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Q: How do I know what I am being charged for in my Con Ed bill? Throughout the past winter, we kept the heat at 68 degrees (most of the time), but our heating bill skyrocketed. The heat does not automatically turn on; it is manual. Also, how do I know that we are not paying for our hot water to be heated, which is supposed to be included?
If you suspect your landlord is gouging you on utilities, you should put in a call to Con Edison, say our experts, but proceed with caution.
The first thing to consider is that your apartment and building may simply be in need of a meter reading—it's not at all uncommon for Con Ed to estimate bills if they don't have a current meter reading to work off of. (Unsurprisingly, these estimates often skew towards charging you more money, not less, lest we forget the 2013 case of the woman who smacked down a $500 mischarge.) Before you do anything else, check out Con Ed's instructions on performing and submitting your own meter reading here.
But if you do think your landlord is doing something shady—and that you're paying for something you shouldn't be—that's a different story. "There's a condition called a 'shared meter condition,' where landlords are siphoning utilities from a tenant," explains Janet Ray Kalson, an attorney with Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue, & Joseph who specializes in housing law. (This is what was reported to have been allegedly going on with the gas in the East Village explosion back in March.)
In this case, says Kalson, the first step is to call Con Edison to investigate a possible shared meter condition. If they do indeed find something amiss, they should send a letter to your landlord (and a copy to you) stating the nature of the problem and how much time the landlord has to fix it, with a warning that if the situation isn't remedied within the appropriate timeframe, they'll start sending your bills to the landlord instead of you.
If for some reason your landlord doesn't take care of the problem—or you're not satisfied with Con Ed's handling of the situation—"the tenant has the right to complain to the Public Service Commission," says Kalson. (Con Ed also has information about your rights as a renter—and contact information for the PSC—outlined here.) Ultimately, the dispute could end up in an informal hearing of the Public Service Commission, says Kalson.
Per usual with any kind apartment dispute, you should keep your communications with your landlord and the utilities companies well documented (and in writing) should your problem wind up in court. However, you might want to consider the pros and cons before you come out against the landlord with your guns blazing. This is particularly true if you're a market-rate tenant and can be evicted at the drop of a hat. "Consider whether this might result in the landlord illegally retaliating [with an eviction proceeding]," says Kalson. "It's illegal, but landlords get away with it all the time." Depending on how extreme your overcharge is, it may be your best bet to chalk this winter's heating bills up to the cost of doing business as a New York renter—and as part of our city's generally higher-than-average utility bills.