Imagine this scenario. A tenant suddenly vacates her apartment and moves out of state, leaving her water bill unpaid. Who is liable for the outstanding bill?
Under Ohio law, landlords can be held responsible for a tenant’s unpaid water bills. A municipality has the power to place a lien on the property and collect the payment through property taxes or bring a lawsuit against the property owner to recoup the money.
Unpaid bills can mean a large financial loss for the city, so government leaders have a high incentive to collect. For example, a 2013 investigation in Toledo found that the city was owed almost $24 million in unpaid water bills. If cities seek to recover these missing funds from property owners, a landlord’s credit and bottom line can both be affected.
As a result, landlords should take some proactive steps to protect themselves and reduce their liability for a tenant’s delinquent bills, such as:
- Perform credit checks on prospective tenants as part of a background check. This can eliminate potentially risky tenants who might be unable to pay a bill.
- Consider requiring a co-signer for some tenants, such as students with limited income.
- Rather than putting water service in the tenant’s name, put the service in the landlord’s name and charge additional rent to cover the cost of water.
- Modify the lease to make a continued tenancy contingent on the payment of water bills. If the tenant does not pay the water bills, landlords may be able to begin eviction proceedings.
- In order to monitor and prevent potential problems, ask the utility company to send the landlord a copy of the tenant’s monthly bills.
- Educate and encourage tenants to check for leaks or prevent wasteful water practices in order to reduce the possibility of unusually high bills.