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Signing a Lease

Things to consider before signing a lease

Understanding Your Lease

The language used to describe the terms of a lease can be confusing and sometimes requires clarification. Before you sign a lease, it's advisable to discuss the terms of the lease with your landlord. You need to understand what you are agreeing to in the lease and have the rights to ask questions about the terms and conditions of the lease.

 Tenants are Jointly and Severally Responsible

A lease will specify who the two parties signing the contract are. If several tenants sign a lease together, they are jointly and individually responsible for the fulfillment of the terms of the lease. If a roommate leaves earlier or does not pay rent, the landlord can pursue the remaining tenant (s) for the entire lease.

Renewal Clauses

In Pennsylvania, a lease can have an automatic lease renewal clause. Leases can automatically renew for one year or even one month. The end of term notice included in the lease specifies the amount of notice required in order to terminate the lease on the stated date or to change the terms of the lease. In most cases, the notification time is (60) days, but this can vary and can be as much as (120) days notice. To terminate your lease, you will need to give written notice within the specified time frame within your lease agreement.

Rent Increase

There is no rent control in Philadelphia. A landlord can increase rent by any amount they decide. The landlord cannot raise the rent in retaliation for the tenant exercising their rights. The landlord cannot increase the rent when there are housing/code violations on the premises.

Access to Premises

A landlord must always have access to the premises. In emergency situations, the landlord can enter without notice. For routine inspections/ repairs or showing the apartment, after the tenant has given notice of lease termination, a lease will require the landlord to give 24- hour notice.

Possession of Premises

A lease will specify if a unit is not ready for occupancy because of reasons beyond the landlord's control, the tenant has two options; they can either wait until the unit is ready ( and not pay rent) or can terminate the lease and get the money back. The landlord is not obligated to pay for storage or hotel accommodations.

Security Deposit

A security deposit is an amount of money retained by the landlord and held in escrow for the duration of the lease term. It is used for any damages done to the property during the tenant's occupancy. A  tenant cannot use the security deposit as a rent payment.

According to Pennsylvania security deposit guidelines; a landlord can charge an amount up to or equal to two month's rent as a security deposit in the first year of the lease. After the first year, the landlord can only hold a security deposit equal to one month's rent and must return to the tenant the amount exceeding one-month rent. At the beginning of the third year, the deposit must be placed in an interest-bearing escrow account. At the end of the third year and every year thereafter, the landlord must remit the interest to the tenant

In order to protect  your security deposit and not get charged for damages you did not incur, take the following precautions:

  • Inspect your unit carefully upon move-in. Be sure to complete a move-in inspection report and have you and your landlord sign and keep a copy. You don't want to be charged for damages already in existence.
  • Before you move-out, perform a similar inspection and draw up a list similar to the one used at move-in. Document all damages, including normal wear and tear. Make sure you clean the apartment even if you did not find it clean when you moved in. The initial list and final list should differ only in terms of normal wear and tear. You are responsible for damages due to misuse, abuse, and negligence.
  • Make sure you have given proper notice of termination and provided the landlord with written notification of your forwarding address
  • Provide a forwarding address to the landlord. This will ensure that your security deposit or a written disposition of any charges and deductions from your security deposit reaches you.

The landlord has thirty(30) days to return the security deposit to you after the termination of the lease. If the security deposit is not returned because of claimed damages, cleaning fees, unpaid rent or other charges, the landlord must supply you with an itemized list of deductions and the remainder of the deposit, if any.

If the landlord does not communicate with you in writing within the thirty(30) day period required by law they forfeit the right to withhold any money for damages or cleaning. If proven the landlord did not send out your security deposit disposition within the thirty (30) day period, you are entitled to receive double the amount of your security deposit. The landlord can still withhold back rent and/or unpaid utilities. If the landlord does communicate with you within the indicated time frame, but you do not agree with the list of damages or the amount of money they are withholding, write a letter to your landlord, mail it certified; return receipt requested, contesting the charges and requesting the immediate return of the money withheld.

 Signing the Lease

 You will be required to sign a lease which is a legally binding agreement between a property owner/manager, the “lessor” and a tenant, the “lessee” that lasts for the time period specified in the document.  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.  It is always best to have a written lease. 

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.  It is imperative that you read the whole document carefully because once you sign the lease you are beholden to its terms.     

Landlords’ Promises/Warranty of Habitability

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.

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 the 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

The City of Philadelphia

The City of Philadelphia also has the following requirements for rentals:

Housing Rental Licenses are required for any type of housing rental. The landlord must renew the license annually.

The Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code (Section PM-102.6.4) requires residential property owners to provide new tenants with a copy of the "City of Philadelphia Partners for Good Housing" brochure and supplement issued by the Department of Licences and Inspection. 

Residential property owners must also provide tenants with a Certificate of Rental Suitability no more than (60) days prior to residence. This certificate should state that properties have obtained all required rental inspections and do not have any critical code violations.

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