Real Estate

Can My Landlord Shut Off My Utilities?

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
Know your rights and responsibilities when it comes to utilities, including what happens if your landlord accidentally (or on purpose) cuts off your water, gas, electricity or other utility.

In general, utilities include gas, heat, electricity, and water and sewer–anything that comes out of a pipe or outlet. Utilities often include trash collection as well. In some rental units, utilities include telephone, cable, and high-speed Internet. Your lease should specify who (landlord or tenant) pays what utilities.

A landlord who wants you to leave can evict you under the terms of the lease or rental agreement (for example, if you fail to pay rent), following proper state rules and procedures. A landlord cannot, however, cut off your utilities as a way to force you out.

Lease Clauses on Utilities

A lease or rental agreement should include a “utilities” or a “utilities and repairs” clause that specifies who is responsible for what services and bills. Typically, landlords pay for garbage and sometimes water (if there is a yard). Tenants usually pay for other services, such as gas and electricity. Check for any clause on utilities before you sign the lease. You might also ask to see the utility meters, to verify whether your rental unit will share a meter or have its own.

Generally, a landlord pays for utilities when a unit is vacant, and cancels these accounts on a date that is specified in the lease. It is the tenant’s responsibility to contact the utility companies, sign up for utilities, pay for them so they don’t get cut off and endanger the landlord’s property, cancel utilities (such as electricity) when the lease is up, and notify the landlord. At this point, utilities revert to the landlord’s name.

If your failure to pay your utility bills leads to a cut-off of services which are your responsibility under the terms of the lease or rental agreement, you can be evicted for violation of the lease.

What If My Services Are Shared?

Some older buildings do not have separate gas and electric meters for each apartment. When there is a single gas, electric, or water meter for an entire building, the costs are often allocated among the tenants, usually based on the size of the units. Make sure that this issue is clearly addressed in your lease or rental agreement. You’ll also want to check if your meter measures gas or electricity outside of your rental unit, such as lighting in a hallway. The laws in some states require landlords to disclose any shared utility arrangements. See Required Landlord Disclosures on Nolo.com for details.

When Are Utilities Included in the Rent?

Utilities are included in your rent only when this is clearly stated in your lease or rental agreement. In this case, utilities are in the landlord’s name. Generally, the more utilities that are included, the higher the rent you will pay.

Tenant Rights Regarding Utility Turnoffs

If your landlord turns off the utilities, purposefully or negligently, make a demand in writing that they be restored as soon as possible. You should also expect your landlord to give you as much notice as possible about any construction or repair work (such as on sewers or gas lines) that might result in disruption of your service. In these cases, you may need to take steps to get the essential service yourself, like buying bottled water or a space heater. Depending on your state law, you may have the right to deduct this expense from your rent. You may also be able sue the landlord to recover based on the reduced value of your rental without the essential service. See the Nolo.com article Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent by State for details.

Nearly every state forbids landlords from “self-help” evictions, such as cutting off your utilities, as a way to force you out, or in retaliation for your exercising a legal right, such as complaining to a local housing agency. Many states allow tenants to sue for actual money losses (such as to cover temporary housing because the landlord shut the water off), but also for penalties. See the Nolo.com article Don’t Lock Out or Freeze Out a Tenant for details.

What If I Can’t Pay My Utility Bills?

When utilities are in your name, your landlord is powerless to cut them off. The utility company, however, can cut your utilities off if you fail to make a required deposit or pay your bill, fail to make payments according to schedule, or refuse to allow the utility company access to its equipment.

In general, a utility company must send you a notice and attempt to contact you close to your shut-off date. Even after your utilities are shut off, you are still responsible for past-due amounts.

If you cannot pay your utility bills, and fear being evicted as a result, contact your utility company and ask about balanced payment plans and emergency assistance programs. States also offer a wide range of programs to help low-income people with their utility bills–especially people who are ill, disabled, or elderly, or live in households with children.

A Landlord-Tenant Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding who is responsible for utility bills in a rental property can be complicated. Plus, the facts of each case and the laws in each state are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more specific, detailed information about utility bills, particularly if a landlord has attempted a “self-help eviction” by cutting off utilities, contact a landlord-tenant lawyer.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My landlord controls the heat for my apartment and it’s always freezing. How can I get him to turn the heat up?
  • I’m living in a foreclosure property and I’m worried about the new owner cutting off the utilities. What are my rights in this situation?
  • I’d like a satellite dish, but my landlord won’t let me, because he thinks the dishes are unattractive. What’s my right to get satellite TV? How about cable?
  • We have a drought in my area and the landlord wants tenants to severely cut back their use of water. He threatens to turn the water off completely at night if we use too much water. Can my landlord do that?
  • My landlord used to pay the garbage and recycling bill, but now says he plans to start charging tenants. Is that legal?

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