The Texas Property Code has several laws concerning utilities and when a landlord can shut them off. The Austin Tenant’s Council outlines the rules governing utilities in an apartment or other leased dwelling.
A landlord can legally turn off a utility (electricity, water, wastewater, or gas) to do repairs, construction, or if there’s an emergency. A landlord cannot turn off a utility because a tenant hasn’t paid their rent or utilities. Any lease that says otherwise is void.
If a landlord does shut off utilities in violation of the law, the tenant’s legal remedies include: the right to recover possession of the premises or terminate the lease and recover damages from the landlord. If the landlord turns off utility service unlawfully, the tenant can appeal to the court, who after hearing their sworn complaint and testimony under oath in court, can issue an order that gives the tenant the right to have the utilities turned on immediately on a temporary basis until a final hearing can be performed.
Another problem that can arise is that utilities are turned off by the utility authority because the landlord failed to pay the bill in an All Bills Paid apartment. The tenant then has several options, including: paying the utility company the amount owed to get the utility back on, terminating the lease with a written 30 day notice or sooner if the shutoff is sooner, and paying rent minus the amount paid to the utility company to get the service restored. The tenant also can deduct the security deposit from the rent and get a pro-rated refund of any advance rental payments if they do terminate the lease.
In addition, a tenant can get actual damages including moving costs, utility connection fees, storage fees, lost wages, court costs and attorney fees. If the tenant deducts the money paid to the utility from the rent, they have to provide a receipt from the utility company showing the amount paid.
If the landlord shows the tenant proof of payment for everything owed to the utility company, the tenant forfeits their right to the above remedies.
Another complication with utilities can arise in an apartment with master-metered utilities. This means that rather than each apartment having their own water, electricity and gas meter, there are master meters for the whole complex and the landlord divides the usage among the tenants. Gas is not usually divided. The rules on the division of utilities are rather complex and governed by several governmental agencies. We’ll outlay just the basics here, but if you would like a more detailed explanation be sure to visit the Austin Tenant’s Council.
Electricity has a few laws that must be followed other than just the way it has to be allocated among tenants. The lease has to state clearly how the landlord will divvy up the bill, as well as how much the average monthly bill was for the previous calendar year for that unit. The landlord cannot charge the tenant more than the actual amount the landlord is charged by the electricity company. The landlord also has the responsibility to keep good records that a tenant can look at during normal business hours. And lastly, the electric bill has to be kept separate from any other money due and the tenant is required to get at least seven days in which to pay the bill. The electricity bill is allocated based on square footage.
Water and Wastewater rules apply to rental properties with five or more units. The rules covering this include that the rental agreement has to clearly state that the tenant’s water will be billed on an allocated basis, that the tenant has the right to get information from the landlord to verify the bill, the average monthly bill amount and highest and lowest bills for all units in the last calendar year, the date bills are normally given and due, and a concise description of how the bill is allocated. The water/wastewater can be calculated using one of four different, rather complex methods.