Landlords: Do you have to pay for water bills on a Bakersfield multiplex?

Investors are usually surprised to find out that the custom in Bakersfield is for the landlord to pay for water. In this post, we ask the question: is there a legal way to divide the water bill among multiple tenants at the property?

In general, if each tenant has a separate water meter, it may be billed to the tenant, but Bakersfield properties typically have one water meter per property. Without a way to fairly apportion the water bills, is there a legal way for the landlord to avoid responsibility for the bill?

This post is for your information only and is not legal advice. Consult your attorney if you wish to have legal advice applicable to your specific situation.

Water does not have to be separately metered

Under the California Public Utilities Code section 780.5, the owner of a multi-family residence must have separate meters to measure gas and electric for each unit. This requirement does not apply to water. (Cal Pub Util Code § 780.5.)

Public Utilities Code section 781 requires the utility to install a metered water connection at each property by the year 2025, but it does not require a separate water meter for each residential dwelling unit. This often causes complications for owners of multi-unit properties.

Contracts can modify your obligations

Civil Code section 1941 allows a tenant to rent a property that does not meet the minimum standard of “fit for occupation” by written agreement that expressly relieves the landowner of his duty to make the residence fit. Absent this agreement, a landlords duty is to provide a water connection that the tenant can “control.” (Civ. Code § 1941.1, subd. (a)(3).)

I am unable to find a statutory requirement that prohibits a landlord from asking a tenant to pay for the utility connection. It would appear that as long as the tenant provides informed consent, the tenant can be made responsible for a water bill, even though he or she does not have exclusive control over the amount of water that is charged to the account.

An Unusual Agreement

One of my investors is currently buying a property that has two units on a single lot. The seller informs us that the rent in unit A is low, but the tenant pays the water bill for both units in exchange. The average water bill is somewhere between $100/month and $200/month.

This seems unfair to the tenant in unit A. This tenant has no control over how much water the person in unit B might use. However, if the tenant in unit A has provided express consent and negotiated a lower rent in exchange for this duty, then the agreement might be legal.

Best Practices

As a matter of personal policy, I prefer to pay the water bills when there are multiple tenants. The cost of the water bill should be apportioned to the unit by square footage, but it should be apportioned to the unit based on average costs through the rent price. This policy simplifies the transactions and reduces headaches when tenants transition in and out of units.

What should you do?

If you are using a local management company, defer to their best practice and judgement. Professional management companies run smoothly when all properties operate under the same rules—their rules.

If you are self-managing your properties, then what you do about the water bill is a personal choice. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that the tenant is aware of how the bill is managed, who pays for water usage, and under what conditions the tenant may be liable for water served to the property.

California is a “disclosure” state. In most cases, you can show that you acted in the interest of all parties by clearly disclosing all material facts.

Always consult an attorney regarding your plans before making any moves that affect your legal liability.

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