QUESTION: We sold our house in the District of Columbia over a year ago, and the title attorney handling settlement escrowed $200 from our sales proceeds, presumably to pay the final water bill. Despite several calls and letters to the attorney, we have not received any portion of this escrow money back. What can you suggest?

ANSWER: Water bills are a perennial headache in the District of Columbia. In fairness to the government, the bills are coming out much more rapidly now than in previous years--but the lead time is still rather long. It can be as much as four to six months from the date the final water reading is ordered.

In Maryland and in the District of Columbia, the water bill is a lien on real estate. This means that, if the bill is not paid, the governmental authority that provides water services can sell the house to satisfy any unpaid charges.

Needless to say, when you sold your house, your buyer wanted a clean title--without any outstanding liens. Because water is a lien on the property, the title attorney properly escrowed funds to make sure that the water bill would be paid.

In Maryland, it takes two to three weeks to get the final bill from the Water, Sewer and Sanitary Commission (WSSC). However, as indicated earlier, it takes a much longer time in the District of Columbia.

This does not mean, however, that you should sit back and do nothing. The title attorney (or settlement company) conducting settlement has an obligation to follow through on the outstanding water bills, not only to close his accounts on the settlement transaction, but to disburse all of the funds which he is holding in escrow. It is my understanding that title attorneys and settlement companies are holding thousands of dollars (if not more) in their water escrow accounts.

Contact the settlement attorney and insist that he follow through immediately on the water bill problem. I have learned that, when you put a little pressure on the appropriate District government official in charge of the water bill, a bill will be issued soon.

You also might want to use this opportunity to get in touch with your local City Council member, with a view toward having the Council of the District of Columbia (the city's legislative body) review the entire situation. The council should determine whether, in fact, water bills should be a lien on the property.

Bills from other utilities--such as gas and electricity--are not liens, and I suspect that the utility companies are surviving without this additional protection.

In Virginia, the water bill is not a lien on the property, and we have heard very few complaints from our neighbors across the river regarding the collection of these water bills.

One year is a very long time for the title attorney to hold the funds in escrow. Although there may be justification for this long delay, you should put a little pressure on the attorneys to make sure that they are following through in their efforts to obtain a final bill.