Electrical Problems

Tell us your tales of utility company woe and how you overcame them.

asks James, and so I will.

Years ago I moved to Liverpool to take up my first graduate job, and – like a lot of people in their early twenties who have just left university – I was spectacularly naive about renting a flat (student flats are a joint effort and renting them seems to be a lot different from when you’re on your own).  My first mistake on viewing a shitty, 1960s icebox on the top floor of a dreary brick building with a flat roof was not laughing and walking away.  My second mistake was not recognising an Economy 7 heating system and knowing they are worse than useless.  My third mistake was seeing there was no sofa and assuming I had to buy one myself, instead of telling the agent the landlord needed to buy one.  You get the idea.

Anyway, in my hurry and naivety I signed for the flat and collected the keys, and arrived for my first night quite late on a Sunday evening.  I walked in and found there was no electricity.  Fumbling around in the corridor I discovered the meter which confused me somewhat.  It didn’t look like the meters I was used to: this one had a strange slot by the LCD display, and a button beside the slot.  I pressed the button and the lights came on, but the display then showed a 24 hour countdown.  The next day I called the electricity company and they said it was a pre-paid meter and I would need to “build up a credit rating over the next 12 months”.  I said this was ridiculous, I had a good salary and mobile phone, credit card, etc. but I got the usual “tough shit” from what passes as customer service in the UK.  Anyway, I found I had to buy pre-paid tickets from a newsagent.

Only when I went to buy them I found I first needed a customer card, presumably so the power company could assign the purchases to a particular account.  Without one I wasn’t supposed to be able to buy the tickets, but the newsagent sold some to me anyway and advised I get a card ASAP.  I also found out that buying electricity using pre-paid tickets was far more expensive than on a normal meter.  It is ironic, but being poor is very expensive, and one of the reasons why climbing out of poverty is so damned difficult.  There are probably reasons related to administration costs why pre-paid electricity is more expensive than metered, but I did feel like the energy companies were fucking over the poor on this score.  Also, the button I pressed to get 24 hours of electricity was an emergency measure.  They billed the consumption at twice the normal pre-paid rate.  You can imagine how the unorganised poor are clobbered by this.

Somehow I got the prepaid card quite quickly, but by then I had taken advantage of the deregulation of utilities to switch providers.  Within a few days a different company had done what the first one refused to and sent a man out with a normal meter who installed it, taking the pre-paid one away.  So the immediate problem was solved.

The trouble was, I never got a bill.  I waited a few weeks and then called them, and they said they’d sent a bill out.  I asked them to send another and they did, but I never got it.  What I think was happening was every time I called up, the zombie on the end of the phone would immediately ask “what is your postcode” followed by “what is the number of the address”.  Being a bit dense myself, I would give them the flat number, not the street number common to the whole block of flats.  The call-centre zombie didn’t have permission to say “what is your address” and so the same error was made each time I called.  Eventually I figured this out and went to the house just up the street where I thought the bills would have been sent, but nobody was in.  So I called them up again and put them straight.  Only no bill arrived.

I was in that place about six months, and I eventually walked away leaving several months’ rent unpaid because the roof was leaking, the washing machine didn’t work, and the agency and landlord had “all agreed” I needed to fix everything in my own time and at my own expense.  The younger of my two brothers, who was himself a landlord at the time, gave me some good advice: just stop paying the rent.  When several months had passed he gave me some more: why don’t you just fuck off?  So I did, moving back to Manchester, and mailed the agents the keys and never heard from them again.

But despite my best efforts I still never received an electricity bill.  I’d called them enough times and I have no idea why one never came, so I just forgot about it.  Then two or three years later, late one evening somewhere around 9pm, a man called my mobile with a practiced, aggressive opening designed to throw me off balance.  Before I could say more than hello he said:

“You have an outstanding balance on your electricity bill of two hundred and seventy pounds, could you please tell me when you intend to pay it?”

I’m sharp when I need to be, and knew immediately what he was talking about.  “No,” I said.  “That’s not right.  I pay my bill on a monthly direct debit.”

He had a weak hand, but he tried to play it best he could.  “This is for a property in Liverpool,” he said then read out the address.

“Nope,” I said.  “I don’t live in Liverpool, I live in Manchester.”  I wasn’t going to do his job for him.

“Could you confirm your name and address?” he asked.

“No,” I said firmly.  “I have no idea who you are.”

“Okay, but can you confirm if you lived in Liverpool?” he said.  He was clutching at straws.

“Nope,” I said brightly, lying through my teeth.  “Never lived there.  I live in Manchester, sorry.  Bye!”

And that was that, I never heard from them again.  My conscience was completely clear: I’d given them every opportunity to send me a bill in a timely manner, and they’d screwed it up.  I wasn’t going to get stuck for a bill – half of which probably wasn’t mine – because of their incompetence.  And I knew that if they knew my current address they’d have sent me a letter, and the guy calling me represented their last throw of the dice.  If I refused to cooperate there wasn’t much they could do, or if there was, then they were going to have to do it without my help.

Part of my intransigence came from the experience I had buying the sofa.  I bought it on credit and was expected to make a monthly payment of £50 by direct debit, only the money never left my account.  Six months passed and suddenly I got a threatening letter through my letterbox about non-payment of monies owed and court summons, etc.  I wrote them back explaining they’d fucked up and the money had never been taken from my account by the loan company, and without a sniff of apology or acknowledgment they just helped themselves to £300 which I was fortunate to have (I’d been setting the money aside).

So when the electricity company made a similar blunder, I thought screw you, I’ve done everything properly on my side, if you send me a bill I’ll pay it but don’t expect me to make your job easier by answering questions when somebody calls me out of the blue.  Shortly afterwards I moved to Kuwait, and whatever minimal chances they had of catching up with me I left at immigration.

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14 thoughts on “Electrical Problems

  1. As I’m sure you know debt recovery companies buy those debts for a big discount then ring round to see if anyone is mug enough to pay up. If you deny owing them money they’ll give up after the first call. Not cost effective.

  2. RlJ,

    Yes, I guessed the guy who called me was from a debt collection agency and wasn’t representing the electricity company.

  3. I take out landlords insurance to protect me if a tenant were to skip rent like this.

    They didn’t have a leg to stand on: the appliances were not working and a council inspector had deemed the roof to be leaking and causing damp to spread mould through the apartment. My brother said once that inspection report went in, they’d never be able to sue for loss of rent, so just stop paying. I even said to the agent that he should ring a lawyer and say “Hey, our tenant is living in a flat which the council has condemned and the washing machine doesn’t work, and he’s stopped paying rent because of it. Will you take on our case?” The agent said “they already have” but of course he was lying: any lawyer would tell them to fix the issues. They also kept my deposit (understandably) but I was still ahead to the tune of 2 months’ rent.

  4. I find it difficult to understand how the utility companies can all be so piss-poor at administration; yet they are.
    Earlier this year I received a gas bill for a property I moved out of nearly a year before that. It was for over £1200, and I’d only lived there for six months, and away for much of that. Every time I called to query it, we went through the usual security stuff, and then they’d just read out the script that says that’s the final calculation, and that’s what I owe. (Thank goodness I had cancelled by direct debit when leaving that property, and hadn’t taken the same energy provider on to my new place.)

    Eventually I got it escalated, and the other week had an apologetic call from a bloke in an English call centre, to say that in fact not only did I not owe them £1200, but my account was actually in credit by £90, and could they refund that to me plus £50 goodwill. It’s not just irritating that I had to go through hassle to get there (though pleasing to get a result); but worse is that someone else (and particularly the elderly or vulnerable) could so easily have been bounced in to paying – or had taken from their account on a standing order – something so wildly inaccurate.

  5. “They didn’t have a leg to stand on”

    And that’s why I take out insurance because tenants have been known to take the law into their own hands and stop paying the rent, which is a clear beach of any tenancy agreement anywhere in the world making rental payments when due takes precedence over other all of their obligations. They simply cannot be allowed to arbitrarily decide to not pay rent as some kind of compensation for another related damage that they allegedly have suffered. This is a slippery slope and it starts with the tenant taking the law into his own hands. All my tenants are insured and they are all good guys but deep down inside they think that they know their rights and that is why I must insure to protect myself from this potential harm. I would have happily agreed to the matter you refer to being heard by and dealt with by the local tenants association complaints procedures.

  6. They simply cannot be allowed to arbitrarily decide to not pay rent as some kind of compensation for another related damage that they allegedly have suffered.

    They can and they do. As my brother pointed out, landlords are in the business to make money, and money is what they care about. If you really want their attention, stop paying. It’s the same with every other business and service.

    This is a slippery slope and it starts with the tenant taking the law into his own hands.

    It can also start with the landlord refusing to carry out his own obligations. Or taking the law into his own hands, as you put it.

    I would have happily agreed to the matter you refer to being heard by and dealt with by the local tenants association complaints procedures.

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten: the landlord had a rather large bill outstanding with them, too.

  7. The flat upstairs had a gas meter, but it had not used gas for something like 20 years, if ever, and had been locked off by British Gas. The flat in the basement used gas and paid their bills, they also used to get letters from BG addressed ‘to the occupiers’ demanding readings and payments. The occupant gave up explaining to BG that the meter did not exist and was not the one in their flat.
    One day a man from BG arrived with a bailiff to shut off the supply to the ground floor, we established that the meter in question was that in the top flat. The gasman said that trying to explain all this to ‘the office’ was just a waste of time, easier to just remove the meter and cap off the supply. Job done for him, and the top flat gained a square foot of otherwise unusable cupboard space, so everyone satisfied.
    But the bills for the non existent meter still kept coming, no gas ever having been used but several years of standing charges now running to hundreds of pounds. Eventually I sent the letters back to the bailiffs, “no name, no flat number”, sorry nobody here…

  8. “Ah yes, I’d forgotten: the landlord had a rather large bill outstanding with them, too.”

    Hence why I insure, there is nothing worse and more likely than not for some disgruntled scheming petite-bourgeois type mischievously trying one on with their “rich” Landlord.

  9. I’ve actually never had much in the way of problems with utilities. Generally they start billing me when I move in and stop when I move out. The worst thing that has happened was a letter stating that “As we have not obtained a meter reading, we have calculated your bill using an estimated reading” – the estimate being much higher than typical actual usage – followed by a letter a month later saying that “As your usage has increased, we will be increasing your monthly direct debit payments”. This was a scam (and the utility in question – SSE – was ferociously told off and fined by the regulator shortly afterwards for this scam and a couple of others) but one where you get your money back as soon as you give them an accurate meter reading.

    I have had some strange experiences with landlords though. Dear God have I had some strange experiences with landlords.

  10. Michael,

    To be fair, EDF takes a punt at what you’ll be using and bills you accordingly until they get a proper reading, and although overcharging you can be a pain a friend of mine was undercharged for a year and then they helped themselves to a grand when they read his meter. Either way, you get reimbursed or billed properly when they read the meter: I’m guessing SSE did it to increase their cashflow and/or boost short term performance so they can award themselves bonuses.

  11. Something like that. They were basically getting their customers to give them working capital at a zero interest rate.

    They had previous evidence of how much electricity I had regularly used due to a history of previous readings, but they then made a larger number out of thin air, and used a number that they had made up to justify the larger payments on the basis that “Your usage has increased”. The trouble was that they did this systematically to a lot of customers.

    As you say, I did get the money back when I asked for it.

  12. “I have had some strange experiences with landlords though. Dear God have I had some strange experiences with landlords.”

    That’s why the relationship needs to be defined in writing in order that the tenant has sufficient protection and it is clear what the Landlord is obliged to provide in exchange for a weekly rental fee.

  13. That implies a landlord that behaves in a logical and rational manner. And who responds to incentives. And collects the rent. When you don’t have these things, it gets harder.

    Consider: You move into a flat, and for a year or so things go fairly normally. The landlord is a bit cheap with respect to furnishing, repairs and maintenance, but a lot of them are.

    Then, you receive a letter from the old landlord stating that the building (which contains five or six flats rented to different tenants) has been sold, the new landlord is such and such a person (contact details provided) and that you should not pay any more rent to him, but to the new landlord, who will be contacting you and providing this information shortly.

    The new landlord does not contact you. When you reach the day when the rent is due, you start attempting to contact the landlord. Mostly, he doesn’t reply to voicemail or e-mail. You do speak to him on the phone once, in which you specifically ask him for the details of the bank account to pay him, and he says he will get back to you with that information soon (rather than giving it to you). He doesn’t get back to you. (Heaven knows what you do if you have maintenance or repairs outstanding in this time).

    After a number of months of this (in which you have not paid any rent because you have not been informed how), you receive a letter from the bank, stating that the building has been repossessed due to the fact that payments have not been made on the mortgage. A receiver has been appointed, and the receiver will be in contact with you shortly. The receiver will not allow you to pay the rent to them initially, because accepting it might establish a tenant/landlord relationship between you and them, and they don’t want the legal consequences of that. Meanwhile….

    That’s only about the first quarter of the story. It continues from there, and doesn’t get any less peculiar. And I have another story with a different landlord of about the same level of What the Fuck, although in an entirely different way. What the two stories have in common was that I moved into a building that was owned by someone vaguely competent, and the building was subsequently sold to someone who wasn’t.

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