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RENTING & LANDLORD/TENANT LEGAL SERVICES

A written lease should include:

  • Names and addresses of both the tenant and the landlord.
  • Term (length of time) of the lease.
  • Rent amount and payment terms.
  • Amount of security deposit.
  • Renewal terms.
  • Notice required to end the lease.
  • Person responsible for paying utility bills and other expenses.
  • Duties of both the tenant and the landlord in relation to the property, such as who is responsible for the repairs.
  • Grace period and penalty for late payments.

It is very important that you read and understand a lease completely BEFORE you sign it. Do not sign it unless you agree with all the provisions. Once signed it becomes a binding written contract.

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What is a residential lease?

A lease is an agreement between a landlord and a tenant concerning the rights and duties of each. In the agreement, the landlord gives temporary possession of an apartment, house or property to the tenant in exchange for rent, which is usually money, but can be property or services, given to the landlord by the tenant. In the residential lease, the tenant has both the use and possession of the property for the term of the lease.
Please note that different laws may apply to mobile homes.

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Is a verbal agreement effective?

Yes. A verbal agreement is valid in Pennsylvania if it is a typical residential lease and is for less than a three-year term. However, it is usually better to have a lease in writing. Without a written lease, the parties to it may disagree about the terms and conditions. If a lease is for a period of more than three years, it must be in writing.

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Does a written lease have to be in a special form?

No, but it does have to be written in "plain language." Pennsylvania law requires that all written residential leases be easy to read and understand. For example, there can be no "fine print" and simple everyday words must be used throughout the document. When the lease says that a tenant is to give up certain legal rights, the language used must clearly state what rights are being given up and what could happen to the tenant as a result.

It is a violation of the law for a landlord to require a tenant to sign a lease that does not conform to the plain language law. However, if a tenant does sign a residential lease that is not in plain language, the lease is still effective and the tenant must still abide by all the agreements in the lease. If this happens, the tenant may have the right to bring a suit in court against the landlord for special damages or to prevent enforcement of any provision not written in plain language.

It is a violation of the law for a landlord to require a tenant to sign a lease that does not conform to the plain language law. However, if a tenant does sign a residential lease that is not in plain language, the lease is still effective and the tenant must still abide by all the agreements in the lease. If this happens, the tenant may have the right to bring a suit in court against the landlord for special damages or to prevent enforcement of any provision not written in plain language.

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What is a security deposit?

A security deposit is a sum of money given to the landlord, usually before a tenant moves in, to protect the landlord from any damages that may occur during the time of the lease or for unpaid rent and late fees.

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Can a security deposit be required?

Yes. A landlord has the option of requiring a security deposit. During the first year of a lease, the deposit cannot exceed the amount of two month's rent. During the second and subsequent years, it cannot exceed one month's rent. During the third and subsequent years, the landlord must deposit all sums over $100 in a special interest-bearing account and annually pay to the tenant a portion of the interest earned on that account.

Will the security deposit be returned?

When the lease ends or the tenant returns possession of the property to the landlord, the tenant should ask the landlord in writing for the return of the security deposit, as well as give the date the tenant is moving and a forwarding address. The tenant should keep a copy of this letter. Within 30 days after the end of the lease or within 30 days from the time the property is returned to the landlord, whichever comes first, the landlord must either return the entire deposit or send the tenant and itemized list of damages and deductions from the deposit, together with the balance, if any.

If the landlord does not provide such a list or does not return the appropriate deposit, the tenant has certain rights, including the right to file suit against the landlord for up to double the amount of the deposit. If the tenant receives a list of damages and believes the list is wrong, the tenant may also be able to sue the landlord. For more information on filing suit before a magisterial district judge, contact the Pennsylvania Bar Association for the pamphlet "Bringing Suit Before a Magisterial District Judge."

Are there restrictions on rent increases?

Unless the rental unit is under a special government program or subject to governmental rent control, the amount of rent is not limited. A landlord may increase the amount of rent at the expiration of the term of the lease. While the amount of notice required is not specified by law, the landlord should give at least 30 days notice of any increase in rent, or as the lease provides.

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What if the landlord doesn't make repairs?

Most written leases specify who is obligated to make ordinary repairs. If you sign a written lease, read it carefully. Quite often it will state that the tenant is responsible for ordinary repairs up to a given dollar amount.

However, under Pennsylvania law, every residential lease includes the landlord's implied warranty of habitability (livability) which is part of the agreement even if it is not included in writing. This means that, if the rental property needs extensive repairs or is unsafe, the tenant must notify the landlord and the landlord is obligated to repair the condition so that the property is habitable.

If the landlord does not make the repairs within a reasonable amount of time, there are specific rules about what the tenant may do. The tenant may be able to pursue several actions, including moving, repairing the defect and deducting the costs from rent payments, or getting a court to order the landlord to repair the defects. The tenant should consult an attorney before deciding which of these actions is appropriate, if any. The tenant should also keep records of contacts with the landlord about these problems.

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Can a tenant break a lease?

If there is a month-to-month lease, either the landlord or the tenant can terminate the lease at the end of a monthly period. Even if the lease does not require it, the tenant should give the landlord at least 30 days written notice of moving. If there is a written lease, the lease itself usually states the amount of notice the tenant must give the landlord before leaving. If the tenant moves out before the lease expires or without proper notice, the tenant is legally liable for paying the remaining rent due under the entire term of the lease, however, the Landlord has a duty to mitigate damages by finding a new tenant to occupy that unit. Therefore, if there are six months remaining on the lease and it only takes the Landlord one month to find a new tenant, then the old tenant who moved out would only be responsible for that one month the unit was vacant, rather than the full six remaining months.

How can a tenant be evicted?

If the lease term ends or a tenant breaks the lease agreement, the landlord can evict if the tenant does not move voluntarily. However, while the tenant is in possession of the property, the landlord does not have the right to change the locks, move the tenant's belongings from the leased property, or turn off the utilities to force the tenant out of the leased property. The landlord must go to court and use legal process.

In the absence of some other agreement between the parties, the landlord must give the tenant a written eviction notice. If the eviction is for failure to pay rent after demand, the notice must be at least 10 days. If the eviction is for any other reason, it must be 15 days for a lease of a year or less or 30 days for a lease of more than a year.

If the eviction is solely for nonpayment of rent, the tenant can avoid an eviction by paying the rent owed, court costs and late fees at any time before the eviction actually takes place.

Does a tenant have to pay rent if an eviction notice is received?

In general, as long as a tenant remains in the apartment or house, rent must be paid to the landlord, even if an eviction notice has been received.

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What if an eviction order is entered?

The tenant has the right to file an appeal, but must do so within 10 days of the date of the magisterial district judge judgment. If the tenant wants to remain in the home during the time of the appeal, the tenant must also pay either three month's rent or the amount of rent the magisterial district judge finds due, whichever is less, plus ongoing rent during the appeal. A tenant who is a victim of domestic violence may only have to pay ongoing rent. A tenant who wants to file an appeal should consult an attorney.

What if back rent is still owed?

Even if the term of the lease has expired and the tenant's security deposit has been taken, the tenant remains responsible for any back rent or damages that are still owed to the landlord. The landlord can use further legal process to collect what is owed. If legal action is taken by the landlord, the tenant could lose property, including money in banks and motor vehicles.

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Evictions in New Jersey require a multiple step process governed by specific laws.

Evictions in New Jersey require a multiple step process governed by specific laws.

If a lease has expired, a landlord must still give notice for possession of the property before filing for eviction. A landlord may only proceed to file an eviction lawsuit if a tenant fails to correct the violation within the statutory notice period. New Jersey law requires that for every cause for eviction except nonpayment of rent, the landlord must serve you with a notice to quit and, in some cases, a notice to cease. In general, notices must specify in detail the cause of the termination of the tenancy.

No notices needed for nonpayment of rent. The most common cause for eviction is nonpayment of rent. For this cause, and only for this cause, the landlord does not have to send you any advance notice before filing a complaint for eviction in court. This means that if you fail to pay rent, the landlord can go directly to court and you may not get any warning from the landlord before receiving the court summons and complaint. However, landlords must send notice to a tenant not paying an increase in rent before the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit

Notice to cease and notice to quit. If a tenant does not owe rent but the landlord would like to evict for other causes, under New Jersey law the landlord must give the tenant written notices before filing a complaint for eviction in court.

  • Notice to cease. A notice to cease is a letter informing a tenant to cease specific conduct that is not permitted under the lease or under New Jersey law. If the tenant refrains from doing the conduct that is described in the notice, the landlord cannot evict. These notices are given for tenant conduct such as habitual late rent payments or continued violations of the lease.
  • Notice to quit and demand for possession. A notice to quit is letter from the landlord that terminates the tenancy and informs the tenant to vacate by a certain date because of conduct that violates the lease or New Jersey law. If a notice to cease has previously been sent, the notice to quit will inform the tenant that since he or she has ignored the notice to cease, the tenant must vacate by a certain date. Like the notice to cease, this notice must inform the tenant of the specific conduct that violates the lease or New Jersey law. If the conduct is one that does not require the landlord to send the tenant a notice to cease, the notice to quit is the only notice required to be given to the tenant before the landlord can file an eviction suit.

A notice to quit must be served upon the tenant. This can be accomplished by giving the notice to the tenant directly, left at the apartment/residence with someone 14 years of age and older, or sent by certified mail.  

Timing of Eviction Suits

New Jersey law requires the landlord to give the tenant a certain period of time before filing a suit in court for your eviction. This time period must be described in the notice to quit. Two of the most common notice periods are the 3-Day Notice and the 30-Day Notice:

  • 3-Day Notice: Given in cases of disorderly conduct, drug conviction, damaging the landlord's property, conviction or civil liability for assault or terroristic threats against the landlord, and violation of lease provisions that specifically dictate that eviction is the penalty
  • 30-Day Notice: Given in cases of habitual failure to pay rent and continued violations of lease provisions that don't specifically dictate that eviction is the penalty.

Evictions in New Jersey are conducted in the New Jersey Superior Court, Special Civil Part in the county where the apartment is located.

A landlord must prove that the statements made in the complaint are true. A tenant does not have to file a written answer, but must come to court and prove that the statements made by the landlord in the complaint are not true. Both the landlord and the tenant may bring witnesses. However, written statements, even if made under oath, cannot be used in court. Only in-court testimony of the witnesses is allowed.

The tenant should bring all applicable records such as rent receipts or copies of checks, leases, letters/notices to or from the landlord, photographs, or any other helpful documents. If rent was withheld because the landlord did not make necessary repairs, the tenant must prove the severity of the problem needing repair and how it affects the rented premises. If a tenant has not paid the rent, and wants to retain possession, they should bring the amount the landlord claims to court. Only cash, a certified check, or a money order made out to the Court Clerk is acceptable.

If the tenant is successful and the court decides in his or her favor, the case is dismissed.

If the landlord's complaint is for non-payment of rent and the tenant pays all the rent due plus court costs before or on the day of the court hearing, the landlord must accept the rent and the case will be dismissed. If the landlord does not accept the money, it may be deposited with the Clerk of the Special Civil Part. The judgment then will be voided and the tenant may remain at the rented premises.

If the court decides in favor of the landlord for reasons other than non-payment of rent, a "judgment for possession" will be granted. If a landlord is granted judgment for possession, the landlord may apply to the Clerk of the Special Civil Part for a warrant for possession, which allows the landlord to force the tenant to move out of the premises. The warrant for possession may not be issued until three business days after the judgment for possession is granted. The warrant for possession will be issued to a Court Officer to serve on the tenant. If the tenant does not move after three business days from which the warrant for possession was served, the landlord may arrange with the Court Officer to have the tenant evicted or locked out. The Court Officer will tell the landlord the fee charged for an eviction.

Following the eviction, the landlord must let the tenant remove personal belongings from the premises. A landlord cannot keep a tenant's belongings, but can arrange for their storage.

When disputes arise between landlords and tenants, whether the property involved is an apartment or office space, you should contact a landlord tenant dispute lawyer at The Law Offices of Perry Liss, LLC for experienced and effective representation and practical legal solutions.

The Law Offices of Perry Liss, LLC addresses all types of landlord tenant issues, including those involving:

  • Evictions
  • Wrongful evictions
  • Reviewing leases
  • Drafting leases
  • Building code violations
  • Unlawful detainer actions
  • Landlord liability
  • Use of illegal apartments

We understand how important it is to protect your property, whether it is your investment or your home. We help landlords and tenants resolve even the most complex disputes including those involving commercial or residential property through negotiation and, when necessary, through litigation.

Our clients appreciate the depth of our legal knowledge and ability to bring their landlord tenant disputes to a successful resolution quickly and cost effectively.

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