Home Sweet Home: All About Leases and Landlords

If you’re going to rent an off-campus residence, either alone or with roommates, MAKE SURE YOU ALL UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE GETTING INTO. A lease, whether written or verbal, is a legal contract. You have rights and responsibilities, and so does the landlord.

Your Rights
Federal law protects you from discrimination in housing. This means landlords can’t refuse to rent to you, under the same terms as anyone else, because of your race, color, religion, gender, national origin, or physical disability. In some places, local law also protects you from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

There are some places in Pennsylvania where local zoning ordinances prohibit groups of “unrelated” persons from living in rental units in certain parts of town. These laws were written to keep students out of some neighborhoods and have held up in Pennsylvania courts. For more information on fair housing, contact the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission at www.phrc.state.pa.us or the state Attorney General at attorneygeneral.gov. Students with disabilities who want more information about what they are entitled to under the law may consult the PHRC site at www.phrc.state.pa.us

Inspect It!
If you find a place where you might want to live, it’s your job to check it out completely. You can’t rely on the landlord or the landlord’s agent to tell you if anything is wrong with the property.

Things to look for:

If you spot a problem, ask the landlord or agent if it will be corrected. If you don’t want the place unless those items are addressed, ask them to write the items into your lease, and guarantee that they’ll be fixed before you move in. Then make sure that they have been corrected before you move in.

Some communities in Pennsylvania have officials who inspect and certify the health and safety conditions in rental units, and some don’t. Ask the owner or rental agent for the name of the city, borough, or township.

You can call the municipal office to find out if they inspect rental units. If they say yes, you can give them the address and find out if your place passed inspection.

Most places will be occupied when you look at them, which makes it difficult to spot problems. An apartment might look like a dump because it needs repairs, or it might look like a dump because the people living there are slobs.

The Fine Print

Once you find the place you want, in addition to “How much is the rent?” you should ask the owner or rental agent some basic questions:

What is included in the rent (utilities, parking, furniture, appliances)?

If you have a parent or someone else who will help you with the lease, get a copy and review it with them. Some landlords who rent to students will ask the parents to co-sign. When this happens, the co-signers can be held responsible for any lease violations committed by you or your roommates.

Choose Roommates with Care
Make sure you know and trust anyone with whom you will share a rental space. Besides the obvious problems of living with the roommate from hell, YOU COULD BE HELD RESPONSIBLE for unpaid rent, damages, or other lease
violations committed by your roommate(s).

Commonly, residential leases make you and your roommates “tenants in common,” which means you are all equally responsible for everything in the lease contract - and means that YOU could get kicked out if you paid your share of the rent and your roommate didn’t.

The Lease
The lease is a legal agreement between you and the landlord for renting a
property. NEVER SIGN ANY LEASE BEFORE READING IT CAREFULLY. The lease can be oral (spoken) or in writing. If written, ask for and get a copy of the signed lease.

All leases should say: who the tenant and landlord are, the location being rented, the amount of rent and when it’s due, whether a security deposit was paid and if so, the amount, the length of time that the property is being rented (month-to-month or year-to-year) and who pays the utilities.

Make sure that all blanks are filled in or crossed out of the lease and that all changes are made before signing. EVERY agreement between you and the landlord must be put in the lease, including any promises by the landlord to make repairs.

Pennsylvania law requires that written leases and most other contracts be in plain language, which means they shouldn’t have a lot of technical terms, Latin phrases, or complicated sentences.

If you don’t understand something in the lease, ask for clarification.

The Security Deposit
During the first year of a lease, the amount of a security deposit cannot exceed two months rent. Beginning with the second year of a lease, a landlord cannot retain a security deposit of more than one month’s rent. Any security deposits greater than $100 held by a landlord must be placed in a bank in escrow.

Existing Damages
In order to avoid being blamed for damages that are there when you move in, take every step for self-protection. Before moving in, or the day you are moving in, make a list of all existing damages and repairs that need to be made. A copy of the list should be presented to the landlord and attached to the lease. If possible, take date stamped photographs and give copies to the landlord right away. Some landlords will “walk through” the place when you move in and record existing damage. Some will even take photos or a videotape. If they do, ask for copies and keep them for your records.

Changing the Lease
Any lease, written or oral, may be changed or modified if both landlord and tenant agree to the change. Some changes don’t require agreement from both parties. The landlord is permitted to make new rules and regulations after the lease goes into effect, but only to address the health of the tenants and the safety of the premises.

Written leases may explain how changes in the lease can be made--for example, the lease might say any changes must be in writing and signed by both the landlord and the tenant. In year-to-year leases, there is often a clause that states changes can be made after giving one month’s notice. READ YOUR LEASE CAREFULLY and if you don’t understand it, ask before you sign. Make sure you get receipts each month to prove you paid your rent.

To change an oral lease - or a written lease which does not say how changes are to be made - notice of a change must be given in writing, telling what change is desired and when it will take effect. Any change in the lease should take place at the beginning of a “new term.” This means that, in an oral, month-to-month lease, the landlord must give the tenant the notice at least one full rental period (in this case, one month) before the change is to take place.

Written leases generally say who is responsible for different kinds of repairs. If the tenant has an oral lease, or a written lease that does not state who is responsible for repairs, the general rule is that the landlord is responsible for all major repairs and repairs necessary because of normal wear and tear. If the tenant caused the damage, the tenant may be responsible for repairing the damage. However, some leases prohibit tenants from doing any repairs or remodeling. In that case, the landlord can repair damage caused by the tenant and the tenant will be charged for the repair. You should keep records of any damages that are charged to you - or that you think will be charged to you.

When repairs are needed, it’s OK to phone the landlord to say what is wrong, but you should also put it in writing. Give the landlord a chance to make the repairs. If you have trouble getting the landlord to make repairs, you can:
Call the municipal office where you live and see if there is a code enforcement officer who can look at damage, you can terminate the lease and move out, or
arrange to have the repairs made yourself by a reputable repair person and deduct the cost from the rent. This procedure can be tricky if done without the landlord’s agreement.

Recent law in Pennsylvania gives the tenants more rights to stop paying some or all rent if the landlord does not make necessary repairs. Under the new “implied warranty of habitability” law, if the landlord fails to keep the premises in a reasonably fit condition, this may relieve the tenant from his obligation to pay part or all of his rent until the landlord corrects the situation. The law applies to both oral and written leases. “Necessary repairs,” in general, would be anything needed to correct substantial housing code violations. However, the law is very specific about how you can and can’t use this option. It is strongly recommended that you consult a lawyer before withholding rent.

The landlord is permitted to enter your premises at reasonable times (normally daylight hours) to inspect or to make repairs. He or she should notify you first.

Time to Move
You should check your lease, if there is a written one, and see if you must give notice before moving out. If the lease says nothing about giving notice, you are not required to do so if you move out when the lease runs out.

In college towns, it is common for landlords to show apartments and take leases for the upcoming year well in advance of the end of the current lease period. If you want to renew your lease, you should discuss it with your landlord as soon as possible. Under the new law of “implied warranty of habitability,” if a landlord refuses to make necessary repairs, you may, after proper notice, break the lease before it runs out. It is strongly recommended that you consult a lawyer before you exercise this option.

The rental unit should be left in the same condition as when you moved in. You may be held responsible for damages that you caused. You should take pictures of the property before leaving as a way of proving in what condition you left it. You should also return the keys to the landlord and ask for written proof that you returned the keys and left a forwarding address.

To get your security deposit back, give the landlord or his/her agent a forwarding address in writing at or before the time you move out. The landlord must, within 30 days from the date you move out return the security deposit, or
send you a list of damages the landlord says you caused in the apartment, the cost of repairs, plus any extra money left over from the security deposit.

If you lived in the place for two years or more, after the second anniversary of the lease you are entitled to receive annual interest on all funds over $100
deposited with the landlord. The landlord is allowed to keep one percent per year of your deposit as administrative expenses.

If the landlord does not return the security deposit or does not provide the written list of damages within 30 days, you can sue the landlord for double the security deposit by going to a district justice’s office and filing a complaint against the landlord where you may sue to recover the full amount of the security deposit and the landlord cannot raise any defense or counterclaim for damages to the property, or you can sue for double the amount of the security deposit, but in this case, the landlord may counterclaim for damages to the property, up to the amount of the security deposit. In either case, the district justice will set a hearing date and you should show up prepared to show that the rent was paid (by showing receipts) and that the keys and the written forwarding address were given to the landlord when you moved out.

Uh, oh. Eviction
The landlord can evict you if the rental term of your written or oral lease is over, or you are behind in your rent, or if you have violated some clause in the lease.

The landlord needs no reason to evict you if you were given proper notice at the end of the term. The legal method for a landlord to evict a tenant is The Eviction Notice. The landlord must give you written notice of the reason for the eviction and the date the landlord wants you to leave.

Caution: if you have a written lease, read it carefully to see whether you have given up the right to receive this eviction notice. The eviction notice should be personally delivered to you or posted on the dwelling, not sent in the mail.

A written lease might say how many days notice must be given by the landlord before the landlord can evict. If the lease does not state how notice is required, the general rule is: If the term has ended, or if the landlord claims you have breached the lease, the landlord must give you 15 days notice if the lease is for less than one year and 30 days notice if the lease is one year or more. If you are behind in the rent, the landlord needs to give only 10 days notice.

If you are not out of the property by the end of the eviction notice period, the landlord can’t just throw you out. The landlord must follow the procedure through the district justice’s office, explained below.

The landlord files a complaint with the district justice. A constable serves a copy of the complaint or tapes it to your door. You also get a copy in the mail. The complaint says that a hearing will be held at the district justice’s office on a particular day and time. The complaint always requests possession of the property and may ask for back rent or damages as well. If you have a claim to file against the landlord, your “counterclaim” may be filed before the hearing. Both the complaints will be heard at the same time.

The Hearing
At the hearing, both you and the landlord present your case. You may hire a lawyer to help you. You may bring papers, pictures, other evidence or witnesses to support your case. If the landlord wins the case, he or she will get a judgement for possession and you must move out. If you win, you may stay. The district justice may also decide whether the landlord or you owes the other money. If you don’t go to the hearing, the landlord wins by default.

If you do not agree with the decision, you have 30 days to appeal the case to the county court. If this happens to you and you got this far without a lawyer, you are going to need one at this point.

If the landlord wins a judgment for possession against you, he/she can enforce it through the local constable. The process takes at least 30 days. If you aren’t out by the deadline, the constable or sheriff can remove you and your possessions from the rental unit. Your belongings could be dumped outside or taken to a storage facility and you would have to pay the storage fee to get them back.

Your landlord cannot kick you out by telling you to move right away, changing locks, shutting off electricity, or any other “self-help” method other than the one outlined above. He/she cannot keep your belongings or sell them to pay back rent. If unpaid rent is the only reason for eviction, you can stop the process by paying the rent due, plus court costs, at any time before the constable comes to the door to put you out on the street. This won’t work, however, if your landlord also got a judgement against you for other lease violations.

Go to attorneygeneral.gov/uploadedFiles/Consumers/landlord_tenant_act.pdf
for the complete text.

Cover Your Stuff
Some landlords, and some leases, say you have to have tenants’ insurance. Even if they don’t say it, it is a good idea. Your landlord’s insurance probably will not replace your stuff if the building is damaged or destroyed. In some cases, a student’s possessions may be covered by the parent’s homeowner’s insurance.