Tenants almost always have a right to working utilities. Each state has different laws protecting these rights, so it's a good idea to read up on them so you know what to do if a landlord cuts off your utilities, doesn't keep your furnace in good repair or refuses to pay a utility bill.
Utilities and Rental Agreements
Before signing a lease or rental agreement, check to see if it specifies whether you, or your landlord, are responsible for paying utilities. If you share the cost of utilities with your landlord or other tenants, the law in your area may require your landlord to inform you of his method of calculating and assigning responsibility for utility payment.
Landlord's Failure to Pay Utilities
If your rental agreement or lease states that your landlord is responsible for paying utilities, yet you receive a notice from the utility company stating that utilities are to be shut off because of nonpayment, contact your utility company. They can tell you what your options are to avoid utility shutoff. Depending on your state's laws, you may have the right to either pay the utilities yourself and deduct that amount from your rent, or go to court and ask that they appoint someone to collect your rents and then pay the utility bills. Laws governing a landlord's failure to pay utility bills vary considerably from state to state, and even from city to city, so be sure to get legal advice before taking action.
Right to Utilities
State landlord and tenant laws almost always require landlords to provide their tenants with homes that are "habitable." This means that the home is safe to live in and that major home systems such as electricity, heat and plumbing are in working order. In fact, these laws often specifically state that landlords must provide tenants with access to adequate heat and hot water. If utilities in your building do not work because they are in need of repair, contact your landlord immediately. If your landlord refuses to repair the problem, your state's laws may give you the right to withhold rent or to terminate your lease.
Evictions and Utility Shut-Off
Some landlords try to force tenants to move by shutting off their utilities. Sometimes known as a "freeze-out," because the landlord assumes that the tenant won't want to remain in a home without heat or hot water, a deliberate utility cutoff is illegal in most places. In fact, it is almost always illegal even if the landlord has an eviction order against the tenant. If your landlord does this, contact your local Legal Aid Society or tenants union for assistance; you may be able to sue the landlord for damages.
- Ohio State Bar Association: Tenant/Landlord Rights and Obligations
- California Tenant Law: Shared Utilities
- Minnesota Attorney General: Housing: Utilities
- Illinois Legal Aid: Senior Citizens Handbook - Public Utilities and LIHEAP
- Nolo: Don't Lock Out or Freeze Out a Tenant: It's Illegal
- Nolo: 10 Steps Toward Low-Risk Landlording