How to Discourage Electricity Theft by Households
One way households may steal electricity is by stealing from the building supply. Households may tamper with wiring and hook up directly to your building's metered electricity supply. A resident who does this taps into power that you're paying for. Another way to steal electricity is directly from other households. In this case, a household may tap into a neighboring household's metered electricity supply. While this type of tampering may not happen often at your building, it can cause big problems when it does. And your lease may not give you the legal backing you need to evict the household, says New York attorney Peter Schwartz.
One course of action is to add a clause to your lease giving you the right to take strong action, including eviction, against households who tamper with utilities. It's important to bar tampering with all utilities, not just electricity, since households might also try to steal other utilities, such as water. You can adapt our Model Lease Language: Bar Households from Tampering with Utilities, to help you prevent this type of theft.
Problems Caused When Households Steal Electricity
If households steal electricity, you may get stuck dealing with some big problems. For example:
Building violations. If a household tampers with electrical lines, your local building inspector may cite you for allowing electrical work to be done by an unlicensed person.
Fire hazards. Tampering with electrical lines can create a fire hazard.
Increased expenses. If a household steals electricity from your building, your expenses will increase, since you will be paying for that electricity. If a household steals from another household, the victimized household could sue you for negligence, claiming that you knew or should have known about the problem and that you did nothing to stop it. A court may decide that you must reimburse the household for the difference in the electric bills.
When to Suspect Utilities Tampering
To help you discover if households are tampering with electricity or other utilities, inspect a unit's utilities and service whenever there's a vacancy. And inspect building-wide utilities monthly.
For example, check for wires around the electrical meter area that were not there the last time you looked. Also look out for the following signs that someone is siphoning electricity:
Sudden dramatic increase in your electric bill;
Loss of power or service for unexplained reasons;
Flickering lights; or
Circuit breakers tripping for no apparent reason.
Use Lease Clause Banning All Utility Tampering
Most leases ban illegal actions by households. Since stealing electricity is against the law, you probably think you can evict a household that siphons off your or another household's electricity. But it may be more difficult than you think. The stealing resident may simply claim that he or she didn't install this electrical wiring. And a court may accept this argument.
The best way to avoid a problem like this is to put a clause in your lease banning households from tampering with any utility or service, including electrical wiring, recommends Schwartz.
The lease clause should cover all possible utilities and everything households could possibly do to tamper with them or steal them. Our Model Lease Language says households can't change, alter, or interfere with the mechanical, electrical, sanitary, or other service systems of the building and unit.
“You never know what households might decide to tamper with,” warns Schwartz. For example, they may bring a dryer into the unit and create their own ventilation system, he says.
The clause should also specify that it applies to residents who actually tamper with the utilities themselves and residents who just permit it. Some households may claim they didn't do the work themselves. This is how a household avoided eviction in a case involving stolen electricity for their air conditioner.
Also, the clause should state that tampering with the utilities is a “default” under your lease and can lead to the household's eviction. This will allow you to evict a household that tampers with utilities if, like many leases, yours has a paragraph elsewhere saying that households “in default” can be evicted. Your attorney can help you make the necessary revisions to our Model Lease Language if your lease doesn't specifically use the term “default.”
Peter Schwartz, Esq.: Partner, Graubard Miller, 405 Lexington Ave., 19th fl., New York, NY 10174; www.graubard.com.
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