Cold weather has arrived, and with it an electric bill that reaches almost $700 every two months at Denise and Roger Bieberstein’s rental home in Spanaway.
They believe their furnace is using most of the electricity. They keep their thermostat at 62 degrees, because if they set it higher, the furnace runs constantly. They use a space heater in the living room and bedrooms only when they’re in the rooms.
“It’s like I live in a fridge,” Denise Bieberstein said in mid-November. “As soon as the furnace goes off, it’s cold.”
The Biebersteins moved into their rental home a year ago and have had an average of two maintenance issues a month since then. But a request they made shortly after moving in still is unresolved: Please figure out why the home won’t stay warm.
The couple believe the single-pane aluminum frame windows are the biggest culprit, along with inadequate insulation. But they can’t rule out furnace problems, because their landlord hasn’t sent a qualified technician to evaluate it.
The Biebersteins’ landlord, national rental home company Invitation Homes, issued a statement Monday in response to more than a dozen specific questions regarding this tenant’s situation and the company’s overall policies. The company answered none of those questions. The statement read, in full:
“Invitation Homes is committed to providing each resident with unparalleled service for any maintenance issue. Each resident is supported by a Portfolio Operations Director that is responsible for a small operating team to build a positive resident relationship, monitor and quickly address all maintenance requests. All maintenance requests are responded to within a few hours and maintenance technicians are scheduled to meet the timing needs of the resident, including night and weekends, to best resolve any outstanding issues.”
Renters facing high utility bills is a constant issue, though advocates for renters believe it’s unfair. Renters are responsible for the utility bills, but they can’t make changes to the property that could lower those bills.
Renting old houses where the landlord doesn’t make improvements that would save tenants money “is entirely too common,” said Laurie Davenport, director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association’s Volunteer Legal Services program. Lawyers there handle cases involving the state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act all the time.
The landlord must ensure the home is habitable, she said. “Renting an unimproved house with minimal insulation is unfortunately very, very common,” she said, “as is the amount of the winter heating bill under the circumstances.”
COUNTY’S LARGEST LANDLORD
The Biebersteins moved into the home on 38th Avenue East in November 2013. They were in a hurry: Their last home, also a rental, had a major water leak.
The Spanaway home looked good. Built in 1973, it had new carpet and paint. It was about to have a new two-car garage.
Invitation Homes had bought it in June, just months earlier. Invitation Homes is a subsidiary of national private equity firm The Blackstone Group. In the past two years, Invitation Homes has spent billions of dollars buying homes across the country. The company then created and sold securities based on the value of the rental income.
Invitation Homes started snapping up properties in Pierce County early last year. It now owns around 1,000 properties, making it the county’s largest landlord of single-family homes.
The company purchased the house on 38th Avenue East for $132,950 from the Veterans Administration, which foreclosed on the previous owner.
The Biebersteins signed a two-year lease for $1,450 a month.
The Spanaway home was built in 1973. It’s a split-level, with three bedrooms, 21/2 baths, and single-pane aluminum frame windows.
Single-pane windows haven’t met county building code for decades, said Rick Hopkins, a building official for Pierce County’s Building and Land Use Department. “Everything is double-paned now,” he said. Plus, the requirements for insulation are much higher.
The Biebersteins said work on the property was happening even as they moved in, though none of it on windows or insulation. The biggest project was bringing back a two-car garage, which a previous owner had converted to living space.
Maintenance logs on the home maintained online by Invitation Homes show the Biebersteins complained in January, just six weeks after moving in, about a lack of insulation in the garage, particularly along the wall shared with the living room. They thought that was the cause of the home’s inability to hold heat.
It turns out that the entire garage lacked insulation. The problem was fixed, Denise Bieberstein said, only after she complained to Keith Calvert, then Invitation Homes’ regional president.
The maintenance logs show the next complaint was almost three months later, in late March.
“Resident says the house stays really cold,” the log reads. “She is not sure if the problem is with the furnace or the fireplace. The heater comes on every 15 minutes or so and is set at 62 degrees. The fireplace flue does not seem to open and close properly. She would like to have both of these things checked to find out why it is so cold in the house. Her electric bill has been over $600 for the last two months.”
A month later, in April, the company sent a crew that the Biebersteins thought was going to inspect the electric furnace. People arrived at the home and told Denise Bieberstein that they weren’t qualified to inspect the furnace. They told her that the five windows on the west side of the home had failed, and that they felt cold air and saw moisture on the inside of the windows.
This crew, the Biebersteins said, recommended window replacement. They took pictures and measurements. When Roger Bieberstein called two weeks later to follow up, a property manager called back.
“She told us we took the home ‘as-is,’ and that there would be no window replacements even if we called the regional vice president,” Denise Bieberstein said.
The couple began complaining again at the beginning of November. While they waited for a response, they bought kits of plastic sheeting to install in front of the windows as a way to further insulate. Before they installed the plastic, they occasionally found ice on the inside window sills.
The Biebersteins keep a squeegee in their bedroom window so they can remove condensation from the windows every morning. They work hard to keep the moisture at bay, but mildew crops up regularly.
On Nov. 20, a new property manager came to the home.
“She saw the plastic,” Denise Bieberstein said. “She thought she had two different situations. She thought the furnace wasn’t working as well.”
Four days later, the property manager called and said the windows are in good shape. If the Biebersteins are cold, she said, they need to keep their thermostat at 68 degrees.
“My husband said, ‘If I do that, I’ll have a $2,000 electricity bill!’ ” Denise Bieberstein said.
State law requires only that a landlord provide a functional heating system. In other words, the furnace just needs to work. It’s not relevant if it’s on all the time.
“If a landlord thinks they can rent the house without providing insulation, they’ll do that,” said Elizabeth Powell, an attorney in Tacoma who has done volunteer legal work on behalf of tenants for 15 years. “Because they’re not required to do anything more.”
The Biebersteins are figuring out what to do next.
Tacoma Public Utilities has a program that provides new windows and insulation, with the permission of the landlord, if tenants meet a certain low monthly income threshold. The couple wouldn’t qualify.
They’re considering another call to Invitation Homes’ regional president. They’re also looking into whether their two-year lease is enforceable. State law requires a lease longer than a year to be notarized. Their lease is not, so legally it’s considered month-to-month, Powell said. That means they could give notice and move out.
Finding a home not owned by Invitation Homes might be a challenge. Roger Bieberstein said that when they last looked, the company was their only choice.
“Every home we looked at, no matter if it was listed in Zillow or whatever, was managed by them,” he said. “They are everywhere.”