Saturday 22 June 2024

The Domestic black hole of renting a residential property

Does renting have to end up in a Holy War between landlords and tenants?  UP IN ARMS activist Patricia Graham has “Something to Say” about the rental situation in Malta as she attempts to clear up a lot of misconceptions


Four, five times a week, I get letters from tenants and landlords alike, free falling into the black hole of the Domestic utility rate.

Tenants who are on the receiving end of €5000 plus utility bills and landlords whose properties are faced with disconnection, due to such bills.

Let’s get some facts down.

The ‘Domestic’ rate for utilities is linked/applied solely to secondary properties.  Example: summer homes and rarely used properties (please note the phrase rarely used properties.)  The ‘Domestic’ rate is not and should not be used in properties where someone lives year in and year out, with residential consumption.

Just because a Maltese national’s name is on the bill does not automatically imply the residential rate.  Currently that has to be applied for via ARMS Ltd Form H.  This is not a change in the name on the bill but simply a registration of the tenants residing in the property and there is no charge connected to it.

Unlike residential bills, which come every 2/3 months, the Domestic rated property bills come far less frequently; in some instances once a year. On a property rarely used, that could be found acceptable.  In situations where there are tenants on a long let, the landlord sometimes presents the tenant with a hand written bill, normally done via the ARMS calculator.

Should tenants be obliged to pay these amounts?

Would we pay any other bill without an actual bill?

In how many instances would we pay a bill that didn’t have our name on it?

It usually takes tenants a few months to realise that the utility rate on their property is excessive and that’s when the deerstalker and magnifying glass come out and they eventually find the ‘flaw’. They are indeed, in some instances, paying almost double.  The heels dig in, and the refusal to pay starts the journey into the black hole.

There is very little help for those free falling down into the darkness.  They are living in their primary residence, absolutely 100% entitled, as decreed by ARMS to the residential rate, yet paying the rate for a second home! Known by the very misleading term, “Domestic”!

The darkness continues as they, the tenant seeks legal advice and finds most experts do not have a clue about the situation. Cue the ‘deer in the headlights look.’ It is much easier to give legal advice to the landlord on “unpaid bills”, where no explanation is needed.

If the situation wasn’t bad enough it is about to get a whole lot worse.

The alarm bills start ringing when you go to pay another bill via online banking, and find your worst nightmare.

A hack?

Fraudulent behaviour?

Credit card stolen?  You check another account.

Palpitations, nausea, fear.  You call the bank, to be told your accounts have been ‘garnished’!  Darth Vader has struck!

As much as the rules surrounding garnishee orders require only the amount garnished to be held, and that the person being garnished be left with enough to live on, that is hardly important in most of these situations.  A signature on a form is just so much easier and cost effective.

The law in respect of garnishee orders, is rarely adhered to, too much like hard work, so the tenant finds bank accounts in full frozen with no immediate recourse.  I say no immediate recourse because the tenant has to first find an expert willing to investigate and understand the problem.  Most will blame ARMS and tell you to take it up with them, but as a tenant on the domestic rate, not registered at a property, you-do-not-exist in the eyes of ARMS Ltd.

Very few will lay any blame with the landlord who, on deciding to rent a property didn’t see any further than the cash. (Most don’t accept bank transfers etc). Landlords who don’t realise that it is their responsibility to inform the tenants of the utility rates.

Very few will blame the agents and the agencies who do know of this situation, but informing tenants of the Domestic rate versus the residential rate “is not within their remit”.

Very few will blame the management companies because they don’t want to bother their owners with this 50% more on utilities cost “trivia” and would rather sit behind a desk accepting ‘cash payments only’.

We could all blame a certain gentleman who bequeathed us with all this mess, but that would just be a waste of breath.

No they will all blame the tenant for not being aware (like they are) of the many corrupt, discriminatory, criminal, illegal connotations of renting a property in Malta.

Meanwhile back at base camp ARMS and Enemalta have their own black hole of debt, but how much of that is accurate?  How much of the monies owed to the companies is legitimate billing?  How much of that alleged debt is made up of tenants who absolutely point blank refuse to be ripped off any longer?  Let’s face it, ARMS know about this injustice, in fact you could say that they encourage this behaviour, but I don’t see anyone hitting them with a garnishee order.