Tenant Laws: Leasing

A lease is an agreement or contract between the landlord and tenant. All tenants have a lease whether it is written or oral. If you pay rent, you have a lease. The agreement you make with your landlord can be enforced in court. If you break the terms of your lease, your landlord must go to court to enforce the terms or to evict you.

Rule #1: Read your lease before you sign it!

Ask the owner to let you take the lease home and study it. Do not sign anything until you fully understand the commitment. Be sure to get help if you need it. The law requires landlords to use leases written in ordinary English. If a landlord offers you an older lease with lots of strange words, ask for a plain language lease.

Usually, the most important parts of a lease are typed in or written in by hand. Make sure you read and understand the parts of the lease that have been written by the landlord. Promises made by your landlord that are not included in the lease will be hard to enforce in court.

Included in the lease should be:

  • The term of the lease (whether it is one year or month-to-month)
  • The amount of the rent
  • Who is responsible for paying the utility bills
  • How much notice is needed when you are ready to move

Some lease terms cannot be enforced – the tenant cannot be made responsible for all repairs or repairs that cost under a certain amount of money. According to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Pugh v. Holmes, the landlord must maintain everything for which the tenant is paying rent. Similarly, the tenant cannot be made to take a house or an apartment as is. Regardless of any agreement you make with the landlord, it is the landlord’s responsibility to keep the property up to Housing Code Standards.

You cannot legally sign away your right to a decent place to live.

Before You Move In

Beware of “finders” or agencies that promise to find you a place for a fee.  These agencies do little that you cannot do yourself.  They usually offer listings of apartments which you can find yourself, and many of the apartments they list are already rented.  If you use a service make sure your fee is refundable if you do not find a place.

Title & Tax Status Report

Too often renters are scammed by people pretending to own properties they do not own. The hapless tenants only find out later that they gave substantial money to someone they may never see again.

Others move into properties for which taxes are not current and face a possible change in ownership and a new landlord after a tax sale which can extinguish their lease.

Foreclosure Status Report

Foreclosures are rampant all around the country and Philadelphia is no exception. Once a property is foreclosed upon the new owner must honor the tenant’s lease. However, any landlord can make continuing the tenancy a difficult challenge. In addition, landlords in foreclosure are frequently behind in other debts and fail to make timely repairs.

Rental License

Landlords in Philadelphia are legally required to obtain a license to rent a property before collecting any rent. This license is obtained by filing ownership and agency information with the City Department of Licenses and Inspections. The licenses process protects both tenants and the general public by making landlords accountable for their properties.

Even though landlords are not entitled collect rent without a license, some inexperienced or irresponsible landlords fail to get licenses as required.

Ask for a copy of your landlord’s rental license. Or you can call Department of Licenses and Inspections by dialing 311 in Philadelphia and find out if your landlord has a license.

Review the Housing Code Checklist

Make sure you give any home you are thinking of renting a thorough inspection.

Take along a copy of the Housing Code Checklist when you inspect the house or apartment.  Run the tap to see if the water is hot; try the lights; flush the toilet; open the windows; and watch for roaches or rodents.  If too many things are not working, you have probably found a landlord worth avoiding.

To be absolutely sure, call the Department of Licenses and Inspections by dialing 311 in Philadelphia to see if there are any Housing Code violations on the property.

Code Violations Report

Rental properties are legally required to meet minimum health and safety standards set forth in the local housing code. When they do not and a tenant complains to the city, an inspection is made and the code violations are recorded. These violations are not always promptly corrected, leaving a paper trail of neglect.

You can find out if the property you are planning to rent has outstanding violations on record with the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections. At the very least this will help you to know what repairs may need to be made before your move in. To get a free copy of any outstanding code violations on a rental property go to:

Department of Licenses & Inspections
1401 JFK Blvd.
Philadelphia, PA

Evaluate the Neighborhood

Neighborhood Safety – Before you sign the lease, see the place during the day and night. 

In real estate, location is everything. However, Landlords are not legally responsible for the quality of the neighborhood surrounding their properties. Whether or not a neighborhood feels safe varies from person to person based upon their expectations and past experience.

Nevertheless, objective data, like crime statistics can be helpful. Evaluate the relative safety of a prospective location prior to signing a lease.

Determine if the neighborhood is quiet and safe.  See if people living in the area seem friendly and neighborly.  This is your responsibility.  Ask neighbors about the landlord, repairs and why the last tenants moved out.  Think twice before renting a home from a landlord with a bad reputation.

Get receipts for any payments you make to your new landlord.

If you leave a deposit to hold the apartment or house, or if you pay for a security deposit towards the rent, get a receipt.  If you cannot get a receipt from the landlord, pay by check or money order and save the canceled check.

Get Everything in Writing

Make sure any promises that are made are put in writing.

Sometimes a landlord will promise to make repairs once you have moved in or after you sign a lease.  If your landlord promises new cupboards, clean carpets or new locks, type up the list and ask the landlord to sign it. If possible, take pictures.  By doing so, you are protecting yourself.  If something, like a refrigerator, is missing that was supposed to be included notify your landlord immediately in writing.

Security Deposits

A security deposit is money your landlord asks for before you can move into a property.  It is sometimes called escrow.  The purpose of the security deposit is to protect the landlord if the tenant damages the property or fails to pay rent owed the landlord.  The Security Deposit Law is part of the Landlord-Tenant Act.

Your landlord may not ask for a security deposit greater than two months’ rent for the first year of your lease and can only keep one month after that.

Sometimes a landlord will ask you to pay a security deposit plus the last month’s rent.  Even if this is what the landlord calls it, this last month’s rent payment is still part of your security deposit. After the first year of your lease, a landlord must return one of those month’s security if two were initially collected.

Your security deposit can be increased when your rent goes up during the first five years of your lease but not after that.

If you move out and leave a forwarding address your landlord must provide an itemized list of any deductions and return the balance of you deposit within 30 days. Your landlord can deduct for rent owed and for the repair of damage beyond normal wear and tear. If you do not hear from your landlord, you can sue in Municipal Court for twice your full deposit.

Landlord Fraud

The following are examples of possible Landlord Fraud:

  • The house or apartment is not ready at the time of move in
  • The house or apartment has been rented to someone else
  • The house or apartment has no heater or water
  • You are paying for someone else’s utility service
  • You paid rent to someone pretending to be the landlord who does not own the property

If you are in this situation, contact the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection. You should also contact the District Attorney’s Office. You also might be able to sue your landlord under the Unfair Trade Practices Act, but you should consider hiring a lawyer to do this.

Tenant Privacy

When you become a tenant, your landlord usually keeps a key to your house or apartment. If repairs are needed, or if there is a heating or plumbing emergency, your landlord needs access. Many written leases require you to give your landlord access to the property. But sometimes the landlord abuses the right to have a key. Even though access to the dwelling is necessary in an emergency, you have the right to privacy.

While state law gives no clear guideline for when a landlord can get access, the courts’ interpretation is that the landlord should give you at least 24 hours notice if he or she needs to enter your apartment to make routine or non-emergency repairs. These repairs should be made during normal business hours. The same principle applies if your landlord wants to show your home to people when you are getting ready to move.

If your landlord violates these guidelines, you may have to change your locks and not give your landlord a key. This could also be illegal sexual harassment. You should warn your landlord in writing.

BE CAUTIOUS ABOUT CHANGING THE LOCKS

If there is an emergency, and your landlord cannot get in, you may be liable for the damage caused by breaking down your door. You may consider getting a chain lock that prevents people from walking in unannounced while you are home.

Rent Increases

Unlike some cities, Philadelphia has no rent control. Tenants in Philadelphia have only a few ways to stop a rent increase. There is no limit on the amount of a rent increase your landlord can give you. But there are limits on when your landlord can raise your rent.  These protections are important, especially if your landlord does not make repairs.

Your landlord only can raise your rent by giving you advance notice – The notice should be given in writing.  If you have an oral lease or a month-to-month lease, your landlord must give you 15 days’ notice before raising your rent.  That is, to raise your rent on January 1, your landlord should give you a written notice on or before December 16.

Most leases which last more than one month are in writing.  If  you have a lease longer than one month, such as a yearly lease, there will probably be a clause in the lease that says how much notice your landlord must give before raising your rent.  Usually this will be 30 days, 60 days or 90 days before the end of your lease.  If there is no such clause, your landlord must give you at least 15 days’ notice. 

If your landlord does not give you enough notice, the rent increase is not legal.

The other protection tenants have is the Fair Housing Ordinance. This law says that your landlord cannot raise your rent if there are Housing Code violations in your home.  If you have received a rent increase and there are Housing Code violations, you should file a complaint with the Fair Housing Commission.

You must file in person.

Bring your lease, your landlord’s rent increase notice, and proof that you have paid your last three months’ rent (rent book, canceled checks, etc.).

Ending Your Lease

Everyone who is a tenant has a lease.

Some renters have written leases.  Others have oral leases.  If you ever paid money to live in your home, you are a tenant and have a lease. A lease is a contract.  It can be enforced in court.  The lease is binding on both you and your landlord.  It is important to end your lease correctly.  Because a lease is a legal contract, mistakes made could result in a trip to court.  Whether you are breaking your lease or moving out at the end of your lease, there are steps you should take to protect yourself.

Moving Out at the End of Your Lease

If you are moving out at the end of your lease, you must give your landlord proper notice.

The notice should be given in writing.  Keep a copy of your letter.  How much notice you need to give depends on what your lease says. If it is silent on this point state law applies. Under state law if you have an oral agreement, a written month-to-month or year to year lease, you need to give your landlord 15 days’ notice.  If you have a written lease that is longer than one year and nothing is specified, 30 days’ notice is required.

Some one-year leases become month-to-month leases at the end of the year.  But many leases automatically renew themselves for another year.  It is common for such a lease to require 60 or 90 days notice.  If you have such a lease and do not notify your landlord at least 60 or 90 days before the end of your lease, it may automatically renew itself for another year.

Moving Out Before the End of Your Lease

Leaving before the end of your lease can be dangerous.  For example, if you have a one-year lease and you move out two months early, a judge might agree that you owe two months’ rent. But if your landlord violates the terms of the lease, you have the right to move without paying more rent.

According to a case decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Pugh v. Holmes) all residential leases, written or oral, have an implied Warranty of Habitability. That is, even if there is nothing in writing, a landlord must maintain a tenant’s home in good repair.

Lead Poisoning Prevention

EXPOSED LEAD PAINT IS AGAINST THE LAW

Lead damages your brain.  It can hurt anyone but it is more likely to injure children under six. Because lead paint tastes sweet, children will eat it even when you are not looking. Lead poisoning also poses a serious risk to pregnant women. And lead is everywhere around us: dusty window sills, peeling paint chips, contaminated soil.

Lead poisoning in children can cause learning disabilities, behavior problems, impaired memory and reduced intelligence.

Philadelphia has a Lead Paint Disclosure Bill Poisoning Law, sponsored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown which attempts to ensures that rental properties that are to be occupied by children under six in the City of Philadelphia are certified as lead safe or lead free before being rented out. Landlords of these properties are be required to obtain certification stating that their property is lead-safe or lead-free before entering into a new lease with a tenant.

Despite years of progress, there are still more an estimated 2,700 children in Philadelphia each year who suffer the irreparable harm of lead poisoning because of exposure to deteriorated lead paint and lead dust in their homes.

Thousands more children, particularly low income and minority children, are at risk of lead exposure. In Philadelphia, more than half of these children are living with their families in rental units.

Be sure to check old windows and damaged walls for peeling paint.  Keep window sills clean and get a lead paint test kit from a local hardware store for a few dollars to see if you can find lead in your home.  If you do find lead, call your landlord right away or scrape and paint yourself.  Don’t wait for your child or a young visitor to get poisoned before taking action.

We must take the necessary measures to protect our children from lead poisoning and ensure that the home they live in will not cause them irreparable harm.

The Property Maintenance Code requires landlords to repair peeling or chipping paint of any kind. Federal and local laws also require landlords to notify you of any history of lead problems, but don’t rely on that.

If your landlord refuses to fix damaged walls or windows call the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections at 311 to get a free inspection.

Read the Philadelphia Lead Paint Law

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