Have you ever been concerned about a high utility bill that you don’t understand why it’s so high or what you can do about it? I am going to write about what you can do if your utility bill is so high in Germany.
Have you already received your utility bill this year and been annoyed about a high additional payment? Then you shouldn’t pay immediately, but check the letter first. Because not every billing is correct. We’ll explain the most common mistakes and how much you can save with them.
- What are typical errors in utility billing?
- View invoice receipts
- How can you object to the billing?
- Increase in advance payments
- Utility billing and deposit
- Which costs are landlords allowed to pass on and which are not?
- This is one of the additional costs
- Too expensive – principle of economy
- State additional costs on your tax return
- What should an operating cost statement look like?
- Vacant apartments
- Commercial and private tenants in one house
- By when does the service charge statement have to be available?
- Who will support you in checking the billing?
- Local tenants’ association
- Specialized legal service providers
- So we chose
What are typical errors in utility billing?
There is hardly any other topic that tenants and landlords argue about as often as about ancillary costs, also known as operating costs. According to the German Tenants’ Association, tenants pay an average of 2.17 euros per month in utility costs per square meter of living space. But there are big regional differences.
Many utility bills contain errors that mean cash for you as a tenant. Mineko, the service provider recommended by Finanztip, has reported that 81 percent of the utility bills it has checked are incorrect. On average, the inspection saved tenants 220 euros.
View invoice receipts
To check whether your landlord has paid the ancillary costs, you can view the original receipts in the office of the landlord or the property manager. This not only includes the bills, you can also have them shown to you that your landlord has actually paid the costs.
This is time-consuming because you have to make an appointment with your landlord or the property manager. Nothing else applies during the corona pandemic: Your landlord must allow you to view the receipts. The landlord is not obliged to answer your questions about the utility bill (AG Wiesbaden, judgment of November 15, 2013, Az. 93 C 3906/12).
In addition, you generally have no right to receive copies of the accounting receipts – even if you would pay them. Exception: Your landlord lives far away and inspection is unreasonable. Then you can request copies (BGH, judgment of March 8, 2006, Az. VIII ZR 78/05).
Tip: Talk to other tenants in the house and find out whether they also have to pay back and whether they want to defend themselves against the billing. Maybe you can inspect the receipts together.
How can you object to the billing?
If you have found errors when checking the billing, you can object and ask your landlord for clarification.
You have twelve months to raise your concerns (Section 556 (3) BGB). The deadline for this ends exactly twelve months after you have received the statement, and not at the end of the calendar month (LG Berlin, judgment of October 25, 2016, Az. 63 S 35/16).
The annual period only begins when your landlord has submitted a comprehensible statement. If he has sent you the utility bill, but has not explained in a comprehensible manner how these costs are distributed to the individual apartments in the case of several items, there is no proper bill. If he does not correct this within the year, he is no longer entitled to additional payment.
You must also observe the deadline if you have already raised the same objection to accounts from previous years (BGH, judgment of May 12, 2010, Az. VIII ZR 185/09).
Often there is a note in statements that an objection to the statement must be lodged within four weeks. That just means that billing is due after 30 days.
If you have paid too much in advance, your landlord must refund the balance within 30 days. Conversely, you also have to transfer an additional payment within 30 days.
A contradiction does not change anything. When making the payment, however, you should state that you reserve the right to claim a refund. Despite the 30-day period, you have twelve months to raise objections.
It is important that you explain exactly which costs you will not accept. It is not enough to make a generalized claim that the costs are completely excessive or that the cost increases are incomprehensible (AG Berlin Mitte, judgment of January 21, 2015, Az. 17 C 247/14).
Increase in advance payments
Your landlord may increase the monthly advance payments for ancillary costs if, after the settlement, it is likely that the costs will be higher than the advance payments in the current accounting year. But he doesn’t have to increase it. You do not have to pay a flat-rate safety surcharge (BGH, judgment of September 28, 2011, Az. VIII ZR 294/10).
In order to increase the additional costs, your landlord does not need your consent (Section 560 (4) BGB).
Utility billing and deposit
If you move out of the apartment, your landlord may withhold a reasonable part of the deposit if he expects additional claims from the utility bill (BGH, judgment of January 18, 2006, Az. VIII ZR 71/05).
However, he is not allowed to withhold the entire deposit due to the outstanding ancillary costs. What is appropriate depends on the expected additional payment. The last service charge statement serves as a guide.
Which costs are landlords allowed to pass on and which are not?
If your landlord has forgotten one or more cost items in the rental agreement that are contained in the regulation, he is not allowed to invoice them. If you don’t find any regulation on operating costs, you don’t have to pay any.
This is one of the additional costs
Heating and hot water – this is the largest item in any utility bill. The heating costs are usually also billed for the hot water costs. Many heating bills are inadequate.
Attention: The landlord has to settle heating costs and hot water costs according to consumption. A study by Expaturm and CO2online found that 60 percent of the bills did not contain any energy consumption for hot water. Instead, it was estimated or the consumption was calculated using a formula.
If there is no information about what you actually used, you can reduce the hot water costs by 15 percent (Section 12 (1) HeizKV).
Property tax – Property tax is one of the ongoing public charges on the property. Your landlord may transfer them to you (Section 2 No. 1 BetrKV). As part of the reform of the property tax in 2019, it was not possible to enforce the requirement that only the landlords should pay this tax alone.
Cold and wastewater – Your landlord may bill cold and wastewater together (Section 2 No. 2 and No. 3 BetrKV). Your landlord can also pass on the costs for the regular legionella test in apartment buildings.
Elevator – You also have to pay the maintenance costs for the elevator if you live on the ground floor (BGH, judgment of September 20, 2006, Az. VIII ZR 103/06). The decisive factor is whether you could use the elevator (Section 2 No. 7 BetrKV).
Street cleaning and waste disposal – The costs for street cleaning also include clearing and scattering costs for snow and ice (Section 2 No. 8 BetrKV). Your landlord is not allowed to pass on rental and purchase costs for garbage bins.
Drainage – If the item rainwater charge or surface drainage is not mentioned in the rental agreement, your landlord may not invoice the costs for it. He is also not allowed to bill them with the wastewater costs.
Cleaning – This includes regular costs for cleaning supplies and personnel costs, for example if the landlord has commissioned someone to clean the stairwell (Section 2 No. 9 BetrKV). Your landlord has to pay special cleaning costs due to a construction site.
Garden maintenance – All costs related to the maintenance of the garden and front yard, the gardener, but also costs for individual new plants, may appear in the ancillary costs statement (§ 2 No. 10 BetrKV). This also applies if you cannot use the garden directly (BGH, judgment of May 26, 2004, Az. VIII ZR 135/03).
You also have to pay for tree felling work as a tenant (LG Munich I, judgment of November 19, 2020, Az. 31 S 3302/20). However, if your landlord has the garden completely rebuilt, he has to pay for it himself.
Lighting – This item includes the electricity costs for outdoor lighting and for lighting the hallway, stairs, cellar, floor space or laundry room (Section 2 No. 11 BetrKV). Landlords are not allowed to throw down lamps and lightbulbs.
Chimney cleaning – Your landlord may charge the chimney sweep’s sweeping fees in accordance with the applicable fee schedule (Section 2 No. 13 BetrKV).
Caretaker – Your landlord may not charge you for all caretaker costs. The salary and social security contributions for a caretaker are basically ancillary costs for all tenants (§ 2 No. 14 BetrKV).
However, if the caretaker is also called in to manage the property or if he does repairs, you as a tenant do not have to pay this part of his work – these costs are not apportionable. The demarcation is not always easy.
Tip: If your landlord does not break down the caretaker costs, you can deduct a flat rate of 20 percent (AG Leonberg, judgment of April 22, 2016, Az. 4 C 446/14). Often the caretaker is also a gardener or cleans the stairwell.
The landlord may not charge these costs as cleaning costs or costs for the garden. Otherwise you would pay twice.
Cable connection – When concluding the rental agreement, you can arrange for your landlord to conclude a cable service agreement with a provider. Then he can pass on the costs incurred when billing the operating costs (§ 2 No. 15 BetrKV).
It doesn’t matter whether you also use the connection. This currently affects more than 12 million households in Germany.
New: Your landlord will no longer be allowed to pass the cable fees on to you in the future. All tenants should have the chance to choose their provider themselves. This is what it says in the new Telecommunications Act (TKMoG), which the Federal Council approved on May 7, 2021.
But there is a long transition period until June 30, 2024. Only then do you as a tenant have the free choice of which provider you want or whether you do without it completely.
Gutter cleaning – These costs may appear in the utility bill if cleaning takes place at regular intervals (BGH, judgment of April 7, 2004, Az. VIII ZR 167/03). If a one-off blockage has been removed with cleaning, the landlord may not pass on the costs.
Smoke alarms – which costs for smoke alarms landlords are allowed to pass on is controversial. It is clear that landlords have to bear the acquisition costs themselves. According to the Dortmund District Court, landlords are also not allowed to pass on the costs for maintenance or rental costs to the tenant (judgment of January 30, 2017, Az. 423 C 8482/16).
The Hagen district court differentiates: Smoke detector rental costs are not apportionable, but maintenance costs are (judgment of March 4, 2016, Az. 1 S 198/15). In the opinion of the magistrates in Magdeburg, the total costs are allocable as other costs (judgment of September 27, 2011, Az. 1 S 171/11).
The landlord may pass on the costs for the maintenance of smoke alarms to the tenant if he has expressly stated this beforehand (LG Munich I, judgment of April 15, 2021, Az. 31 S 6492/20). A decision by the Federal Court of Justice is still pending.
Insurance – The costs for property and liability insurance are operating costs (Section 2 No. 13 BetrKV). That can be a residential building insurance, but also a house liability and a water damage liability insurance are possible.
Attention: Your landlord is not allowed to pass the cost of rent loss insurance or legal expenses insurance on to you.
Own services of the landlord – Landlords are allowed to charge for self-performed caretaker or garden maintenance work what they would have paid a third party for it (BGH, judgment of November 14, 2012, Az. VIII ZR 41/12). The prerequisite, however, is that they make it clear what costs they have applied and how expensive such services are on average.
If these costs are found in your living space rental agreement, the regulations are ineffective (Section 556 (4) BGB). If you have wrongly paid such costs, you can claim them back from the landlord for the past few years (§ 812 BGB). The normal limitation period of three years applies.
If there is the item “other costs” in your statement without further explanation, you do not have to pay this amount at first. Inquire with your landlord what is behind it.
As a rule of thumb, one-time costs cannot be ancillary rental costs. If you discover that you should pay more for a position than before, then take a look at the receipts from your landlord. It could be that he hid one-off repairs or maintenance work in the running costs.
Too expensive – principle of economy
The principle of economic efficiency applies to all ancillary costs (Section 556 (3) BGB). If your landlord pays the caretaker significantly too much, these costs are at least vulnerable. Your landlord doesn’t always have to choose the cheapest provider, but the overall costs have to be reasonable.
If you want to defend yourself against uneconomical costs, you have to prove that the expenses are too high. You could, for example, obtain and submit offers.
State additional costs on your tax return
If your landlord instructs someone to clean the hallway or if he apportions the fees for the chimney sweep proportionally to the tenants, you can state the costs in your tax return. We have summarized how much you can save and how you claim the costs in the advice on household services and craftsman costs.
What should an operating cost statement look like?
Every statement must be clear and understandable. The following information must appear in your statement:
Billing period – If you have already lived in the apartment for a year, the billing period is the last calendar year. If you moved in during the year, it runs from the start of the rental until the end of the year.
Allocation key – your landlord can apportion the costs according to three “keys”: consumption, number of residents, square meters. This point is particularly important. The landlord specifies in the rental agreement how it is billed. He has to stick to that.
If you do not find anything about this in the contract, your landlord may allocate all additional costs to the living space, with the exception of heating costs – he has to settle them according to your consumption (§ 556a BGB).
For a single in a larger apartment, billing based on the number of people is cheapest. For a larger family in an average apartment, the cost distribution according to the living space is advantageous.
Tip: You should measure your apartment. If it is smaller than specified in the rental agreement, you will have to pay fewer ancillary costs.
Landlords have to bill according to the actual living space. The apartment size specified in the rental agreement does not matter (BGH, judgment of May 30, 2018, Az. VIII ZR 220/17).
Total costs – If you live in an apartment building, your landlord must state the total costs for the house in your statement, i.e. all costs – from property tax to elevator maintenance costs to insurance.
Calculation of the tenant’s share – You only pay your share of the total cost of the house. The calculation must be understandable.
Prepayments – Your landlord must list your prepayments. He has to deduct the sum from the share that you have to pay in total.
Repayment or additional payment – after all, the statement must clearly state how much money you have to pay back or how much money you will get back.
If apartments in an apartment building are empty, the landlord must distribute the costs incurred to all apartments. He may not change the distribution key and only transfer the operating costs to the rented apartments.
The landlord has to cover the running costs for an empty apartment. The same applies to an apartment in the house that the landlord lives in himself.
Commercial and private tenants in one house
Commercial tenants can incur higher operating costs than private tenants – more electricity, more waste or higher heating costs. In the case of insurance companies, a premium is usually due for the business. The property tax can also be higher for a commercial property.
In the event of an additional burden of more than 15 percent, the landlord must deduct the increased costs for the business beforehand. You have to be able to see that in the statement. If you can’t find anything about it, you should inquire with the landlord.
But: Your landlord only has to bill the costs separately if the tenant would incur significant disadvantages from a joint billing, i.e., significantly higher ancillary costs incurred by the business (BGH, judgment of March 8, 2006, Az. VIII ZR 78/05).
By when does the service charge statement have to be available?
Your landlord must submit the utility bill no later than twelve months after the end of the billing period (Section 556 (3) BGB). It usually ends on December 31st. The landlord can therefore take a year to settle the accounts.
Many tenants receive their bills in spring, others in autumn. Whether and when a tenant moves out during the period is not decisive.
For example, if you moved out in March 2019, your landlord must complete the billing by the end of 2020 at the latest, not by March 2020. Landlords are not obliged to make partial bills.
If twelve months have passed after the end of the year, your landlord may no longer ask for additional payments. On the other hand, you can still request a statement even after twelve months.
Who will support you in checking the billing?
There are three contact points you can turn to if the utility bill seems too high or is not understandable. You can find out how we came up with our recommendations at the end of the text.
Local tenants’ association
The first and best-known contact person is always the local tenants’ association. The experts there are very familiar with the subject. In order to be able to use the services of the association, you have to become a member.
The costs vary depending on the tenant association. The Cologne Tenants’ Association, for example, charges an annual fee of 90 euros and an admission fee of 15 euros. Membership in the tenants’ association in Munich costs a little more: an annual fee of EUR 108 and an admission fee of EUR 15 (as of October 2020).
Specialized legal service providers
If you are not or do not want to become a member of the tenants’ association, but still want a professional billing check, we recommend Mineko. The Berlin-based company specializes in checking utility bills. It has now checked more than 45,000 invoices and therefore has a lot of experience.
According to Mineko, 81 percent of all checked bills are incorrect, by an average of 220 euros per year at the expense of the tenant.
If you prefer to have your statement checked by a lawyer, who will then also take care of the correspondence, you can contact a lawyer agency. This will help you to find the right lawyer. We recommend Yourxpert. The portal provides legal advice at a fixed price.
A lawyer mediated by Yourxpert will check your utility bill within 24 hours. That costs 64 euros. If you also want a legal letter to your landlord, the total cost is 94 euros.
So we chose
We examined two types of providers in the period from November 9th to December 18th, 2018: specialized service providers who review utility bills, and lawyer recruitment portals. These arrange a lawyer who checks an ancillary costs statement at a fixed price and, if necessary, sends a lawyer letter to the landlord.
We have limited ourselves to the six providers that were displayed in a Google search on November 9, 2018 on the first three results pages for the terms “Check utility bills for tenants” and “Have utility bills checked”.
We sent a questionnaire to all the providers we found with questions about the company, the number of invoices checked so far, the scope of the services and quality assurance. We also asked for an example of the result of a review.
We received an answer from two legal service providers and included them in our investigation: Mineko and IHS Services. On the basis of the following four criteria, we have made our recommendation for a legal service provider who offers the verification of utility bills.
One of the brokers investigated pursues a slightly different business model: the lawyer placed offers a free initial consultation and only in a second step does he submit an individual fixed price offer depending on the effort and scope of the examination. There is therefore no fixed price on the website. We could therefore not check how much a person seeking advice has to pay and whether the price is actually fair.