pipe.jpgDave’s here to answer your questions every Wednesday, so send them to him at tenant@sfappeal.com, here’s what to make sure to include in your letter.

I rent a one bedroom apartment in a Victorian house that was constructed about 120 years ago. The house has 4 units, one of which is owner occupied. I pay $1750 a month plus $150 for garage parking and I’ve been in the unit since June 2010.

My lease requires that I have the water bill in my own name and pay it, which I do. For over a year, the bill was about $50. Late last year, it’s started increasing dramatically, and my most recent bill was over $200. I called SFPUC and they told me they could tell I have a leak because the water is always being consumed, even at night. I set up a time for an inspection which my landlord attended. I could not attend as I was working. She informed me that the inspector said the leak was not in the unit but elsewhere in the building. She informed me she would have her son look into it, and that he has some expertise in this area. That was two weeks ago.

I believe that my landlord is responsible for the overage due to the leak. SFPUC says they will reimburse for half of the overage when we prove that it has been repaired. How do I (1) get this repair done ASAP, (2) get my landlord to pay the overage, either all of it or what’s not reimbursed by PUC.

My landlord is generally a nice person but the house could be in better repair. I don’t know if it’s an illegal unit or not, and if I got the building inspector out, I’m pretty sure they would find a good number of problems. I don’t intend to stay in this apartment long term but do plan to stay for at least six months. I don’t want to cause more trouble than necessary, but I want my money back for the over paid water. Should I start deducting it from my rent? What about the last 4 bills that were high? What is a legal, polite but assertive way to handle this?

This is an issue that is more common than you might think. I’m not clear on whether you are paying the water bill for the whole building or just for your unit. Unit water meters, while becoming more common, are not often found in old Victorian buildings. That’s why it is more common that landlords pay for water.

A side issue here could be that the house had been chopped into units illegally. If you are also sharing your PG&E bill or your utilities are included in your rent, you should look into the possibility that your unit is illegal. Use the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder’s parcel information site to begin your research. Of course, if your unit is illegal, that would open up a can of worms that I’m not going to discuss here.

Unfortunately, in my experience, when landlords ask their sons to look into anything, nothing gets done. Certainly, her son could be a licensed plumber and I may be wrong. But that’s the point, she is going to need the help of a professional to find and fix the leak.

You need to compile all of the documents you received from SFPUC. You need something in writing from them that states you did not cause the leak and/or that the leak is coming from a part of the building not associated with your apartment. Compile all of your water bills to get an average charge to demonstrate the amount of the overcharge.

Then simply ask the landlord to reimburse you. I think that should be done in writing and the letter should include a brief synopsis with the proof that you are in no way responsible for the leak. (BTW, I believe that letters should always be one page long, two if you must.)

This is also the time to mention that she needs to repair any conditions in your unit that may represent a substantial decrease in services–roof leaks, heating issues, broken windows, etc. You should go to the San Francisco Tenants Union to discuss this with a tenant counselor.

If the landlord doesn’t make the other repairs in a timely manner, call a Housing Inspector for the Department of Building Inspection to get any violations on the record.

If your landlord refuses to reimburse you, or, more likely, just stalls, you should not deduct the overpayment from your rent because you could risk an allegation that you breached your lease by failing to pay your full rent for the month.

As I’ve said many times, it’s always better to be a plaintiff in a legal action rather than a defendant. File a petition alleging a substantial decrease in housing services at the San Francisco Rent Board instead.

You have already compiled your evidence, now all you have to do is fill out the form and file it. You should include any other decreases in service regarding habitability of the premises with supporting evidence. The Tenants Union can also help you with this.

One of the reasons I like working with tenants is that they’re usually nice people who are not vindictive. Most just want to get what they pay for and live their lives. Most don’t want to sue anybody and they usually look for the humane, civilized approach to resolve problems. Sometimes problems can be resolved in that manner.

Unfortunately, the landlord-tenant paradigm is based upon engrained beliefs that the landlord is always in control. When tenants attempt to assert their rights in any manner, however politely, the old passive aggressive lord of the manner mentality can rear its ugly, antiquated head.

Landlords, especially those who live with their tenants, may forget that their relationship with their tenants is simply a business relationship, no more no less.

The legal, polite way to handle this is to be polite but direct. The leak needs to be fixed and you want your money back. If this doesn’t happen, you dispassionately use the legal system to resolve the issue, no more, no less.

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

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the author

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

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  • Samuel

    Dude, don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill. Don’t call the building inspector, that’s a last resort. The best approach is always to work between you and the landlord, and if the landlord is a nice person generally, that’s all the better. The simple solution is just to let the landlord knows that the leaking pipe cost you money and you need to be compensated, and yes you should be compensated because the landlord is responsible for maintaining the pipes. Say you hate to bring this to his/her attention, say it politely and with a smile.

    Do not deduct from your rent unless your landlord agrees to it. If the landlord refuses to pay you back, go and talk to an attorney at the tenants’ union located in the Inner Mission. You may have to get your money back at the small claim’s court, the attorney will advice you. Again, do not deduct from the rent unless the landlords agrees to it because doing so may give ground for the landlord to evict you for not paying the full rent; and should you go in front of a judge it can make you look greedy and could jeopardize your case.

    Also bring attention to the landlord about the things that needs to be fixed. Keep in mind that the landlord is not responsible for making the apartment looks fabulous, but livable. If the heater is broken or the ceiling is leaking, the landlord should fix that. If the carpet is of the wrong color or the wall doesn’t age well since it’s Victorian, the landlord is not responsible for that.

    Since you have a separate water meter, I doubt it’s an illegal unit. You can go to the Building Inspection website to check how many units it should have. But even if it is an illegal unit, be aware that contacting Building Inspection is going to open a bad can of worms. Your relationship with the landlord is going to be down the drain and should the BID forces the landlord to close down the unit you’re going to be forced to move out. The best case is that the BID makes the landlord reconstruct the unit to bring it up to code and makes it a legal unit, we’re talking some pretty significant contractor work here and most likely you will have to move out for the repair to take place (your living expenses should be compensated by the landlord).

    The best approach is and always to work it out between you and the landlord.

  • scott

    I rent a cottage on my landlords property. Our water is supplied via in-ground well. There is one well for my 480sq ft residence & my landlords 3000sq home. Recently I discovered that the well pump is wired solely to my PG&E meter and has been for 4.5yrs. Shortly after confronting my landlord I was asked to vacate with very little compensation. In some instances my power bill reached and exceeded $250 a month. Currently the well is still connected to my meter. Please what can I do? I have a wife, 2yr old, and a baby coming in 5 months, and have been threatened w/ legal action if I do not move. This can’t be legal. Is there anything I can do?