Q: We sold our house in Ohio in March and moved to the West Coast. We informed our water department that we needed a meter reading and shut-off as of our closing date. The water department took our information and told us that our date was set for the changeover and meter reading. The new owner purportedly did change everything to his name as of our closing date as well.
At the time of sale and vacating the property, we had no leaks and there was no water running. Recently, we received a bill from the water department for over a year’s worth of water based upon our prior water reading. Based upon our “high” quarterly water usage, the bill should only have been less than an eighth of what we are being charged. The current tenant tells us that there are no leaks and it appears from a recent reading that their usage is “normal.”
Are we responsible for whatever happened between the date the water was supposed to be shut off and the date they actually read the meter?
A: That’s a good question. Sam has encountered similar situations from time to time in his many years of doing real estate closings. He has found that some meter readers may erroneously read a meter and that might be the cause of your issue. More municipalities are switching to electronic metering that seems to provide more accurate readings.
Here again, Sam has found that some municipalities have electronic metering that is tied to a mechanical meter. When it comes time to sell a home, the electronic meter might have sent information to the municipality; but when it came time to the sell, the meter reader actually read the mechanical meter and came up with the discrepancy.
We don’t know whether your issue is a result of a faulty meter reading, a reconciliation between an electronic meter and a mechanical meter, or due to a water leak. We suggest you call the municipality and talk to them to figure out the exact circumstances surrounding your high bill. Once you find out how they see the situation, you may agree with what they say; or they may decide to read the meter again to verify their numbers.
In any event, once you figure out whether the bill is accurate or not, you’ll probably have to pay it. While the water company may have indicated that they would read the meter on a specific date, we doubt you can hold them to that date, especially given COVID-19 and the issues surrounding the pandemic.
The water usage is quite large as you described, so you should follow up with the water company to resolve the issue. Unlike other utility companies that actually shut off electricity or gas, most water companies will not shut the water off but wait for the new buyer to set up service. While we don’t know for sure, most water shut-offs are manually done by a person that goes out to the property and has to turn the valve off that is underground and near the home.
If it turns out that the water meter was read prior to the closing, you can pay the bill and then go back and have a discussion with the seller about what might have happened and whether they would be interested in contributing to the bill.
(Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact Ilyce and Sam through her website, ThinkGlink.com.)
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