Leases: What You Sign Is What you Get
Under the “Plain Language Document Law”, approved by the Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, leases must be easy to read and understand. Copies of a model lease which complies with the law are available through the Residential Services Office in Rathbone Hall.
What is a lease?
A lease is a contract in which one party permits the other to occupy and use certain premises in exchange for payment of rent. The terms of a lease are openly agreed upon at the beginning of tenancy. The lease must include a use, occupation, or possession clause for the tenant. A lease involves the transfer of interest in real estate and must be in writing to protect all parties.
There are different types of agreements. You want to make sure that everything about your lease is written. A written lease is a contract that defines the responsibilities of the landlord and tenant. A written lease is for both the tenant and the landlord. Both parties can go back to the written lease to find out what was agreed upon. The written lease is the best defense if the tenant or the landlord challenges the other for breaking the lease.
It is up to you to negotiate the kind of agreement you want. It is best to have someone who is used to negotiations or rental agreements look over your lease with you so that you can formulate questions.
To change a lease, cross out the section you wish to change, initial it and have your landlord initial it. Additional provisions should be written out, dated, and signed by you and the landlord. Make sure all changes are noted on all copies of the lease.
Remember that all and only that which is written is legally binding. Sign only after you feel entirely comfortable and have asked all of your questions. Insist on receiving a copy of the lease at the time of signing or a reasonable time thereafter. Always keep a copy of the lease for your records.
Negotiating with the Landlord
If the landlord approves of your renting a property, you will be asked to sign a lease. Look at the Lease Checklist and Utilities & Other Services – Who Pays? below to ensure that you ask the landlord all of your questions about the lease.
You may be able to negotiate with the landlord to improve conditions in the apartment or provide more services. At some point, you may have to settle for what is offered or decide to look elsewhere. The time to make deals with the landlord is after you have been accepted as a tenant, but before you sign the lease.
The landlord will usually ask for a security deposit and require you to sign a lease stating the agreement that you are willing to accept. Once you sign the lease, you are in a contract for a certain period of time as stated in the lease. The only way you can make changes is if you and your landlord both agree to change the contract in writing. If you do not meet the requirements that are expected of you, the landlord will be allowed to find other tenants and require you to move out.
Responsibilities of the Landlord
There are no set rules. Generally, the landlord must provide:
- Drinkable water / water in kitchen and bathroom
- Hot water
- Heat in cold weather (if included in the rent)
- Working sewer system and bathroom
- Safe, working electrical system
- A lock for the door(s)
- An apartment or house not filled with bugs or rodents
- Safe, sanitary conditions of the structure of the house and outside area
Liabilities and Rights of the Landlord
Possession: Upon execution of a lease, there is an implied warranty that the condition of the premises described in the lease will remain the same between the time of the execution of the lease and the beginning of your occupancy.
Right of Entry: A landlord should not enter the tenant's rental reasonable notice (except in an emergency). The landlord has the right to show a rental unit to prospective buyers or renters, but must do so at a time that is agreeable to the tenant. The tenant cannot refuse a reasonable request.
Repairs: Major repairs are normally the landlord's duty. The landlord is responsible for keeping rental units in good condition as required by the Housing Code. If the landlord is not a full-time resident of Bethlehem (or within 20 miles of Bethlehem) must have a property manager to handle duties.
Complaints: The landlord or property manager must “reply promptly to reasonable complaints and inquiries” from the tenants.
Common Areas: The landlord must repair and maintain any portion of the premises which remain under his/her control. These common areas include any portion of the building which is not expressly leased to tenants such as hallways, stairways, fire exits, and the external building. The landlord is also responsible for rats or insects which come from the halls, cellar, or other public area. If all rental units in the building are infested with vermin, it is the landlord's responsibility to resolve the problem. The tenant may be held responsible if his/her actions have caused a living unit to become infested or unsanitary.
Illegal Eviction: If a tenant calls in a Housing Code inspector, landlord reprisals through rent increase or eviction is against the law. Tenant complaints must be justified and it is then up to the landlord to prove that his actions were not retaliatory. This is usually determined in the courts.
Helpful Tip: When visiting a landlord or rental site...
1) Dress appropriately
2) Arrive at least ten minutes early
3) Be prepared to sign or pay a deposit if you like the space.
If not in the lease, ask your landlord about these items:
□ Tenant’s Name
□ Landlord’s Name
□ How many people can live in the unit?
□ Full mailing address/unit number of leased property
□ Monthly rent
□ Due date for rent
□ Where to pay rent and who to pay
□ Security deposit
□ Move in procedures including cleaning, pest control, repairs, and changing of locks
□ Lease period/length; beginning and ending date
□ Payment of utilities
□ Lease renewal
□ Breaking or ending a lease
□ Move out procedures
□ Property maintenance procedures
□ Subletting policy (not permitted by city of Bethlehem)
□ Notice for entrance into unit by landlord/repairmen
□ Notice to landlord about repairs needed to apartment
□ Parking accommodations
□ Snow and trash removal
Utilities & Other Services – Who Pays?
□ Air Conditioning
□ Cable TV
□ Garbage; Recycling
□ Pest Control
□ Snow Removal
Liabilities and Rights of the Tenant
Repairs: The tenant is liable in damages for "waste." This means any unreasonable or improper use, abuse, mismanagement, or omission of duty involving real estate by one rightfully in possession which results in its substantial damage. Normal wear and tear is not the responsibility of the tenant. It is not the tenant's responsibility to repair defects resulting from the reasonable use of the premises or from an unavoidable act of the action of the elements. The tenant is responsible for damages due to wrongful acts. The tenant is responsible for minor repairs.
Rent: A tenant is relieved from his responsibility to pay rent only through formal written release by the landlord. This amounts to cancellation of the lease. The tenant should always demand a rent receipt. If the tenant is fifteen days behind in rent, the landlord can start eviction procedures.
Sublease: Subleasing is not permitted by the City of Bethlehem.
Utilities: The lease should state the tenant's responsibility for payment of gas, heat, electricity or water. If not mentioned, utilities are the responsibility of the landlord. Heat, electricity, and gas cannot be turned off by the landlord during occupancy except when repair work is needed.
Escalation Clauses: An escalation clause in a lease allows the landlord to charge additional rent for certain expenses that have increased over a stated period of time or above a predetermined unit cost. These clauses usually apply to property taxes and/or utility charges (oil, gas, electricity) and must state three things:
1. Statement that you are obligated to pay only that portion of the increased expenses that your apartment bears to the whole period.
2. The exact percentage of any increase which the tenant must pay.
3. A statement that if the landlord gets abatement on these expenses the tenant will receive a proportionate share of the abatement.
Utility escalation clauses usually apply when the cost per unit, i.e. the cost per gallon of oil, cost per KWH, cost per cubic foot of gas, exceeds the stated cost in the lease. Make sure these clauses are completely filled with all necessary details.
Regulated Rental Unit Occupancy Ordinance
The Regulated Rental Unit Occupancy Ordinance, passed by the Council of the City of Bethlehem, requires an inspection of all rental units. The Ordinance specifies an annual license term, fee, and occupancy limit, which landlords should pay particular attention to.
It shall be the duty of the landlord to keep and maintain all regulated rental units in compliance with all applicable codes and provisions of all applicable state laws and regulations and local ordinances, and to keep properties in good and safe condition. Likewise, the occupants shall comply with obligations imposed upon occupants by this Ordinance, applicable codes and ordinances of the City and applicable provisions of state law.
Failure and/or refusal by the owner to secure the necessary inspections, or failure and/or refusal to provide access for inspections, upon reasonable notice, shall be deemed a violation of this ordinance and will be subject to the penalties.
Potential renters are encouraged to inquire if a specific unit is a participant in the Regulated Rental program. Questions and information regarding the Regulated Rental Unit Occupancy Ordinance can be directed to the Bureau of Housing for the City of Bethlehem at (610) 865-7097. Only regulated rental properties are listed with Residential Services.
Many people move into places with bad conditions because rent is so cheap and the landlord promises to fix it up. You should probably be suspicious of places that are priced way below other similar places, especially if there are lots of problems. You will need to determine on your own how trustworthy the landlord is.
If you do decide to rent a property that needs repairs, do not sign the lease immediately! Get the landlord to promise to fix the problem(s) in writing by a specific date. Ask the landlord to date and sign the letter. Take pictures and/or video with the date to document preexisting problems. Do not sign any repair slips or papers about repairs being done on your apartment or house until the work is completed.
If there are situations present in your home/apartment which your landlord refuses to repair, you may seek assistance from the Bureau of Housing for the City of Bethlehem at (610) 865-7097. They will inspect your home and may require your landlord to bring the sub-standard condition up to code standards. The following is a list of potential code violations which the inspectors may look for:
- Clean and working kitchen and bathroom facilities
- Cracked foundations
- Decayed and rotted exterior wood surfaces
- Exterior doors and windows
- Functioning heating systems
- GFI outlets in all bathrooms and powder rooms
- GFI outlets within 6' on either side of kitchen sinks
- Minimum of 100 amps per dwelling unit
- Missing fire escapes
- Missing handrails and guardrails
- Missing rain gutters and leaders
- Non-working outside lighting
- Possible overcrowding
- Proper working outlets and hallway lighting
- Roofing deficiencies such as leaks or missing shingles
- Windows that open and lock properly
- Working smoke detectors on all levels
Security Deposits: A security deposit is a payment which a landlord requires from a tenant to ensure the payment of rent and damages. A deposit of over two months rent is excessive; usually consider one month's rent as being normal. A landlord should return the security deposit within a reasonable period of time (thirty days) after tenancy ends. If there are damages to the apartment which the landlord feels are the tenant's responsibility, the landlord will deduct the cost of those damages from the security deposit. An itemized list to explain the deductions should be provided. The return of your security deposit is highly dependent on your written agreement. Read your lease and ask questions if it is not clear.
Moving Out: Approximately one to two weeks before the end of the lease, ask the landlord to inspect the premises for damages. If possible, have the landlord make an itemized list of all damages, including estimated costs of repair. A list of damages made at the beginning of the lease can be used to avoid unfair duplication. The tenant can probably save money by having the repairs completed prior to inspection. Make sure that the apartment is as clean as when you moved in. The overall impression that the landlord gets at inspection can make your moving out smoother and easier.
Evictions : An eviction is the only legal way for a landlord to force a tenant to leave a rental unit. A landlord has the right to evict the tenant without stating any reason when the lease expires so long as proper notice is given. The landlord can evict during the lease period only when the tenant breaches one or more of the basic obligations. An eviction is usually the result of a violation of the lease. The most common causes of eviction are non-payment of rent, deliberate acts of destruction or neglect to premises, and disturbance of tenants/neighbors on a repeated basis.
Legal Services & Lawyer Referrals: The University does not provide legal advice or offer legal services for students. The Bar Association of Northampton County and the Bar Association of Lehigh County offer lawyer referral services that provide an initial consultation for a modest fee and referrals to local attorneys.
Northampton County Attorney
Referral & Information Service
155 South 9th Street
Easton, PA 18042
Lehigh County Lawyer Referral Service
1114 W. Walnut St.
Allentown, PA 18102