Avoiding and Addressing Water Issues in Baltimore Rental Properties

water bill problems baltimore rental properties

Baltimore County and Baltimore City are both serviced by Baltimore City in terms of the provision of water. Baltimore City’s responsibilities to Baltimore County also include water billing and maintenance and repairs of the water system. Accordingly, the information below relates to water service in both the city and the county.

In Baltimore, water accounts are held in the name of the property owner on record with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. This means that even if the property is a rental and there is a tenant who is using the water, the property owner is still the ultimate responsible party in terms of bill payment. How can a lease be structured, therefore, such that a tenant “owns” his responsibility for water usage, but the property owner is ensured of payment? Online commentators shared many permutations of arrangements between them and their tenants, such as:

  1. Landlord provides a copy of the water bill to the tenant and the tenant pays the bill.
  2. Landlord pays the water bill, provides a copy to the tenant, and the tenant reimburses the landlord.
  3. The landlord builds a base amount of water usage into the monthly rent charge and the lease provides for an obligation on the part of the tenant to pay any overage as compared to the base amount.
  4. The landlord estimates the cost of water and builds that into the monthly rent charge.

Of the options above, the first one bears the risk of the tenant forgetting to pay the bill or paying it late. The last one doesn’t incentivize the tenant in any way to be conservative in terms of his water usage. The second or third options seem to be the most viable, though consulting with an attorney regarding best practices with lease terms is always advisable.

Note that with respect to the first and second options above, the property owner has the option of adding an additional party as a bill recipient so that the tenant can receive the bill directly. However, this does not relieve the property owner in any way of his responsibility for the timely payment of the bill. Further, if there is tenant turnover, the landlord would have to remember to make the change to the additional bill recipient with the city.

Another popular online discussion topic is what measures landlords can take to encourage conservative use of water in their rental units. Baltimore County provides an excellent online resource for water saving tips, which generally fall into two categories, water-saving devices and water-saving activities.

Water-saving devices:

  • If remodeling a bathroom, select low water use toilets.
  • Install low-flow aerators and showerheads.
  • Put a weighted ½ gallon plastic jug or toilet dam in the tanks of standards toilets to displace and save water with each flush.
  • Purchase energy-efficient washing machines and dishwashers.

Water-saving activities:

  • When brushing teeth or shaving, don’t run the tap.
  • Take a shower instead of a bath.
  • Don’t run sink water for a cold drink; store a container of water in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t rinse off dishes before placing them in the dishwasher.
  • Don’t run the dishwasher or washing machine unless they are fully loaded.
  • Use the right water level/load size for the washing machine.

Of course, there are countless other ways to conserve water, including other ideas offered by the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

What happens if a property owner suddenly sees a spike in his water bill, for which there is no obvious explanation? The property owner should first confirm that the billing period is the same as before. For Baltimore City property owners, if the bill is for a different period than 30 days, this may lead to a higher or lower water bill. For Baltimore County property owners, if the bill is for a different period than 90 days, this may lead to a higher or lower water bill. Another possibility is that the meter read type was “estimated” versus “actual.” This can be determined by looking at the “Read Type” under “Meter Reading Details” on the water bill.

If the billing period and meter read type don’t explain the issue, the property owner should log into the Customer Self Service portal and view the dates and times when higher consumption occurred. It may be the case, for example, that there was company visiting that increased the water usage, or warmer weather that encouraged car washing and lawn watering.

The next possibility is that there is a leak. One of the primary ways in which this can be identified for property owners who have hourly usage consumption data available is to turn off all water coming into the house for a period of 20 minutes—10 minutes before the top of an hour and 10 minutes after. The next day, the property owner should check the Customer Self Service portal and see if there was water usage recorded during that time period. If so, there is a leak somewhere. If the property owner identifies and repairs a leak at his property, he can request that the account be reviewed for a possible billing adjustment in his favor. This form can be used to submit that request.

Finally, it is always possible that the meter itself is not working properly. The property owner can request that the meter be tested. However, it is important to note that if the meter is tested and is found to be functioning properly (passes industry standards), then the property owner will be assessed a meter test fee that is determined by the size of the meter.

Have any tips for property owners in Baltimore City or Baltimore County about water bills? If so, we’ve love to hear from you in the comments below.