Posted On: Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Most Massachusetts landlords have at least a vague notion that it’s OK to charge a tenant for his or her water usage.  As is usually the case, the devil is in the details.  Under Massachusetts law, a landlord may charge a tenant for water if, and only if, certain conditions are met, and not all of these conditions are widely known.

1. The tenant’s unit must be separately submetered by a separate water meter installed by a licensed plumber.  A separate water meter measures the amount of water supplied to a particular unit, and enables the landlord to charge the tenant for the tenant’s own water usage. If the apartment is located in a multi-family unit which doesn’t have separate meters for each unit, the tenant may not be charged.

2. The tenant’s obligation to pay for water usage must be in a signed lease, in an obvious place, and not in the fine print.  The water billing arrangement between the landlord and tenant must be included in the lease, and the law describes in detail how water charges should be billed and paid.  A landlord may not require a tenant to pay for water if this obligation is not clearly set forth in the lease.

So, you’re a Massachusetts landlord, and you already knew this, and you’ve been charging your tenants for water usage for years, so what’s the big deal?  There are some lesser-known requirements, the non-compliance with which — in conjunction with a particularly tenacious tenant’s lawyer — can spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for the landlord.

3. A landlord may not charge the tenant for water supplied through a submeter unless the a licensed plumber has installed fully functional water conservation devices for all faucets, showerheads and water closets in the unit (think low-flow showerheads and ultra-low-flush toilets); AND

4. the landlord has certified under the penalties of perjury, with the board of health or health department, that the appropriate submeters and water conservation devices were installed by a licensed plumber.  So, the fact that a landlord has a licensed plumber install appropriate submeters and water conservation devices is not enough under the law.  The landlord must also certify this to the City or Town.  Who knew? But wait, there’s more:

5. A unit becomes eligible for the imposition on the tenant of a water usage charge only upon the start of a new tenancy in the unit; and only if the unit is being occupied for the first time, or if the previous tenant left voluntarily, or was evicted for non-payment of rent or other breach of the lease.  So, if a tenant has been living in a unit, a landlord cannot later charge that tenant for water usage.

6. All provisions of the law allowing landlords to charge tenants for water usage apply to sewer service charges as well.

We welcome questions from Massachusetts landlords and tenants and represent landlords and tenants in Newton, Waltham and surrounding areas.  Please send your questions about landlord-tenant law via the contact form to the right, or call 617/969-0400.  No detail, and therefore no question, is too small.

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