3 possible reasons (and probably for all 3): 1. he just forgot to include gas when he thought about charging for utilities, 2. he is trying to get you to pay for his gas bills, as well as your own, and 3. because you are honest enough to say "we feel this is our responsibility in as much as we used the gas."
Without any documentation of any kind, I would suggest you may or may not have used the gas, and certainly may not have used $700 worth. Additionally, it appears that the landlord has wrongfully withheld your security deposit in any event.
The difficult decision to make in these kinds of matters is whether or not pursuing legal remedies is worth it. Small claims court is relatively inexpensive, with a filing fee of $96.50, possible a service fee of $20-$50, and the time and effort to bone up on the applicable administrative code and statutes, and to put together your documentation to present to the Court Commissioner. And, of course, a couple of appearances.
With the small amount at issue, it is difficult for an attorney to spend a lot of time on small claims matters and add value to the client - small claims in Wisconsin generally caps recovery of attorney's fees at $150.00.
Please note that this answer is generic in nature and does not constitute legal advice with regard to any particular circumstances or facts and does not establish an attorney client relationship.
Your rights either are determined by your lease or by general state law about rentals. So, if there is a lease, take a look to see if it says anything about utilities or specifically about natural gas.
There's no straightforward answer to your question. Yes, in general you are responsible for utility costs as a tenant, especially where you acknowledge that you agreed to pay them. You have a fair defense that the landlord did not notify you about the natural gas or present the bills to you in a timely manner, but my guess is that a court, if it comes to that, would still find that the bills are your responsibility. But that doesn't mean that your landlord has the right to keep your security deposit, especially without written notice. Does your lease say anything about the return of the security deposit? If there's no lease, check your state law - most states have a requirement that landlords provide written notice within 30 days or so if they are going to keep a security deposit and that they must provide documentation of any past due amounts. Some states even allow court fines to landlords that keep security deposits unfairly. This, however, only gets you so far - your landlord may not have the right to retain your deposit, but then could win a judgment of the $1,000 natural gas bill. It all depends on the specifics of the situation, but it could be that you could go to court, spend the time and money on filing fees, etc., and end up with an order returning your security deposit, maybe getting a small fine from the landlord, but also requiring that you pay him for the natural gas bill.
My advice is to try to make a deal with your landlord, offering him part of the natural gas bill. I also recommend that any communication with him be in writing so that you have records, especially any agreement to pay part of the bill in settlement of his claim. Beyond that, I recommend having a detailed lease for your next rental.
Legal advice depends upon the particular facts of a given situation. Please use my answers as general information but not legal counsel.
Utility issues are a very common source of disagreement between landlords and tenants. Generally, the lease (if there is one) is going to control the issue, but state statutes and administrative codes in Wisconsin can trump lease provisions in certain circumstances.
Your situation presents a rather complex series of events and circumstances that several statutory and administrative provision jump out as possibly relevant.
If you really want to address these issues, you can either 1) attempt to resolve the situation with the landlord directly and/or 2) contact an attorney directly, who is licensed to practice in Wisconsin, to learn in more detail about your legal rights and remedies. The attorney will be able to protect your rights and pursue your remedies, if you hire him/her.
The foregoing is intended to merely provide additional information to the individual posting the question and to anyone reading the question and/or answers provided. There is no specific legal advice provided. Specific advice cannot be given without first forming an attorney/client relationship. This informational answer is not legal advice, and should not be relied on, since it is impossible to appropriately evaluate a legal problem without a comprehensive consultation and review of all the facts and documents at issue.
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