According to a recent GOBankingRates survey, 43.72% of Americans have had trouble paying utility bills over the last six to 12 months – and nearly 78% saw a rise in their household utility bills in 2022.
If you typically cover the heat as part of your lease agreement, this hike in pricing probably has you wondering if you can legally forbid your tenant from changing the temperature. The short answer is yes, but it’ll require some forethought and a signed contract.
Before we get into the age-old debate of who’s allowed to touch the thermostat, let’s clarify your role as a landlord.
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What Landlords Must Provide for Tenants
As a housing provider, you are held accountable for your tenant’s implied warranty of habitability. In other words, landlords are required to provide safe, livable conditions for their tenants since paying rent is conditional on the landlord’s duty to maintain a habitable living space, says Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.
While specific rules and regulations dictating habitability vary by city and state, ApartmentGuide highlights that landlords are typically responsible for:
- “Maintaining the structure of the building’s interior and exterior
- Keeping hallways, stairways, and common areas clean and well-maintained
- Operating plumbing, sewage, and ventilation
- Checking for environmental hazards
- Exterminating rodents and insects
- Supplying cold and hot water in appropriate quantities and at reasonable times
- Providing heat in appropriate quantities and during reasonable times”
Their article also quotes Samuel Evan Goldberg, a lawyer with Goldberg & Lindenberg, who noted that the “landlord must provide heat and hot water to tenants. The hot water must be a minimum of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Landlords are required to provide heat during the months of October 31st through May 31st.
If the outside temperature is 55 degrees or below between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm, it must be at least 68 degrees in the apartment building, and the inside temperature must be 62 degrees [between 10:00 pm and 6 am].”
In short, landlords must provide access to heat – but your responsibilities don’t end there. If you’ve agreed to provide heat or other basic utilities, Pine Tree Legal Assistance lists four situations that would likely break the law:
- “The temperature in your rental is so low that it ‘injures the health’ of anyone living there. (This rule does not apply to someone who is so sick that he cannot stay healthy with a normal amount of heat.)
- The heating system is not able to heat the unit to at least 68 degrees when it is down to 20 degrees below zero (-20 F) outside.
- The heating system doesn’t keep the building’s systems (like water pipes) from freezing.
- Other basic utilities in the unit don’t work, making it unsafe or unfit.”
If you’re not sure whether your heating system can warm the unit to at least 68 degrees, test it “by setting a thermometer at least 3 feet away from an outside wall and about 5 feet above the floor.” Note that the reading doesn’t count if it’s closer to the floor or wall.
Controlling the Temperature in Your Rental
Though the best rule of thumb is to ensure that your rental can maintain at least 68 degrees when the temperature drops outside, you may have more control over the temperature settings – if you and your tenant(s) have signed a lease agreement that supports your position.
Your residential lease agreement should note which party is responsible for paying the heat bill and any other stipulations regarding energy use. So, if you and your tenant signed an agreement stating that they wouldn’t have access to the thermostat, you can decide which temperature to set your unit(s) – but be careful. Assuming that level of control means you need to be on top of the weather forecast to ensure your units are properly heated and your tenants stay safe.
If you give your tenants access to the thermostat, they can adjust the heat without needing to bother you. If the idea of giving your tenants access to the thermostat sends a chill down your spine, here are a couple of thoughts to consider:
- Preparing your rental unit for colder months will help keep energy costs low. Check out our comprehensive article if you need help winterizing your rentals.
- If you currently foot the heating bill, consider passing the expense – and the control – to your tenant(s) at their next lease renewal or through a lease addendum.
How to Reduce Your Rental Unit Heating Costs
Whether you decide to let your tenant control the heating or continue carrying the responsibility yourself, there are certain steps the U.S. Department of Energy recommends to help lower heating costs this winter, such as:
- Conducting a yearly energy assessment, which entails checking insulation levels, inspecting heating equipment, and locating leaks
- Advising your tenants to open curtains and shades during the day to let sunlight warm the rooms
- Recommending that any unused rooms stay closed (as applicable)
- Performing seasonal inspections to check for drafty windows, broken vents, and air duct leaks
- Upgrading your unit’s heating system as newer high-efficiency heating systems can run at 90-98.5% fuel efficiency ratings compared to older systems, which run at 56-70% fuel efficiency ratings, according to CNET
Get Smart: Using Technology to Cut the Energy Bill
Smart technology has come a long way since its inception – which is great news for those looking to save money on their energy bill. According to Reviews.org, “almost half of the cost of the utility bill comes from your cooling and heating system.”
That’s where smart thermometers come in.
Whether you elect to control the temperature as agreed in your lease or allow your tenant full range, having a smart thermometer enables the unit to hone routines that support energy conservation.
For example, your tenant could program the thermometer to hold the unit’s temperature at 68 degrees while they’re at work, then kick up to 70 degrees at 5 pm when they return home. That way, the unit isn’t eating up energy while no one is home – without your tenant having to sacrifice their comfort.
Smart thermometers range in price, starting around $140.
If your signed lease agreement says that your tenant won’t have access to the thermostat, then you get to dictate the temperature within the unit – but be sure to appreciate the great power that comes with this responsibility. Keep up with the weather forecast, and plan ahead to ensure your tenants are warm and safe within your rental property.
When in doubt, maintain a comfortable 68 degrees (or at least above the minimum temperature dictated by your local laws), and don’t hesitate to check in on your tenants when particularly bad weather is ahead. Reaching out to make sure they’re safe, well-stocked, and prepared for the storm will save you from getting frantic calls once the snow falls – and it helps your landlord-tenant relationship thrive, no matter the weather!
TurboTenant, Inc does not provide legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and TurboTenant assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this material. All users are advised to check all applicable local, state, and federal laws and consult legal counsel should questions arise.