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Frequently Asked Questions

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What is a lease?
Can I make changes to a lease?
What are some liabilities and rights of landlords?
What are some liabilities and rights of tenants?
What about evictions?
What should I know about security deposits?
If my landlord refuses to repair/mend/attend to a situation, what should I do?
Should I purchase apartment/renter’s insurance?
I’m nearing the end of my lease. Is there anything I need to do or be aware of?

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 need not be technically formal, but must include for the tenant a use, occupation, or possession clause. 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 yours is written and 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. You should never sign a lease with sections that are so one-sided that they put you in jeopardy.

Before you sign the lease, cross out the section you wish to change, initial it and have the landlord initial it. Additional provisions should be written out, dated and signed by you and landlord. Make sure all changes are noted on all copies of the lease.

Read the document carefully. Remember that all and only that which is written is legally binding. Insist on getting your copy of the lease immediately. When you feel entirely comfortable and have asked all of your questions, go ahead and sign.

  • 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 his tenant’s rental unit except for inspection or maintenance and only after giving reasonable notice (in an emergency, without notice). 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.
  • Common Areas: The landlord must repair and maintain any portion of the premises that remain under his control. These common areas include any portion of the building that 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 that 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 are 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.
  • 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 that 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 his 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 (15) days behind in rent, the landlord can start eviction procedures.
  • Sublease: There should be in writing an express agreement in the lease concerning subleasing. Subleasing will not relieve the original tenant from liabilities. If the sub-tenant does not pay the rent, the original tenant will be responsible for payment. The sub-tenant is responsible solely to the original tenant and the landlord will hold the original tenant responsible for all damages to the apartment caused by the willful acts of the sub-tenant. Many leases, in fact, prohibit or restrict tenant ability to sublease – review your lease carefully!
  • Utilities: The lease should state the tenant’s responsibility for payment of gas, heat, electricity and/or water. If not mentioned, utilities are the responsibility of the landlord. The landlord cannot turn off heat, electricity, and gas 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. Statements that you are obligated to pay only those portion of the increased expenses that your apartment bears to the whole period.
    2. The exact percentages 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.

A landlord has the right to evict the tenant without stating any reason when the lease expires so long as he gives proper notice. The landlord can evict during the lease period only when the tenant breaches one or more of his/her basic obligations. The most common causes of eviction are:

  • Non-payment of rent
  • Deliberate acts of destruction or neglect to premises
  • Disturbance of other tenants or neighbors on a repeated basis

A security deposit is a payment that a landlord requires from a tenant to ensure the payment of rent and damages. A deposit of over two month’s 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/residence that, the landlord feels are the tenant’s responsibilities, he will deduct the cost of those damages from the security deposit. He should provide an itemized list to explain the deductions.

If you rent your home/apartment, and have paid your landlord more than $100 as a security deposit, you have certain rights under Pennsylvania’s amended Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951.

During the first year of the lease, the security deposit may not be more than two month’s rent. After the first year, it may not be more than one month’s rent. After the second year, the deposit must be placed in an account in an institution that is regulated by either the Federal Reserve Board, the Comptroller of the Currency, or the State Department of Banking.

As a tenant, you must be paid the interest on the deposit every year on the anniversary date of the beginning of the lease. Tenants are entitled to this interest only after a security deposit has been held for two years. The landlord may deduct one percent from the tenant’s interest payment for administering the account, but the landlord may make no other administrative charge.

The landlord may put up a bond instead of carrying an escrow account. The bond must guarantee that the tenant will get his deposit back when the lease ends, plus interest, less the cost of repairs.

After a tenant has rented his or her home for five years, the security deposit may not be increased when the rent increases.

Whenever the landlord puts a security deposit in an escrow account, he or she must notify the tenant in writing, giving the name and address of the institution holding the funds, and the amount deposited.

If there are situations present in your home/apartment that the landlord refuses to repair/mend/attend to, you may seek assistance from the City of Bethlehem Bureau of Inspections at (610) 865-7097. They will come and 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 that the inspectors may look for:

  • Roofing deficiencies such as, leaks, missing roof slates and shingles
  • Decayed and rotted exterior wood surfaces
  • Missing rain gutters and leaders
  • Non-working outside lighting
  • Missing handrails and guardrails
  • Cracked foundations
  • Missing fire escapes
  • Exterior doors and windows
  • Clean and working kitchen and bathroom facilities
  • GFI outlets in all bathrooms and powder rooms
  • GFI outlets within six feet on either side of kitchen sinks
  • Working smoke detectors on all levels
  • Minimum of 100 amps per dwelling unit
  • Proper working outlets and hallway lighting
  • Windows that open and lock properly
  • Possible overcrowding
  • Functioning heating systems

Whether you are renting or buying a dwelling, you should consider investing in insurance. Check first to see if your parents’ homeowners’ insurance policy will cover your personal property. If not, you should seriously consider obtaining a policy of your own for the following reasons:

  • The premiums on renter’s insurance are usually low
  • Most renter’s policies are really homeowner’s insurance modified to fit the needs of tenants
  • The landlord does not carry insurance on the tenant’s belongings, only on the dwelling.

Even if it does not mean a decrease in your premiums, make sure all your valuables are marked with your driver’s license number or other identifying mark to aid in identification and return of stolen items.

  • I’m nearing the end of my lease. Is there anything I need to do or be aware of?

Before the end of your lease (one to two weeks prior to the expiration 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 student can probably save money by having the repairs completed before 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.


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Last modified: 08/24/98