Renter beware

When it comes to surprising utility bills, knowledge is power

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

This month, like every month, a select group of Sacramento renters are going to get a big surprise. These renters have just moved into a new apartment, are struggling to make ends meet and then … they get a whopping utility bill. Some surprise.

They have signed a lease that makes them responsible for the utilities. Too bad they didn’t drill a hole in the wall and check the insulation before they moved in. What were they thinking? They rented a place without going on the roof and checking the air conditioner? They forgot to inspect the heating and cooling ducts before they signed a long-term lease? Yes, it is “renter beware” when it comes to utility bills.

On the flip side, what about the landlord in the next building who does all the right things? This landlord insulates his or her building, buys an energy-efficient air conditioner, installs dual-pane windows and does all the things that a typical homeowner paying their own utility bills would do. This landlord’s tenant also gets a surprise, in this case, a pleasant surprise. Their utility bill is significantly less than their neighbor’s.

Unfortunately, tenants are not informed of this hidden cost that can easily create a hundred-dollar difference, or more, between their two units. This hidden cost is not disclosed to the tenant before they decide which place to rent. Therefore, there’s no incentive for landlords to spend money on energy conservation. The result is that many of this area’s half-million renters are stuck with unreasonably high energy bills.

If only tenants had an idea what their energy bill might be before they chose an apartment to rent. Tenants could make an informed decision. Landlords whose buildings were energy hogs might be faced with a higher vacancy rate. This could encourage these landlords to make some energy-saving improvements.

Currently both SMUD and PG&E, citing privacy concerns, do not share tenants’ bills with their landlords, and perhaps they should not. But they certainly could share an average utility cost per unit for the building. Information is power. If tenants knew this information was available, they’d ask for it and use it help make their decision. This would help them decide which place to rent and provide landlords with an incentive to make their buildings more energy efficient.

If we could convince our utility companies to share average utility costs with building owners, the result over time could be more energy-efficient buildings and of course, happier tenants. Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise?

Renters: If you have received a surprise utility bill, good or bad, post your story in the comments section of this column online. If you’re willing to tell your story, please e-mail me at <script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">{ document.write(String.fromCharCode(60,97,32,104,114,101,102,61,34,109,97,105,108,116,111,58,106,101,102,102,118,64,110,101,119,115,114,101,118,105,101,119,46,99,111,109,34,62,106,101,102,102,118,64,110,101,119,115,114,101,118,105,101,119,46,99,111,109,60,47,97,62)) } </script>.