Renter's Guide: Understand Your Lease
Note: The Office of Student Life provides the following information to help students generally understand the parts, meaning and implications of apartment leases used by area landlords. An attorney did not prepare this information, and you should not consider it legal advice. Any questions about your legal rights as a tenant or possible legal action should be discussed with an attorney. You should not rely on the following information as governing specific issues or problems that arise in your lease situation.
Leases Are Contracts
A lease spells out the relationship and requirements for a tenant and landlord. Because the landlord generally chooses what the lease will say, it usually favors the landlord. If the tenant disagrees with some part of the lease, it should be discussed and may be modified or deleted by mutual agreement. Any change, addition or deletion to a contract should be initialed by both the landlord and the tenant(s). Generally, nothing said or agreed upon orally will change any part of the written lease unless it is in writing and signed by both parties. While under certain circumstances an oral lease can be enforceable, in the event of dispute issues of evidence and proof with an oral lease are extremely problematic, and a written agreement protects both parties. If you do not agree to the entire written lease document, do not sign it. Your signature will bind you to fulfill the terms of the agreement exactly as it is written and/or pay significant financial penalties. There are no time-outs, second chances or fresh starts. Landlords will use the courts or threats of legal action to enforce leases, and tenants should be equally prepared to exercise their rights under contracts and through the courts if necessary. Everyone who signs a lease should receive a copy, with signatures, to serve as a record of the lease and each party's responsibilities under the terms of the lease.
A lease is a contract between you and the landlord. It describes a legal agreement in which you are given possession of an apartment owned by the landlord in which to live for a specific length of time. A lease also specifies what you are to do (and not do) to receive or retain possession of the apartment.
Contracts can be long or short, simple or complex. Enforcing a contract generally means asking a court for a judgment that would force one or both parties to do - or not do - what the contract specifies. Legal actions to enforce a lease usually are brought to the district magistrate but could be brought to another court depending on what is being charged or what relief is being sought.
Leases must be signed by both parties. They do not have to be witnessed, although landlords may choose to have a staff member formally witness the signature. In Pennsylvania, you must be older than 18 to legally sign a contract. If you are younger than 18, the landlord may require a cosigner, such as your parent, who will accept legal responsibility for the obligations of the lease for/with you. In the University area, many landlords request or require a parent to cosign even if you are older than 18. This is an acceptable business practice, although it may annoy students. Because students generally have limited personal assets, landlords will be able to take legal action against cosigners in case students breach/default on a lease. Legal action for breaching a lease can be taken across state lines.
A lease should identify the property to be rented. Identification should include the street address and apartment number. Students should inspect the specific apartment they are renting before they sign a lease. If, when you are ready to move in, the apartment you leased is not ready for occupancy, you may agree to take a different unit. However, you are not obligated to accept any apartment other than the one identified in the lease. When you move in, if the apartment is damaged or defective, take pictures or video of the damages and deficiencies, fill out a thorough inspection report for the landlord with a list of repairs and cleaning that need to be done, and remind the landlord regularly of the work remaining to be completed until the apartment is fully ready for occupancy. Although most landlords take pride in the appearance and standards of their apartments, some make a habit of procrastinating and then cleaning or fixing just enough, knowing that many students eventually give up on a leaking toilet, dirty refrigerator, or torn carpet.
A lease should indicate the starting date and ending date of occupancy. Most leases in the University area are for 12 months. In some cases, a lease may be open-ended or month to month. Leases of six, nine, and 10 months occasionally are found in this area but are unusual.
Many leases are preprinted forms on which a landlord fills in the blanks and then both parties sign. The publishing company or professional association providing the forms will be printed on the bottom of the page. Preprinted forms usually contain the basic legal elements of a good lease, and newer ones are written in plain language, which is a requirement in Pennsylvania.
Watch for rules and regulations that may be included in the lease or attached as an additional document. They may be regulations about noise, cleaning requirements and standards, garbage storage and disposal, security issues, smoke detectors, parties, guests, pets, parking, hallways, lights, landlord access to inspect or show the apartment to prospective tenants, and other lifestyle issues. Rules and regulations often are problems between landlords and tenants if they are not understood, agreed to, and followed. Tenants can be evicted for breaching leases by not following the rules. Rules and regulations can be changed, added, or amended by a landlord without tenant approval if the lease allows it.
Security deposits are customary in the University community. They usually are equal to one or two months of rent. They cannot be greater than two months of rent during the first year of the lease. Most leases specify that a deposit cannot be used as the last month of rent. Some leases say that if a landlord uses some or all of the security deposit during the term of the lease, the tenant must pay to bring the deposit up to the lease-specified amount. A landlord must place the security deposit in an escrow account in a bank for the term of the lease, or the deposit may be bonded, which is a guarantee of payment. The tenant does not necessarily receive any interest payments from the escrow deposit for the first or second year. On longer leases, interest must be paid after the second year.
Payment of rent, also called consideration, is specified in the lease. Payment information includes the monthly rent amount, the total amount of the rent to be paid over the term of the lease (usually 12 times the monthly rent), when (date due) and where (office address) the rent is to be paid, how the rent is to be paid, (mail, in person, check, money order, etc.), and a late date after which payment is not on time and violates the lease terms. Some landlords allow a discount for timely payment (e.g., rent is $500 a month but if paid before the fifth of the month a discount of $50 will be allowed; therefore, the rent due is $450.) Other landlords assess a penalty if rent is late (e.g., rent is $500 a month but if paid after the fifth of the month a penalty of $50 will be charged; therefore, the rent due will be $550). Both ways are acceptable; however, the total amount of the contract, which usually is stated in the lease, will be changed depending on whether it is discounted or penalized. If discounted, the total contract amount will not reflect the discount but will be the full or larger amount. In event of a lawsuit by a landlord, the landlord would likely request payment in full for the entire lease term, which would be the larger amount.
Utilities and appliances also are described in leases, and the details should be read carefully. Who pays which utilities should be indicated specifically. If a tenant is responsible for certain utilities, he or she must contract directly with utility companies. Utilities provided by the landlord should be listed. Utilities include electricity, water, and sewage and may include gas and garbage removal. Be cautious about agreeing to pay a landlord for utility services based on the landlord's contract with utility companies. Although not illegal, it is a situation that could tempt an unscrupulous landlord to inflate charges, double-bill tenants, or charge tenants for services that tenants did not use. Utility companies provide estimates of service charges for tenants if requested and perform usage audits for customers who wish to verify charges. Usually a refrigerator and stove are included if a rental unit has a kitchen, and that should be referenced in the lease. Other appliances usually are not provided. A dishwasher, garbage disposal, or window air conditioner are listed if included.
Many leases include a use and occupancy section that indicates that the use of the apartment is limited to residential and specifies the number of people who may live there. This means it cannot be used for business nor to house more people than stated in the lease. Children in a family are counted, as are unrelated adults. Guests also may be restricted by language in this section or in rules and regulations. The allowance of overnight guests or visitors, the maximum number of nights they can stay, and whether they can be given a key to the apartment are common limits on tenant use of an apartment.
Sublets and assignments will permit, prohibit or define a landlord's policy on subletting or assigning a lease to another person. If it is not prohibited by the lease, subletting is permitted by state law. Watch for the need for written permission by a landlord to sublet or assign and/or additional fees or penalties charged for subletting. If you do not plan to remain in Pittsburgh or to attend the University during the summer, subletting is a reasonable alternative to paying for an apartment you aren't using. Guest and visitor policies might prohibit allowing someone to use your apartment for the summer without the landlord's knowledge or permission.
A landlord may have the option of an acceleration of rent if a tenant fails to pay rent on time or breaches or violates other lease terms. This means that a landlord can demand that the entire amount of the lease consideration be paid within some specified time period. This usually is a last resort for a landlord who isn't receiving rent in regular, timely, or complete payments, although it can be sought for other violations of a lease. Unless a tenant agrees and pays the amount specified in the lease on time, the landlord will go to court seeking a judgment ordering the payment. A clause in the lease usually specifies the availability of this option for the landlord. This option is not always enforceable depending on the circumstances.
Some leases now include a waiver of notices. Normally, notice is given to a tenant prior to the termination date of a lease. Waiving this notice has little impact on the tenant, who should be aware of the end of the lease and the need to renew or move out. Tenants should be aware of any penalties for failing to move out by the end date of a lease. Often, high daily rates or an entire month's rent are specified for holdovers.
Waiver of another notice normally required of a landlord could be more damaging to a tenant. If a landlord initiates legal action to force a tenant to pay outstanding rent payments or to leave a property, the law requires the landlord to give written notice of the action to the tenant. This notice allows the tenant time to correct the problem or negotiate with the landlord. By waiving the right of notice, the tenant will be deprived of the opportunities to correct the problem, and the landlord will file legal action immediately.
Some leases may contain a confession of judgment clause, under which a tenant agrees, by signing the lease, to allow any attorney, including the landlord's attorney, to represent him and to confess judgment or essentially "plead guilty" for the tenant. Having pleaded "guilty," the tenant will be responsible for whatever judgment is handed down. WHILE YOUR LEASE MIGHT CONTAIN SUCH A CLAUSE, GENERALLY CONFESSION OF JUDGMENT CLAUSES ARE NO LONGER LEGALLY ENFORCEABLE IN RESIDENTIAL LEASES IN PENNSYLVANIA.
Many landlords in the University area specify a right of entry in the lease. Usually this means that a landlord can enter an apartment without notice and whether or not a tenant is present to fix something that the tenant has requested, to respond to an emergency, or to show the apartment to prospective tenants. Any limits on the time of day, purpose, or notice will be specified here. Leases that allow landlord access for any reason and at any time of the day or night should be questioned. Failure to allow a landlord access could be grounds for the landlord to take legal action if the lease specifies access. Tenants are entitled to the right of quiet possession, but elements of that right can be abridged by lease.
Renewal is the term for extending the current lease agreement for another period of time. Usually, a one-year lease renews for another year and a six-months lease for another six months, although some leases renew on a month-to-month basis after the initial lease term. In the University area, many landlords require tenants to renew their leases as much as five months or 150 days before the end of their leases. This permits them to advertise vacancies for the next academic year prior to the end of the spring term. This is a good move for landlords but can be awkward for students who aren't sure about staying in their apartments another year or even returning to school the next year. A very early renewal deadline also means that the spring term can be a series of landlord visits with prospective renters touring your abode.