DIY Landlording Success Story: House 1’s $1,000 Water Bill Disaster Averted!
In late October 2017, after our tenants moved out of House 1, we put in a request to the city to turn on water service in our name. On November 18th, just three short weeks later, the city issued us a water bill for a whopping $1,071.08!!!
41,888 Gallons in a Month?
The bill claimed that 41,888 gallons of water were consumed during the month.
Careful examination of the bill showed that the usage was initiated by a meter reading from a year ago on 11/18/2016.
City’s Customer No-Service
Thinking the outrageous bill was a simple case of clerical error by city employees, we called the city to have the charges fixed. What ensued was a head-spinning game of bureaucratic hot potato that our city is infamous for. Our service request for the correction of the billing error was marked closed even though no action was ever taken by the city. No one contacted us, so our request was essentially slammed shut and dropped into the city’s customer service black hole.
Seeing this, we then opened another service request to question why the first service request was closed when there was no resolution. This time we were told that we had to initiate the billing dispute process by completing and submitting an account review request form. We completed the form, stating the nature of our dispute.
Given the city’s reputation for customer no-service, we mailed in the form along with supporting documentation via USPS Certified Mail. Tracking showed that the documents were received by the city just 3 days later. We then waited patiently for a response.
A month later, we had not heard a peep from the city and instead received another bill which confirmed that the billing error was still not corrected. Since it appeared that our account review request had also gone into the city’s customer service black hole, we opened up yet another request with the city. This time we asked for escalation after escalation. Our experience in corresponding with these points of escalation clearly indicated that the sorry state of city services started at the top. Supervisor after supervisor made empty promises to call us back. Each one told us that they did not have the power to take corrective action and wanted to toss us on a merry-go-round of hand-offs from one department to another.
Progress Finally… Sort of
When we routinely failed to receive calls from the supervisors of the responsible departments, I informed the supervisor of the customer support call center that I had been keeping a detailed log of all of our interactions with the city so that we would have reams of supporting evidence for the city’s failed customer service should we choose to engage a lawyer. This immediately lit a fire under the supervisor and she promptly took it upon herself to be our point of contact and to keep us updated of every action that the city was taking and the expected timeline for each action to be completed.
Within a day, I received a phone call directly from a supervisor in the billing department. She informed me that she had reviewed the account and that no error was made and that we were being backbilled for services unpaid by the previous resident of the house. She stated that this was the city’s policy and that as the owner of the property, I was responsible for any unpaid bills left by my tenants.
Fortunately, by this point, due to the city’s delayed response, I had thoroughly researched and familiarized myself with the laws pertaining to this situation. I informed her that per the Official Code of Georgia Annotated Title 36, Chapter 60, Section 17b (O.C.G.A. 36-60-17b), I could not be billed for services which I did not consume.
“For each new or current account to supply water to any premises or property, the public or private water supplier shall maintain a record of identifying information on the user of the water service and shall seek reimbursement of unpaid charges for water service furnished initially from the person who incurred the charges.“
She then stated that the service consumption was associated with the property and that if I did not pay for the services consumed on the property, the city would then place a lien on my property to force payment. I informed her that this too was against state law since the Official Code of Georgia Annotated Title 36, Chapter 60, Section 17d (O.C.G.A. 36-60-17d) explicitly prohibited a lien from being imposed on my property since I did not incur said unpaid charges:
“A public or private water supplier shall not impose a lien against real property to secure unpaid charges for water furnished unless the owner of such real property is the person who incurred the charges and shall not deny water services when such a lien has been extinguished.”
She retorted that these actions were in compliance with the city’s policies. I informed her that state laws supersede the city’s policies. She refused to admit to the city’s error, so I requested a hearing before the Water & Sewer Appeals Board.
This morning I sent an email to a local company which offers consumer advocacy and conducts investigative journalism on unscrupulous business. Given that the city is taking illegal actions and trying to strong-arm me with the threat of a lien on my property, they clearly met the qualifications for being unscrupulous. I then posted on their social media page letting them know I was seeking their assistance with the city’s illegal actions and that I had a detailed account of my interactions with the city.
An hour later, I received a call from the city’s water billing department supervisor who called me yesterday. She sheepishly informed me that she sent my account to the collections department was informed by them that due to the state law which I had cited, they could not and will not pursue me for the unpaid charges of my tenant. They will instead pursue my tenant for the unpaid services which he incurred. Victory never tasted so sweet.
The Rewards of DIY Landlording
Our DIY landlording responsibilities does not only include making property repairs. It also includes managing other facets which are essential for the business to run well. In this case, it required researching and knowing the law so as to not be cheated out of $1,000 of our hard-earned cash flow. Considering that Ms. DIY Landlord and I collectively spent about four hours on this battle, we essentially paid ourselves $250 per hour for our efforts. More importantly, the one-time effort we invested will continue to pay us back if the city ever tries such shenanigans with us again.
What a wonderful way to start the weekend!
Mr. DIY Landlord