Pay your utility bills, the German way
March 31, 2010
- Knowing how your German utilities are billed and calculated will save headaches
Think fast. How much extra pay are you receiving to cover your utilities while living in private rental housing here in Germany' Time's up. If you are a single Soldier, receiving overseas housing allowance at the "without dependent" rate the answer is Ac'A!302 per month and a Soldier receiving overseas housing allowance at the "with dependent" rate the answer is Ac'A!604 per month. Whoa! That's a lot of money. It's a lot of money even though German utilities are much more expensive than back home. So why are some Soldiers having to come up with hundreds (or even thousands) of euros at the end of their tours to cover "surprise" utility bills' The answer is because some of us are not "reconciling" our utility bills, the German way. If you live in private rental housing you must make yourself aware of how your utilities are getting billed and paid. "Utilities" include: cold water, sewage, trash, chimney sweeping, heating fuel, insurance and electricity. Get a copy of your lease and read it. You can probably scratch some of those items off your list of things you need to pay yourself because they are included in your rent. In Germany, unlike in the United States, utility companies only read the meter once per year. Then they simply take that number and divide by 12 to calculate an "estimated" monthly bill. Since each bill will be the same, they don't send it every month AcE+' you are expected to just pay it. At the end of the year, you and the company square-up through a process called "reconciliation." Upon moving into a new home, the monthly estimate is determined either by an amount you give the utility company or the usage of the occupant before you. That can make your first year in a new house a little scary. Consider this example. Let's say that a very frugal single person lived in your apartment before you. His electricity cost about Ac'A!50 a month. After you move in, if you don't tell the utility company that you are a family of six, you are going to get a monthly bill for the same Ac'A!50 a month your predecessor paid, even though you are using a lot more electricity. Then, one day you will get a "surprise" bill for all the "extra" electricity you used. This is the reconciliation. If your family of six used twice as much electricity as the single person, you might owe Ac'A!50 X 12 months = Ac'A!600. Ouch. It gets worse before it gets better. Many utility companies don't send over a "meter reader" even once a year. Instead, they mail a card to your German address and ask you to read the meter yourself and mail it back in. If you don't return that card, the utility company just keeps sending the same bill month after month until you get ready to move or PCS - then the housing office does a final meter reading and obtains the final bill. This final bill accurately measures all the electricity (or other utility) you've ever used at that location. If we go back to our example family of six and imagine that they never reconciled their electrical bill for an entire three-year tour, we can see that in order to "clear housing" they will need to pay the electric company for Ac'A!600 worth of extra electricity per year, for three years (Ac'A!600 X 3= Ac'A!1,800.) Triple ouch. Now it gets better. Only a little effort will spare you this rude reconciliation surprise. When asked "What should a Soldier do to prevent having to scrounge for money to pay utility bills," Rita Brunner of the Grafenwoehr housing office said, "Save some money." Brunner said Soldiers should set aside 80-100 euros each month and be prepared to reconcile their bill each year. Some may ask, "Save from what' The government is supposed to cover 100 percent of my expenses for private rental quarter." That's true. However, in almost all cases the Ac'A!604 is more than the sum of a family's estimated monthly utility payments, therefore creating the buffer that is needed to set something aside each month for annual reconciliation and thereby avoid end of the year bills. The second most important thing Soldiers can do, according to Brunner, is to save any bills that come to their German mailboxes. "Don't throw it out just because it's in German!" she said. If you need assistance understanding the bill, stop by your local housing office and ask to have the bill read to you. The bills look the same month after month, so you won't need a translator very often. Finally, it is important to reconcile each of your bills, every year, but especially the first year. Once you have an accurate usage for your particular family, your estimated monthly bills will be very close to what you actually owe and you will need to set aside much less to cover any shortfalls. This is especially important for families that are renting homes where filling oil tanks on a semiannual or annual basis is required. Gotta have heat right' If you don't know whether you will be responsible for filling your oil tank, check your lease or call housing. To end on a happy note, let me point out that it works the other way too. If you use less of a utility than estimated, the utility company pays you back. Also, everybody should be able to conserve enough heat, electricity and water to actually make money from the Ac'A!604 monthly allowance. Finally, if you have any questions regarding your bills or if you have been living in a private rental for more than a year without "reconciling" your utilities, assemble your bills and contact your local housing office for assistance. Editor's Note: Jess Hofberger is an administrative law attorney at the 7th Army Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.