Landlord responsibility for high water charges

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This past winter, my tenant contacted me about an outrageously large water bill. I immediately suspected an issue with one or more old toilets with brass innards, and my plumber confirmed that two were quietly trickling water down the bowl. I fixed them immediately (ouch, it was big). I looked at the tenant's bill for the same quarter the previous year as a benchmark and immediately and voluntarily paid half the big water bill, and again paid about a third of the bill for the quarter during which the repair was made. Now my tenant -- who is in arrears with the water department -- has told me he expects me to pay towards bills that he says were too large dating back two years to when he moved in, saying that it was obvious that the issue persisted much further back. In the lease, the tenant is responsible for reporting repair issues, and I'm responsible for repair. In all cases, I've made prompt repairs for known issues, even ones that I felt strongly were created by the tenant's actions. When the tenant moved in, I took video of the toilets and they were not running. I say that he had a duty to point out any issues (like when the water bill arrived) and the time so they could be investigated and/or mitigated. I suspect this will end up in small-claims. What are my liabilities and responsibilities? You may ask, were the bills actually higher? Yes, slightly higher than the previous tenant. 

If the bills are only slightly higher than the previous tenant it could simply be this tenant uses more water. In my area, water bill area liens against the property. Regardless of what the lease says, I am ultimately responsible. If that is not the case in your area then let them turn the water off. 

Ultimately it is a practical matter. How much is the water bill? How hard would it be to replace this tenant? What does your lease say and how strong is it?  How does this units water usage compare to nearby houses/units?

Let me make my tenant's argument:

My water bills are higher than everyone I know, so it must be because of the toilets. After all my next bill after the repair was 20 percent less. So you as the landlord owe me for anything over that usage amount dating back to the beginning of the lease. 

(This particular municipality doesn't release usage stats, either aggregate or by address nor have any figures been shown. As the property owner, I have the usage stats for the property dating back to 2010.)

Thanks, Ned. The lease says the tenant is reponsible for paying water (though as you correctly surmise it is a lien against the property levied during summer taxes). The tenant is also responsible for pointing out maintenance issues as soon as they are discovered. Though the tenant has yet to make a specific mathematical proposal, he has left almost a $1k past due with the water dept as the lease comes to a close and has proposed that this is the amount for making it right.

I think your tenant is mistaking your kindness for weakness. When it gets to this point it is usually better to either (a) not renew the lease or (b) introduce a new property manager and start a fresh relationship.    

But it sounds like the lease is up and that they're moving out. Hopefully there is not much other damage and you can deduct the water bill from their security deposit.  Stick to your guns and cite the lease as justification.

Educate your next tenants about how to spot a leak.  These problems are best prevented by removing any source of confusion.  Have the next tenants sign something that makes it clear that when something leaks, they are responsible for identifying and reporting it (and paying ALL the water).

In case somebody runs across this old thread, I wanted to say how it was resolved. When I first paid for excess water usage, I calculated it based on the same quarter the previous year. I knew I would see the tenant at moveout and wanted to discuss how he would pay the past due water balance of about $600, knowing this was a sore point. So I went back and evaluated water usage after the repair was made. I found that based on that amount, I needed to kick in a couple hundred more dollars. I shared my calculations with the tenant. I was ready to show the lease provision in which the tenant is responsible for repair and upkeep of the property and to report any service issues immediately, and I was also ready to be very firm (even if it went to court) on the idea that no mitigation would be considered before issue was reported.  The tenant accepted my offer and paid the rest of the water and the day of moveout. I didn't need to get into a back-and-forth about the lease, but I was prepared to. I would say to always base any offers to mitigate on specific lease provisions. Any offers based on fairness, generosity or sense of duty will be turned against you. If you're a tenant reading this, when you move in, check the little wheel on the water meter and make so no water is being used when the house is vacant. If it is, point it out to the landlord and note it on your move-in checklist.

I would say you handled this extremely fair, if not a bit too generous. It absolutely is the tenants responsibility to report any maintenance issues asap. How are you to know when a small maintenance issue happens if you're not living there? I personally would have told the tenant to ask the water company for a reduction in water bill due to a missed leakage. If not, then the water bill portion comes out of their damage deposit after move out. Also, my tenants pay for water and it's in their name, but I have a landlord account that reports to me if the bill is unpaid.