Signing a Lease

When you move into an off-campus apartment you will be required to sign a lease.  A lease is a legally binding agreement between a property owner/manager, the “lessor” and a tenant, the “lessee.”  A lease can be either written or oral; generally speaking, once you have paid rent and have been given keys to access the premises you have a lease.  Oral leases can be valid for up to three years in the state of Pennsylvania, although it is much harder to prove the terms of the original lease. Despite this, you should always obtain a written lease for your off-campus apartment.

Landlords’ Promises/Warranty of Habitability

A lease is a legally binding contract to lasts for the time period specified in the document.  It is imperative that you read the whole document carefully. Once you sign the lease you are beholden to its terms.      

Lease obligations are binding for both the landlord/property manager and the tenant.  Leases exist to uphold that the renter agrees to pay a certain amount of rent for over a defined period of time, as well as abide by a set of rules the landlord or property manager has set forth. By creating and signing this document, the landlord/property manager agrees to prove you with a habitable unit. Every lease has an implied warranty of habitability, which states that the leased property is up to code and fit to live in and will remain so during the terms of the stated lease.

The warranty of habitability includes the following:

  • A structurally sound building
  • Waterproof roofs, ceilings and walls
  • Properly painted walls/woodwork
  • Adequate heat in the winder
  • Hot and cold running water
  • Properly running bathroom equipment
  • Functioning stove
  • Properly locking doors
  • Functioning lockable windows
  • A unit/building free from infestation
  • A unit/building that meets proper fire codes

When you visit a rental unit and submit an application to rent, the landlord may respond to your concerns about the condition of the apartment with promises to fix, clean, paint and replace worn appliances or cabinets.  The landlord may also make verbal commitments that contradict terms in the written lease such as lease length, pet and subletting.  Any verbal agreements are rarely enforceable, and it is important that you get the landlord or property manager to write them into the actual lease or attach them to a “lease rider”.

Any additional agreements added to the written contract are known as a “lease rider.”  If your lease has a rider make sure to read it carefully, as the terms of the rider supersede the terms of the original lease and can, in some cases, invalidate certain favorable terms in the lease (e.g. subleasing, repairs, fees and penalties and so forth).

Illegal Clauses

As a tenant, you are protected by certain rights whether they are written into the lease or not.  Some of those rights you can waive and others are unwaivable. If a lease asks you to waive any unwaivable rights, those portions of the agreement will be deemed illegal clauses and will not be enforceable by the landlord or property manager. The presence of illegal clauses in your lease will not negate the entire contract; rather, those portions will be subject to “severability.” That means that only those specific parts will be struck out of the agreement.  Some basic unwaivable rights as outlined in the Landlord Tenant Act of 1951, the “Warranty of Habitability” (1978) and the Philadelphia City Council Ordinance of 1987, include:

  • Right to fair housing (freedom from discrimination because of membership in a protected class)
  • Right to quiet enjoyment of home
  • Right to privacy
  • Right to a safe, habitable place (a place conforming to the local housing code standards); the landlord is responsible for all repairs due to normal wear and tear and cannot make the tenant take the unit “as is”
  • Tenant’s possessions cannot be seized if tenant breaks premises in the lease
  • The tenant cannot be prohibited from representing himself or herself in court or from suing the landlord
  • The tenant cannot be asked to relieve the landlord from all responsibility for damage or physical injury if it can be proved that the property owner/manager was negligent.  Both the landlord and tenant are responsible for their own negligence

Lease Renewal/Termination

All leases are for a finite time period, after which it can either be renewed or terminated.  When signing a lease for the first time it is imperative to take note of the renewal clause and proper termination notice. Some leases terminate at the end of the term, others go to a month-by-month schedule, while others still automatically renew unless a termination notice is received by a specified date. It is important to take note of your renewal terms so that you are not stuck in a lease you do not need or require for another year.

If you do not wish to renew your lease, you are required to send a formal written ‘notice of termination’ to your landlord. It is important to send a formal written notice via certified mail so that it cannot be disputed by the landlord or property management company. Make sure to send the written notice prior to the renewal deadline, otherwise you could face financial penalties or possibly be legally bound to your lease for another year.