Is My Landlord Scamming Me?

8 Replies


I leased a bedroom in my landlord’s home in San Francisco about three months ago. My roommate and I signed a six month lease that is done on December 1, 2018, and we share the single room. The lease includes an itemized list of utilities including Water/Sewage, PG&E and Wifi. Primarily, I am concerned about the utilities my landlord asks me to pay. I have not seen the original invoices for any of the utilities, and the bill is very high, so I’d like to see the invoices. I’d like to know that I’m not being taken advantage of. I’ve asked to see the original utilities bills twice, once by text message, and again through a printed letter that I placed where I knew she’d find it. The first time I asked she responded that she would see if she could order the statements, but threatened to charge me with a late fee, even though there is nothing in the lease regarding late fees for utilities. The second time I got no response, but she retaliated by accusing me of calling PG&E, and attempting to access her personal account. She stated this was identify theft, however, I’ve done none of what she accused me of. She also accused me of going through her personal files to find her full name, even though it appears on her Venmo account, where I pay the monthly lease payment and the utility payments. She’s also accused me of other things in the past, such as taking things out of her trash and being in parts of the house I’m not permitted in.

My main questions are as follows: (1) does the landlord have to provide invoices when requested, and (2) if I choose not to pay them until I see the invoices, is the landlord empowered to charge me with late fees when nothing regarding that is on the lease document.

Thanks for any help you all can provide.

@Liz Faber Ask for a free consultation with a local real estate attorney, one specializing in tenant-landlord issues. I'm guessing the main point is how the landlord calculates your utility bill -- does the lease specify a formula for this or simply "utilities"? San Francisco and California are very tenant-friendly, so you should have the power on your side in this.

I sympathize with you as utilities are getting more and more expensive, and unless you're the person paying for it, it's hard to imagine how high it is. Landlords are increasingly doing this though I don't do it as in not a common practice for the rentals I own.

First the legality and the process. I'm a landlord in NYC and vicinity. There is no regulation here that I know of that requires landlords to provide the bills. I have a co-worker whose dad own rentals in Baltimore who charges utilities back to his tenants and finally gave copies of bills to his tenants after years of arguing with them, mainly college students who rent rooms. He takes the bill which is in his name, divides it up, and because he had to do this extra step, charges $10.00 per tenant monthly to do this. Interestingly enough, people pay up. For a typical apartment housing 4 tenants with it's own bill, he charges $40 to do the billing. For triplexes, this landlord collects $120.00 a month for doing the billing on top of the utility charges.

As to the legality of adding the charges? My co-worker says his dad checked into it, though the lease calls for the tenants paying the utility, it does not say it has to be exactly to the penny what the landlord pays. With rents usually due on the first, and utility bills rarely matching the dates of the rent, it is difficult to allocate rents and the beginning and end of rent periods. And to calculate allocations to this exactitude, the $10.00 fee is justified.

So the key is how the lease is worded regarding utilities and any local regulations.

I myself have a paranoid co-worker. His landlord charges back the utilities, and his complaint deals mainly with cooking gas. He gets copies of bills from his landlord who splits the bill 50/50 with him according to the lease. His complaint is his landlord who lives upstairs has frequent dinner parties at his place, has plenty of guests, and why should he subsidize his landlords cooking particularly when he and his wife eats takeout food as they have no time to cook. I ask him how he knows about his landlords cooking and he tells me since he helps paying for cooking gas, he has the right to spy on his landlord's coming and goings.

My advice to you is what I gave to my co-worker. If you don't trust the landlord, there are many rentals that landlords don't go through the trouble of charging back utilities like myself. At one time, I had a job that involves traveling 90% of the time, and even if the landlord provides the bills, splits it evenly, it does not take into consideration that I'm not even there using it. My landlord is not going to start counting days I'm not there, days where he has extra dinner guests to come up with a fair bill. But the counter argument to this is someone has to provide the infrastructure for the utilities, and this has to be paid for even while I'm on a business trip to the Fareast. I was living at home right after college, paid my dad $200/month room and board and objected when he charged me while I'm away on my business trips. His answer is for me to try renting an apartment somewhere where a landlord is going to sit down with me every month and count pennies with me, and not charge me while I'm away.

I'm responding to you as more and more landlords are charging for utilities, and many tenants felt it's a scam. While San Francisco is tenant friendly, I can't see the logic and having attorneys getting involved as you can simply move. And can't see the landlord if he wants to charge extra for utilities, just charge a flat rate.

If a landlord is not willing to provide copies of the bills to their tenants it is highly likely they are hiding something. I would not trust her and as suggested seek assistance through your state landlord tenant regulations if they apply to home owners renting out rooms.

@Liz Faber Your landlord sounds like a flake. 

As said California is very tenant friendly, you might as well take advantage of it. I suspect there are free legal aid attorneys for tenants. Do a little Googling. 

Sounds like you should get out of there. She is charging you for the utilities without being willing to show the bills? She can get them in a couple of seconds on the utilities website, she doesn't need to order them. This is not rocket science. But if your lease doesn't require her to show the bills, I'm not sure how you can force her to.

But with only three months left on the lease I don't know that it's worthwhile to fight about it, or certainly retaining a lawyer. Start looking for your next place. Be sure to ask the new landlord for a clause in the lease that landlord will present utility bills when requesting your payment. 

Can you go to the local city office and ask about the invoices? Show them proof that you're a renter  on the property and they should show you the invoices. At least that's how it works in my area.