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Reading and understanding a lease can sometimes be daunting. But it’s important to avoid potential issues with your tenancy.
A lease, after all, is a legally binding contract that gives you use of a rental property for an agreed-upon time period, and that comes with certain rights and responsibilities by which you’ll need to abide. But don’t panic — Pennsylvania’s Plain Language Consumer Contract Act requires a lease’s language to be written in an easy-to-read way.
Before signing anything, you should make sure you understand what’s expected of you (and of your landlord) — so take your time, says Mike Carroll, a senior attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s housing unit. “Read the whole thing,” Carroll says. “The temptation is, ‘I need this place and I need it yesterday.’ That can lead to real problems.”
And make sure you get a copy of the agreement in case there are issues down the road.
So, what should you look for in a lease? We break down some of the basics:
To start, your lease should have basic info about the property you’re renting, such as the landlord’s name, the rental’s address, the signing date of the lease, and how long the rental period will last. It should also detail what is included with the rental — like a washer and dryer or other appliances, for example.
And then there’s the question of money. It should be clear in your lease not only how much your security deposit will be, but also how much you will be paying rent monthly, and how you should make those payments to your landlord. Some leases may require electronic, direct deposit payments, or mailed payments, or your landlord could even drop by to pick up the rent money.
It’s also not uncommon for there to be a fee if you pay your rent late, but how much the fee will be, and when you have to pay it should be defined in your lease. There is no law in Pennsylvania limiting how much a late fee can be, but, Carroll says, they do need to be “reasonable.” And if your lease doesn’t mention a late fee, your landlord can’t legally charge you.
Another important thing to consider besides your rent is what other bills you have to pay — such as the water, gas, electric, and internet — and what happens if you don’t pay them. Some utilities may be included in your rent costs, or your landlord may be responsible for some of them.
Some leases, Carroll says, include this information in a section with check boxes that indicate who is responsible for what. If “tenant” is checked under electric and gas, for example, you are responsible. And if you don’t pay on time or at all, some leases may say you are in “default,” meaning that you’ve broken your lease and can be evicted.
Besides utilities, you should also check to see who is responsible for repairs to your rental. In general, Carroll says, your landlord is responsible for repairs to the unit because of the landmark Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Pugh v. Holmes, which states that landlords must make repairs to serious issues in rentals, like broken plumbing or heaters, that tenants did not cause intentionally or through negligence (in that case, it comes out of your security deposit).
“The landlord can’t make tenants responsible for all repairs,” Carroll says. However, check if the lease says anything about how you have to tell your landlord about repairs, such as whether you have to tell your landlord in writing.
If you’re planning on staying in a rental for a while, your lease should tell you how renewing the lease works — including how long before your lease ends that you need to tell your landlord that you’d like to renew or move. That’s especially important if you don’t want to renew your lease, because some leases automatically renew if neither you nor your landlord discuss the situation before the end of a lease term.
“Sometimes [tenants] find that they have legally signed up for another year when they didn’t want to,” Carroll says.
If you think you might have to move before your lease is over, check the lease for what happens in that situation (in the lease that’s often called “early termination”). Some leases spell out what happens, which could include having to pay a fee, or losing all or some of your security deposit. If the lease doesn’t say anything about it, what happens depends on the situation, says Carrol, and you could be on the hook for the full amount of rent for your lease term.
And if you’re leaving early, check your lease to see whether you can sublet your rental to another tenant. Some leases forbid subletting, while others have no restrictions at all, says Carroll.
It’s important to see what your lease says about what you can and can’t do in your rental. The agreement should define how you are allowed to use the property, including whether smoking is allowed, how long you can have overnight guests, and how many people can live in the house. Additional provisions may cover other things, including:
Pet policies, Carroll says, can be something of a gray area. While landlords can limit whether pets are allowed on the property — as well as what types of pets, including restrictions based on size — there could be an issue if having the pet is “based on a therapeutic need." The federal Fair Housing Act says that landlords need to make “reasonable accommodations” for tenants who have disabilities, and a pet like a service dog may fall under that category (and if so, pet fees can’t be charged).
You can try. But as the tenant, Carroll says, you’re likely to have little power over the terms in the lease, and the situation can often be “take it or leave it.”
“If the tenant says, ‘I want this,’ and the landlord says no, that can be the end of the story. If you want the place, you sign,” he says. But if your landlord is open to negotiations, Carroll suggests focusing on elements like late fees, as well as any provisions that might make you responsible for their legal fees in the event of a court case. For late fees, try to get them lower. And for legal fees, suggest making that a two-way street, Carroll says, so the landlord has to pay your court fees if you win.
Another thing to consider, Carroll adds, is that silence can sometimes be golden. So, pick your battles.
“Unless there is a provision in there, it doesn’t exist out in the stratosphere. It’s not common law that the tenant has to pay late fees” or legal costs, Carroll says. “If it’s not in the lease, there is no obligation.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.