Q I keep hearing about how heating bills are expected to increase dramatically this winter. How does that affect renters with utilities included? I am renting month to month since my lease expired at the end of August. My rent went up by a small amount, a cost-of-living increase, on Sept. 1. As far as I can tell from the District Web site, there are restrictions on when the rent ceiling can go up, and the actual rent charged can be changed only once every six months, with 30 days' notice. However, what I'm paying is far below the ceiling. As I'm reading it, the management company could raise my rent to the ceiling (about a $400 leap) starting March 1, with only 30 days' notice. Is that correct, or is there any limit to how fast they can increase the rent actually charged? -- Washington
AGiven the soaring prices of natural gas and heating oil, the federal Energy Information Administration forecasts that nationwide, households will see an average increase of 24 percent in winter heating bills. In our area, Karen Kossow, a spokeswoman for Centreville-based KSI Management, says that if you pay your own utilities for your apartment and you have gas heat, it is anticipated that any cost associated with your utilities will increase by 30 to 60 percent this winter.
That's going to affect everyone who pays his or her own heating bills -- and can also affect those with utilities included in the rent, because most landlords will seek to pass this cost on to their tenants. Any rent increase might also reflect the higher costs of heating the apartment building's common areas.
How and when the rent can be raised depends on several variables. For rent-controlled buildings in the District, landlords can raise rent once every 180 days, or twice a year, but only if the owner files paperwork with the Housing Regulation Administration and is granted a rent ceiling increase. The owner's request can be based on a number of factors, for example an increase in the consumer price index or the need for capital improvements such as a new elevator or window replacements.
Some landlords regularly apply for rent ceiling increases without actually raising their tenants' rents and build up an inventory of rent ceiling adjustments. But they can use only one adjustment at a time, so that a tenant cannot be hit with a bunch of rent increases all at once. And landlords must give their tenants 30 days' notice each time they ratchet up the money.
In areas not subject to rent control, landlords usually can raise the rent on month-to-month tenants, or those signing up for another fixed lease term, as often as they choose and as much as they want. They determine rent increases by market value and generally must give at least 30 days' notice of an increase.
Renters in the middle of a lease term will not see an immediate increase, Kossow of KSI Management said. "As long as you're still under lease this year, it won't impact you now," she said. But when your lease comes up for renewal, you're likely to see a hike.
In some apartment buildings -- usually older buildings with units that are not individually metered -- the landlord uses a formula to divide up the total cost of a building's utility usage and bills each unit based on square footage and number of residents. Those renters will probably see the same 30 to 60 percent leap in utility costs, Kossow said.
In some fortunate cases, apartment building owners may have locked into a lower gas rate and residents who pay their utilities through their landlords may be temporarily spared a rise in utility costs.
"All of this is going to vary from company to company," Kossow said. "There are a number of different things that could happen."
All the possible scenarios make it useful for you to talk to your landlords about what they expect in terms of utility costs for this winter and how they plan to pass them to the residents.
My mother is trying to move to another apartment because hers is going condo. She has a limited income and bad credit. My sister pays her rent and will continue to do so. She is willing to sign or to cosign my mother's new lease, though my sister would not actually live with her. But when we tried to lease an apartment, the management said no to that arrangement. Any advice? -- Rockville
Try and try again. As long as your sister, or any other cosigner, has good credit and a good employment track record that could back your mother up, you should be able to get your mother an apartment.
If a landlord is iffy about renting to someone with bad credit and little income, make a case for yourselves by showing that the rent was paid in full and on time -- either by your sister or your mother or both -- in your mother's last apartment. In this situation, a prospective landlord would probably want some sort of proof that the real reason your mother needs to move is the condo-fication of her building and not that she is being evicted for nonpayment of rent. Also, any good reports from previous landlords about your mother's behavior and overall tenancy will help sway a landlord.
I have been living in my small apartment for almost five years. My lease expired in December and my out-of-town landlord forgot to have me sign a renewal, so I have been renting month-to-month. She now has written me that she wants to raise my rent starting in October and wants me to sign a new lease for at least six months, beginning in December. I make enough money now to either buy a place or rent a bigger apartment, but my job may have me being reassigned to somewhere else in the D.C. area, and I won't know for another month. Should I just go buy something, move or sign the six-month lease? -- Gaithersburg
You should rent for one month while you wait to hear about your job relocation; meanwhile, start looking at other apartments to rent and buy. You have nothing to lose by looking at your various options so that you can find something before having to sign a lease in December. Buying a condominium or cooperative apartment is something you should do only when you are ready, and in this case part of your readiness will depend on where your job takes you geographically.
While you begin doing your research on your rental and buying options, you could try negotiating with your landlord about keeping the lease month-to-month indefinitely, with you paying a higher rent, or about keeping the rent at the current price until you sign the new lease in December. It will not hurt asking for these concessions, especially if you are already thinking of moving.
If you have been a responsible tenant, your landlord might prefer to keep you in the apartment as long as she can, thereby eliminating having to look for and then take her chances on a new resident as well as having to fix up the apartment after your five years in it for someone new.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.