MV P’s & Q’s: electric shock

Who should bear the cost when your electric bill doubles — you or your landlord?

Nicole-GallandBemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to

Dear Nicole:
Gasp, our electric bill was huge this month. We are renting a house that has electric heat. The landlord told us what the cost of heat had been in past years, but our electric bill came in at twice that number. It’s cold out today, and we’ve got our coats on inside because I’m scared of what may happen next month. Is it fair for us to ask for a reduction in our rent because we were told the cost of electricity would be half of what it actually is?
Confidentially yours,

Dear Cold:
Let me preface this by saying I am not offering legal advice; I’m not qualified to do that. I just gab about interpersonal dynamics, so my response reflects that and nothing more.

I wouldn’t begin with a request for a reduction, because that implies a subtle accusation: “You misled us, so you owe us something.” There is no way for you to know if (a) they deliberately misled you, (b) they made an honest mistake, or (c) some external factor is responsible for the spike in expenses. For instance, electricity rates in general have risen — with little notice —  about 30% regionally (but not 100%, as seems to be your situation). Try starting with a discussion that presumes everyone is well-intentioned and wants to look out for everyone else’s well-being.

For example, “We’re concerned by the severe discrepancy between what you told us to expect and what we’re experiencing. Is it possible something is wrong with the heating system, or that the house is somehow structurally compromised and there’s heat escaping somewhere?” Either of these could in fact be true — but the primary reason to start the conversation that way is to encourage a sensibility of “us” as opposed to “you vs. me.” There’s a mystery going on that you all need to solve together.

If there are no such problems, then you can say, “Hmm, then why do you — who knows the house much better than we do — think the heating bill is twice what you told us to expect?” This doesn’t sound accusatory or blaming now; it’s a natural progression in the conversation that “we” are having about “our” heating-bill-discrepancy-mystery.

The landlord’s response will give you a good idea of how helpful they’re going to be, before you’ve actually asked them for something. They will respond differently based on many variables, including: their preexisting take on the landlord-tenant covenant; how much they like you; how stretched they themselves are financially; and of course, if they are part-owners of whatever store you’re buying your sweaters and coats from.

I simply can’t advise for such a complexity of variables. It’s very complicated on a psycho-social level, regardless of the legal issues, and there will be a “yes, but,” to any specific premise I invent.

But in the broadest strokes, here’s what it comes down to: If you were deliberately misled, you have a right to recourse. It probably won’t come through legal channels, though; you may have to rely on either the court of popular opinion, or, if you don’t mind long-term solutions, karma. If there was an honest mistake, or it can be mathematically explained away entirely by the sudden spike in electricity costs, then you are not entitled to anything, but perhaps you and your landlord can find a way to cooperate in everyone’s interest. For example, maybe some of your rent is commuted to sweat equity (shoveling their walk in the snow, baking dishes for them to take to potlucks, making their kids hot cocoa after sledding, etc.). That way it feels like everyone is helping everyone out, instead of anyone trying to take advantage of anyone else. A subtle but enormous difference.
That’s my take.