NOTE: Make a list of all items that need to be fixed and request landlord to repair them before signing the lease and moving in. Check to make sure all items work properly, such as sinks, toilets, outlets, lights, appliances, locks, furnace and air conditioner. This will help to prevent problems with the landlord.
What if my landlord sells the building where I live?
When the owner sells the building, the new owner takes the property subject to the existing lease. The new owner must get the information about the tenants from the prior owners, including their rental payment history, security deposits and copies of lease agreements. You can make the new owner follow the lease, just as you must continue to abide by the lease.
What if I find out that the landlord is in foreclosure?
You may find out that your landlord is in foreclosure or behind on taxes, by seeing a notice posted by the sheriff or delivered to the tenants. Pennsylvania law requires a bank foreclosing on a property to send certain notices to the property owner and then to file a mortgage foreclosure action in the Court of Common Pleas.
That process can take many months or sometimes years. The owner will not lose the property until there has been a sheriff sale or tax sale. You will still owe rent while the property is in foreclosure, but make sure the owner is still taking responsibility for the property, making repairs and paying utilities.
If the property sells at the sheriff sale, the purchaser at sheriff sale may demand that you vacate the residence. There was a law called “Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA)” that required the new owner to honor a tenant’s lease, but that law expired in 2015. In some cases, properties with HUD-owned mortgages may offer a tenant the opportunity to apply to rent the property at fair market value.
The new owner must file a legal action to take over the property. Sometimes, they will offer a small amount of money for moving costs if you move immediately. Because they are not your landlord, they cannot file a complaint at the MDJ. They must file in the county Court of Common Pleas an action in Ejectment. This process can take several months and you may be able to negotiate with the new owner for an agreeable move out date.
The following information applies to owners of manufactured homes, also known as mobile homes or trailers, who are renting lots, not to renters of mobile homes. If you are renting a mobile home from the owner or not living in a community, then the landlord tenant rules apply. But because manufactured homes are usually a much more significant investment, there are special rights to help avoid loss of the property.
Please note that Pennsylvania changed the name of the law to the Manufactured Home Community Rights Act in 2012. We will use that term and refer to the owner or manager as the community operator.
Community rules and regulations
The community operator of the manufactured home community (where there is space for at least three manufactured homes), may set out reasonable rules and regulations for the park, but these rules must be written into your lease and given to you. If you do not have a written lease, the owner must give you a copy of the rules. The owner must also post the rules in plain view.
You can only be evicted from a manufactured home community for the following reasons:
• Non-payment of rent;
• Violating the rules of the community more than once in a six-month period;
• If the community closes; or
• If the community changes its use.
You cannot be forced to move without written notice and court hearing. The notice must state the reasons why you are being asked to move. If you are being evicted for non-payment of rent, a community operator must give you a 30-day eviction notice (15 days’ notice between April 1 and August 31) before eviction proceedings can be started against you.
If your lease is for a year or more, you are entitled to 90 days’ notice, if you are being evicted for a breach of the lease or the end of the term. If your lease is for less than one year, and you are being evicted for these reasons, you are entitled to 30 days’ notice.
If you are being evicted for violating the community rules or the lease, the notice must state exactly what you did to violate the rules. If you only violate the rules once, you cannot be evicted, but you can be evicted for a second violation if the owner gives you the proper notice and enforces the rules against others in the community.
Other facts for manufactured home community residents
You are allowed to buy goods or services from whomever you choose, and the community operator cannot stop you from doing so. The community operator cannot prevent you from selling your manufactured home, and cannot claim any fee for the sale of the home unless you agree. The community operator cannot charge you a fee for overnight visitors or guests visiting your manufactured home.
The community park residents are entitled to notice if the park owners sell the property or they intend to close the property. They must pay relocation expenses to homeowners if they are closing the park. Residents may seek to buy the park and the community owner must negotiate in good faith with them. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office has authority to enforce the statute and residents have a right to sue the community owner in court.
There are many different kinds of subsidized housing. If you apply to the local city or county housing authority, you may be eligible for conventional public housing (the Housing Authority is your landlord) or the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly called “Section 8”), in which you use a voucher to help you pay rent in a privately owned apartment.
There are also housing developments that are subsidized as long as the tenant remains in the unit, and high-rise buildings that accept senior citizens and/or people who have disabilities. For each of these programs, the tenant’s rent is approximately 30% of the monthly household income, and therefore it is necessary to report all income and changes in who lives in the household, called “family composition.”
There are also developments that are built by private developers who received government financial assistance or tax credits. These low income housing tax credit properties may be required to keep rents below fair market value for a long period of time and provide additional services. Tenants may have rights to remain in the unit unless they violate the lease so that the owner has “good cause” for eviction.
For many tenants, having subsidized housing allows them to afford the rent and avoid homelessness. Therefore, it is important to understand the rules and regulations to avoid eviction or loss of the subsidy. A tenant who is evicted from public housing or whose voucher is terminated may be ineligible to reapply for assistance for three to five years.
Public housing eviction process
You can be evicted from public housing by the housing authority for “good cause.” “Good cause” means serious or repeated violation of the lease, including non-payment of rent. Public housing leases have many rules that are different from private housing, including rules about overnight guests and reporting income changes, so read your lease carefully. You are allowed to have a lawyer or representative present for conferences or hearings with the housing authority.
Notice of eviction from housing authority
You can be evicted from conventional public housing for non-payment of rent and/or violation of the lease terms. Under the housing regulations, the housing authority must first send you a Notice of Proposed Termination that explains why you are being evicted. The housing authority will deliver the eviction notice to any adult of the household, or send it by mail. Be sure to collect any certified mail right away.
What should do when I receive an eviction notice?
Informal settlement conference You are entitled to appeal the proposed termination by requesting an informal settlement conference with the housing authority. This conference gives you a chance to try to resolve the problem with the housing authority. Generally, you have 10 days from the date of the Notice of Termination to request the informal conference.
If you receive a Notice of Termination, you should immediately submit a written request with the housing authority for an informal settlement conference. Keep a copy of your request. You should call NPLS or a private attorney for assistance.
Can I review my file before the informal settlement conference?
Yes. You have that right and should review all documents and records that are important for your conference. The housing authority must make them available to you. If you want copies of any records in your file, you may have to pay for the copies.
What happens after the informal settlement conference?
You will be notified in writing of the results of the hearing. If you are satisfied with the decision and the problem is resolved, your lease will continue. If you disagree with the decision, you can appeal by requesting a formal hearing.
You must give a written request for a formal hearing to the main or administrative office of the housing authority, generally within 15 days of the decision of the informal settlement conference. The authority then schedules a formal hearing on the grievance at the earliest possible time.
Your housing manager and witnesses may be present at the hearing. This conference is held before a Hearing Officer who listens to both the tenant and housing authority’s positions before making a decision in the matter. It is helpful to have a lawyer present.
What happens after the formal hearing?
The Hearing Officer will send you a written decision within 30 days after the hearing. The housing authority must follow the decision of the Hearing Officer. If the Hearing Officer finds in favor of the housing authority, the eviction process will continue. In these cases, the housing authority will file a landlord/tenant complaint to begin the eviction process with the court. The process will be the same as a tenant in private housing and will start with a complaint before the Magisterial District Judge.
Housing Choice Voucher Program – termination of voucher
A tenant in the Housing Choice Voucher Program receives a voucher to be used with a private landlord. The landlord must agree to accept the tenant and be willing to participate in the program. The housing voucher is rental assistance from the housing authority, which pays part or most of your monthly rent. When choosing a landlord and apartment in this program, take care to choose a place that meets your family’s needs and is within the rent and size requirements of your voucher.
With this program, you may lose your housing voucher in two ways:
1) you can be physically evicted from your home through an eviction action filed by your landlord for violation of the lease, and/or
2) you can lose your housing subsidy for violation of the housing authority’s rules
A landlord may evict a tenant with a voucher for serious or repeated violations of the lease or other good cause, including nonpayment of the rent, during the first year of the lease. After the first year, either the landlord or tenant may end the lease by giving proper notice to the other party. The notice must be sent to the housing authority and the housing authority then gives the tenant a voucher to move to a new unit.
If I am evicted from my apartment, can I lose my housing choice voucher?
Yes. If your landlord evicts you for breach of the lease, you will most likely lose your housing subsidy. Appeal the MDJ decision to the Court of Common Pleas if you disagree with the decision. The housing authority should be sent copies of any actions filed in court. If the action results in eviction, you will be sent a written notice that the housing assistance is terminated. Once your housing assistance is terminated, you are no longer eligible for a voucher or any other assistance from the housing authority.
Sometimes, you can work out a resolution with the housing authority to keep your voucher, especially if the landlord has failed to follow with proper procedure. If you receive an eviction notice from your landlord, you should call NPLS or a private attorney for assistance as soon as possible.
If the landlord files an eviction action against me, can the housing authority immediately stop making payments or refuse to issue a new voucher to move?
No. A landlord’s decision to evict is not grounds to end your eligibility or stop making the rental payments. The housing authority must continue to pay their portion of the rent until you are evicted and the housing authority terminates your voucher.
What happens if the housing authority wants to terminate my housing choice voucher?
If you do not follow the housing authority’s rules, they may take action to terminate your subsidy. You will receive notice of this proposed action in the mail. Your subsidy could be terminated for one of the following reasons:
• You committed fraud, by failing to report your correct income or family composition.
• You, your family, or guests are involved in drug or criminal activity.
• You did not pay a current debt owed to the housing authority as part of an agreement.
• You violated an important rule of the program, such as failing to submit information for re-certification.
You have the right to appeal this action by requesting an informal hearing. The subsidy continues until after the hearing and a decision is made. If the subsidy is terminated and you wish to remain in the unit (and your landlord allows it), you will be responsible to pay the full amount of the rent.
If you are a survivor of domestic violence
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) protects tenants in public housing, tenants in subsidized housing (including project-based Section 8 housing and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit housing), and tenants with Housing Choice Vouchers from being evicted or terminated from the Housing Choice Voucher program due to domestic violence. For example, a tenant cannot be evicted from public housing because of criminal activity in the housing unit if the criminal activity was domestic violence and the tenant was the victim. Your abuser, however, can be evicted from public housing. If you have a Housing Choice Voucher and you move out of your apartment before your lease ends to escape your abuser, you should not lose your voucher.
VAWA also covers survivors of dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Despite its name, VAWA covers survivors of any sex; gender identity or sexual orientation. Applicants for public housing, subsidized housing and the Housing Choice Voucher program cannot be denied due to domestic violence. The housing authority cannot deny your application for public housing based on a negative landlord reference claiming damage in your previous apartment if you can show that your abuser damaged the apartment, not you.
If you do not speak or read English
Housing authorities or landlords receiving money from the federal government must provide “meaningful access” to people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Meaningful access can include the housing authority or landlord paying for an interpreter for meeting with you or having leases and notices translated into a language you read. This is required by Title VI of the Civil Right Act of 1964.
If you have a hearing or vision impairment
If you ask for a reasonable accommodation, the housing authority or landlord receiving money from the federal government should provide an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter or provide important notices in large print or braille. This is required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The eviction process is the only legal means by which a landlord can get a tenant to leave their home. Landlords usually file eviction actions because of a violation of the lease terms, such as non-payment of rent or damage done by tenants.
Notice to Quit
Generally, an eviction process starts when the landlord serves the tenant a written eviction notice, called a Notice to Quit, stating that the landlord wants the tenant to leave the apartment or home.
These notices usually give the tenant between 10 and 30 days to leave the home. Some leases will waive a tenant’s right to this notice, but such a waiver may not be enforceable if it is not clear and in plain language. Review your lease to find if there is a clause about notices required for eviction.
Frequently asked questions about eviction
The following are common occurrences and questions that may come after receiving an eviction notice or after a MDJ’s decision.
My landlord has threatened to lock me out. Can the landlord do so?
The landlord is not allowed to lock you out of your apartment even if you are behind in your rent. The landlord must follow the eviction procedure in this booklet if the landlord wants you to vacate the apartment or house. The landlord also cannot turn off services to the apartment (for example, water, electricity, or heat). If your landlord has threatened to lock you out, you should carry a copy of your lease with you, if you have one, or copies of any current utility bills as evidence that you live in the apartment or home. If your landlord does lock you out or turn off services, contact NPLS or a private attorney immediately for assistance. You may also wish to contact the local police department, as they will sometimes intervene with the landlord to get you back into the apartment at once.
It’s wintertime, so I can’t be evicted. Is that right?
Wrong. The eviction process is the same in summer and winter. The only exception is for Manufactured Homes, where the park owner must give a 30 day Notice to Quit for nonpayment of rent from September through March.
If I pay everything I owe, can I stop the eviction?
If the only reason you are being evicted is non-payment of rent, you should request that the MDJ enter a judgment of “Possession Granted if Money Judgment Not Satisfied.” This is also called “pay and stay” judgment. If you pay everything you owe on the judgment, including the court costs, to the landlord or to the constable before the lock-out, you will stop the eviction. But you will lose the right to pay and stay after the constable changes the locks.
I do not have anywhere to go. What should I do?
You need to find a place for both you and your belongings. You should not leave your possessions behind. Your landlord must safeguard your possessions, but only for a limited amount of time following an eviction and you can be charged a storage fee. However, a landlord cannot hold your possessions until you pay the rent you owe. If you cannot find a new place to live, then contact family or friends. You should also contact local shelters, although they may have waiting lists or other limitations on staying there.
What if my landlord is evicting me for something related to my disability?
You should ask for a reasonable accommodation of your disability if your landlord is evicting because of your disability. An example would be if your landlord is evicting you for behavior while you weren’t getting treatment. Your request would be to ask your landlord to stop the eviction and give you time to get treatment that will help your behavior. Another example would be if your landlord is evicting you for housekeeping violations and you cannot clean because of a disability. You could ask your landlord to stop the eviction and give you time to find someone to help you clean.
The Magisterial District Judge eviction process
A Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) is a locally elected official who can decide small civil lawsuits such as landlord-tenant matters. MDJs are also called magistrates or district judges.
When will the MDJ schedule the hearing?
The landlord or tenant can file a civil complaint with the MDJ. The landlord may file a landlord-tenant action if the landlord is seeking eviction of the tenant and possession of the property. The tenant will receive notification of the complaint and will be given a hearing date within 7 to 15 days of the filing date.
Should I go to the hearing?
Yes! If you don’t go to the hearing, the MDJ will decide in favor of the landlord. The hearing gives you a chance to present your “defense” or “cross-complaint” against the landlord. You should go even if you made an agreement with your landlord, unless you confirm with the MDJ that the hearing was canceled. If you cannot go on the scheduled date of the hearing, call the MDJ and ask if the hearing can be rescheduled. The MDJ may grant your request, but only if the landlord agrees or you have a good reason.
Do I need an attorney?
No. Lawyers are not required during the hearing although it may be to your benefit to have a lawyer present at the hearing.
What happens at the hearing?
The MDJ calls the hearing to order
The party filing the complaint, or plaintiff (landlord in an eviction case), presents evidence and testimony and can bring additional witnesses. After each witness, the defendant (tenant in an eviction case) is given the opportunity to question the witness. The landlord must prove there was a lease and a violation of the lease.
The tenant presents evidence and witnesses in their defense and presents any evidence or witnesses for cross-complaints. After each of the tenant’s witnesses, the landlord is given the opportunity to question the witness.
The MDJ listens to all the evidence both parties have to present and makes a decision. The MDJ could make a ruling that day or may take several days to make a decision, which each party receives in the mail.
The MDJ is in charge of the hearing and must be treated with respect. If the MDJ interrupts to ask a question or give a ruling, listen carefully and respond if the questions are directed to you. Do not interrupt the MDJ, or be rude or uncooperative.
What is a “defense”?
A defense is your reason(s) why the landlord should not be allowed to evict you. Some common defenses are that the landlord did not allow you enough, or any, written notice to vacate the apartment, the apartment had many problems due to the landlord’s failure to make repairs, or the landlord’s reasons for wanting to evict you are untrue.
You should bring any paperwork you have that is relevant to your case. For example, if you are being evicted for non-payment of rent and have a written agreement with the landlord that you could pay in installments, then you should bring that agreement to the hearing. Likewise, if you didn’t pay the rent because of poor conditions in the apartment, you can ask that the amount of rent be reduced because of the poor conditions. You should bring pictures of those conditions, copies of the letters you sent to the landlord about the problems and proof that the rent money is in an escrow account. These items will be helpful to the MDJ in making a decision about the case.
What is a “cross-complaint”?
You also have the right to file a cross-complaint if you believe the landlord owes you any money. For instance, if your property was damaged because of a water leak or other problems in the apartment, you may have a claim against the landlord for money damages. You must file a cross-complaint before the hearing. You file a cross-complaint at the Magisterial District Court where the landlord’s complaint was filed. Although there is no filing fee for such a complaint, you will have to pay to have the complaint served on the opposing party. You can ask the MDJ’s office to serve it by certified or registered mail or in person. The fee for service will depend on how it is served.
How should I prepare for my hearing?
If you have an attorney, the attorney will talk with you about the information or witnesses needed. At the hearing, the attorney will ask questions of the witnesses and cross-examine the landlord. If you do not have an attorney, you should practice saying your side of the case. Make a written outline or checklist to use at the hearing. Be brief and to the point. Be ready to explain each item of evidence, such as photographs or receipts, and when the actions you took occurred. It is important that you arrive on time for the hearing and that you dress appropriately, as you might for a job interview.
What happens after the hearing?
Within 3 days of the hearing, the MDJ will issue a written decision called a Notice of Judgment. If the judgment is in your favor, the landlord cannot evict you from the apartment. If you filed a cross-complaint, the landlord may owe you money unless an appeal is filed.
If the MDJ finds in favor of the landlord, the judgment will be entered against you. There are three types of judgments that can be issued against a tenant:
• Possession Granted;
• Possession Granted if Money Judgment Not Satisfied by time of eviction; and
• Possession NOT Granted but Money Judgment Awarded;
The Notice of Judgment will show you what type of judgment was issued. Both the landlord and tenant have the right to file an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. Your appeal rights are discussed in more detail in the section on Appeal of the MDJ judgment.
Is there any way I can prevent the eviction? Possession granted if money judgment not satisfied (“pay and stay”)
If a judgment is for Possession Granted if Money Judgment Not Satisfied (known as “pay and stay”) and you pay the money owed in full any time prior to the eviction date, you will be able to avoid an eviction and remain in the home. If you pay the landlord in full, including court costs, within 10 days of the judgment, no eviction will be scheduled. If you do not pay within 10 days or file an appeal and pay a bond if required, the landlord may request an Order for Possession. (See Appeal of MDJ’s judgment on page 37). An eviction date will be scheduled ten days after the Order for Possession is posted on your door by a constable. Up to and including that date, you can pay the judgment in full to avoid the eviction.
If you pay before the eviction date, you should make arrangements with the landlord and the constable and keep a receipt for proof of payment. If you plan to pay on the date of the eviction, you will have to pay the constable directly. Make sure you have the money owed in cash. If you try to pay by check, the constable will not take the money and the eviction will proceed as scheduled. If you paid the landlord in full, the landlord should tell the MDJ to have the judgment marked “satisfied.” Call the court to make sure the landlord did this.
What happens if the judgment is possession granted, or I can’t pay a money judgment against me before the eviction?
If the judgment is for Possession Granted, you will have to leave the home on the scheduled eviction date even if you pay all monies owed in full. In these cases, whether or not you have the money to pay does not make a difference. If you disagree with the decision and want to stay in the apartment, you must file an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas within ten days of the judgment date and post a bond, if required. (See Appeal of MDJ’s judgment).
If you are not planning to appeal, or you can’t pay the money judgment before the eviction, you should make plans to move out as soon as possible. If you can’t physically be out before the scheduled eviction date, then at least move all your belongings out of the rental unit. Remember, you will only have minutes to vacate when the constable arrives. The fewer things you have to gather, the easier it will be for you to leave. If you cannot remove all of your belongings, you should gather medication, important documents (such as a birth certificate or Social Security card), and anything irreplaceable (such as photos) to take with you before the constable locks the doors. If you leave the home before the scheduled eviction date, make sure you contact the landlord to let them know the apartment will be vacant and return the keys.
Order for Possession
This action can be taken by the landlord to seize your apartment. After the 10-day appeal period has passed, the landlord can file for an Order of Possession. This order requires the tenant to vacate the home within 10 days of the date of service by the constable. Service will be either by hand delivery or by posting on your door if nobody is home to receive the notice. If you do not vacate, the constable will come to the home with the landlord on the 11th day and forcibly evict you, locking the apartment. If the constable comes to evict, he will only give you about 15 minutes to get out of the apartment with any belongings you can carry.
I didn’t get all my stuff out before the constable evicted me. What can I do to get it back?
It is a good idea to tell your landlord, in writing, that you still want the property that you left behind and when you would like to come back and get it, because most landlords believe they can throw your property away after you’re evicted, but they are wrong.
The law requires the landlord to send you a notice, giving you 10 days (from the date the notice is mailed to you) to either get your property or ask the landlord to store it. The landlord is only required to store the property if you request it within 10 days and only for 30 days from the date they sent the notice. The landlord is required to mail this notice to the address that you were evicted from and any new address you may have given them.
What happens if the landlord gets an order for possession but a constable never comes to evict me? Sometimes, a landlord will get an Order for Possession against a tenant, but because the parties reach an agreement, the eviction is postponed or canceled. If you receive ajudgment against you and then work out a payment arrangement with the landlord, you should make sure the payment agreement is in writing and that the landlord agrees to withdraw the order for possession.
A landlord may request the re-issuance of an Order for Possession. The request generally must be made within 120 days of the judgment date. After that time, the landlord may collect upon any unpaid money judgment, but would have to file a new complaint to evict the tenant.
Appeal of the MDJ’s judgment – staying in rental unit
If you want to appeal a judgment and remain in the unit, you must do so within 10 days of the judgment date. All appeals must be filed in the Clerk of Court’s (also called the Prothonotary) office in the county courthouse on forms you can get from the Clerk’s office and online at the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) website.
There is a filing fee for filing an appeal, which can be waived if you have limited income and no money to pay the fee. To request a waiver of the fees, you need to fill out an IFP (in forma pauperis) application. Your petition must be approved by a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. The Clerk’s office will be able to tell you the local procedure. If you do pay the fees and win your case, these costs will usually be added to the judgment amount.
If you follow the correct procedures, you will be granted a supersedeas, which allows you to remain in your apartment during the appeal. What you have to do in order to receive the supersedeas depends upon your income.
• If your income is above the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, you will be required to pay the filing fee as well as a certain amount of money as bond. This bond is either three (3) months’ rent, or the judgment amount, whichever is less.
• If your income is below the Federal Poverty Guidelines, you will not be required to pay the bond. If you owe rent for the month in which you file the appeal, you are required to pay one-third of the month’s rent at the time you appeal and the remaining two-thirds within 20 days. You will be required to sign an affidavit that your income is below the guidelines and disclose your household income and expenses on a form provided by the court. The Clerk’s office will have the current guidelines.
In either case, you must continue to pay the rent each month every 30 days from the date of the appeal at the Clerk of Court’s office where you filed the appeal. An appeal is a complicated legal action that requires you to file legal papers. If you do not follow the correct procedures, your landlord may be able to proceed with the eviction despite your appeal.
The landlord will be required to file a Complaint within 20 days of service of the appeal. If the landlord does not file a complaint, you may want to get legal advice before sending a ten-day notice of intent to enter a default judgment. If the landlord files a complaint, you will be required to file a response within 20 days. If you do not respond, your landlord can send you a ten-day notice and then get a judgment if you still do not properly respond.
If you do not wish to remain in the apartment and want to appeal the money judgment only, you will have 30 days to file an appeal at the local county Court of Common Pleas. This procedure also requires a filing fee but you do not need to post bond. If you plan to file this appeal, you should contact NPLS or a private attorney for advice.
What happens if there is a judgment against me?
A judgment will stay on your record until you pay it in full. It can affect your credit rating, as well as your ability to obtain private or subsidized housing. It is a good idea to pay a judgment as soon as possible to avoid any future problems. If you can’t pay the judgment in full, you can arrange a repayment agreement with the landlord.
Can the landlord sell my belongings to collect on the judgment?
If you move out of the property without getting all your possessions, your landlord must safeguard your possessions. But this is only for a limited amount of time following an eviction and you can be charged a storage fee. Most landlords don’t want your possessions and want you to move them out with you, so that they can re-rent the property. The landlord cannot hold your possessions hostage until you pay the rent you owe. If they are unreasonable, you may need to pursue legal action for the return of the property in the Court of Common Pleas.
However, if you have a money judgment against you that you do not appeal, the landlord can start collection activity. This includes seeking to sell your belongings to satisfy the judgment. This order can be requested 30 days after the judgment date or any time after that. It can be reissued repeatedly within 5 years of the judgment date.
The constable, or sheriff, will serve you a copy of the order and make a list of your property to be sold (called a “levy”). Once you receive this notice, you are not allowed to sell or dispose of the personal property, as it must be available to satisfy the levy. The constable will then schedule a sale of your property and give you notice of the date.
Can I stop the sale of my belongings?
Yes. You can stop or put off a sale in several ways. You can file an appeal or objection to the levy (sale of your property). You can also file a “Claim for Exemption” at the MDJ’s office. The law allows you to keep, as exempt, up to $300 worth of property, or you can take $300 in cash from the proceeds of the sale instead. If you think all the property the landlord wants to sell is equal to or less than $300, the sale will be canceled and there will be a hearing by the MDJ to determine the value of your property. If the MDJ decides your property is worth more than $300, the sale will be rescheduled. (The exemption is $300 for an individual; $600 for a married couple.)
If the property levied on by the constable or sheriff is owned by someone else, or by you and another party, the other party can file a claim for exemption and try to prove to the sheriff that the property should not be sold because it doesn’t belong to you.
You can also stop the sale by paying the full amount of the judgment. You should make payment through the constable or MDJ office, not directly to the landlord. If you areoverwhelmed by this and other debts, you may consider filing for bankruptcy. If you are able to file a bankruptcy, it will immediately stop collection of debts, including sheriff sales, levies and collection calls. Bankruptcy may be of limited help in stopping an eviction, if the tenant does not have the rent to pay or has missed appeal deadlines. There are different types of bankruptcy, including a repayment plan (Chapter 13) or a debt elimination (Chapter 7) bankruptcy. Every situation is different, so whether a bankruptcy makes sense depends upon your circumstances. Contact a credit counseling agency, NPLS or a private bankruptcy attorney if you are facing a sheriff or constable sale.
Can the landlord attach my wages from employment to satisfy the money judgment against me?
Yes. The landlord can file in court to have your wages attached to pay the judgment. This is a serious action. You must be notified that the landlord has filed a petition to take money directly out of your paycheck to satisfy the judgment. The landlord must follow all applicable state and local rules for wage attachment. The wage attachment may not be for more than 10% of your wages, and the attachment must not cause your income to fall below certain poverty guidelines. If you meet certain low income guidelines, you may be exempt from wage attachment. If you receive notice of a wage attachment, you should call NPLS or a private attorney for advice.
The security deposit is the money you give the landlord when first renting the apartment or house. It is intended to cover damages that might be caused by the tenant during the term of the lease.
Amount of your deposit
In Pennsylvania, the security deposit can be up to 2 months’ rent in the first year. The amount of the security deposit paid to the landlord should be written on the lease, and you should get a receipt for the security deposit for your records. If you paid more than one month’s rent deposit when you moved in, the amount over one month’s rent must be returned at the end of the first year. Never give your landlord money without getting a receipt! Don’t pay the full security deposit until you have signed the lease and are getting the keys!
Bank account and interest
If the security deposit is over $100, your landlord must put it in a bank account after the second year and give you written notice of the name and address of the bank and the amount of the deposit. Interest on the security deposit during the first year belongs to the landlord. After the first year, you are entitled to the interest on a security deposit over $100.
No deposit for assistance animals
Fair housing laws allow a person with a disability to request reasonable accommodations of rules and regulations to allow equal enjoyment of housing. This includes a request to have an assistance animal. An assistance animal is a service animal or emotional support animal for an individual with a disability. You can ask that the extra pet rent or security deposit be waived as a reasonable accommodation request.
You may need a letter from a doctor, therapist or caseworker saying your animal is an emotional support animal. The letter should explain that you have a disability and how the animal will assist you. A note from a doctor or therapist is helpful, but there is no need to provide medical records or a training certificate for the animal. The landlord should allow the assistance animal if the request is reasonable and will not impose an undue hardship. The landlord may not charge a “pet deposit” or additional fee, such as “pet rent.”
Getting your deposit back
You are moving out of the rental unit at the end of the lease and want to get your full security deposit returned. Your rent must be current when you move out. You must give the landlord a forwarding address in writing and surrender possession of the unit. This usually means returning your keys to the landlord or manager, although sometimes they ask you to leave the keys in the unit. Some will agree to a walk through inspection at move-out and you may want to use a checklist to confirm the conditions of the property upon move-out.
The landlord must take action within thirty days of date of tenant’s surrender of possession as long as they have the tenant’s forwarding address:
• return the full security deposit, or
• give the tenant an itemized list of damages and return whatever security deposit is left after damages.
If you fail to give the landlord your new address in writing, the landlord is not responsible for returning the deposit within thirty (30) days. If the itemized list of damages is not given in writing, the landlord gives up his right to sue the tenant for damages to the unit.
Suing for your deposit
Pennsylvania law allows tenants to sue for damages if the landlord improperly refuses to return all or part of the security deposit. You can sue your landlord in the Magisterial District Court for the area where your apartment is located. If you are unsure which MDJ has jurisdiction, check with the County Court Administrator for the Court of Common Pleas or look for a map on their website.
The MDJ office has complaint forms to fill out with simple instructions and there are forms available online. You will have to pay the filing costs unless you have limited income and assets, in which case you can ask the court to waive the filing fees. To request a waiver of the fees, you need to fill out an IFP (in forma pauperis) application. If you do pay the fees and win your case, these costs will usually be added to the judgment amount.
The tenant may sue for double the amount of the security deposit if the landlord does not send the list of itemized damages or return the deposit within (30) days. The 30 days starts when the landlord receives notice of the forwarding address and possession of the apartment, whichever is later. If this is the case, be sure to say that you are asking for double the deposit in the complaint.
The MDJ will schedule the hearing, give you a copy of your complaint, and serve a copy on your landlord.
Bring the following with you to the hearing:
1) all rent receipts (or canceled checks or money order stubs) or proof that there was no balance owed at the end of the lease,
2) receipt for the security deposit, canceled check or lease agreement,
3) checklist or pictures when you moved in, if available and pictures when you moved out,
4) witnesses who saw you pay the deposit and/or who know the condition of your apartment when you moved in and moved out, and
5) a copy of the letter, email or text message that you sent to the landlord, giving your forwarding address.
At the hearing, you will have to prove that:
1) your rent was current,
2) you paid a security deposit,
3) you did not cause any damages and left the unit in the condition it was in when you moved in, minus normal wear and tear, and 4) you gave your landlord written notice of your forwarding address.
It is always a good idea to talk to a lawyer before suing for your security deposit. A lawyer can help you decide if you have a good case. If either side disagrees with the decision of the MDJ, they have 30 days to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas in that county. The procedure in the Common Pleas Court is more formal and more difficult for those without lawyers (pro se). If you win and the other side appeals, you may need to retain an attorney or get additional advice to proceed on your own.
A landlord who routinely refuses to return deposits or itemizes damages that are not true may be committing consumer fraud. The Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) provides protections and gives the Pennsylvania Attorney General and consumers the right to sue for damages. This can include up to three times the actual damages and attorney fees.
As the end of the lease approaches, you need to discuss the renewal or termination of the lease with your landlord. If you want to move out of your apartment or house, you need to give notice to your landlord. Check your lease to see how much notice is needed and how it must be delivered. Your notice to the landlord should be in writing and sent by certified mail or delivered in person.
Moving out Follow the moving out procedures in your lease to make sure that your responsibilities for the apartment are finished before you leave.
• Give your landlord - in writing - your new address or a forwarding address for receiving mail.
• Remove all your belongings and trash.
• Clean the apartment. Arrange to turn off or transfer the utilities that are in your name.
• Return the apartment to the way it was when you moved in.
• Walk through the apartment with the landlord and review the checklist and photos of when you moved in. Have the landlord sign the checklist.
• Take new photos if there have been changes.
• Lock all doors and windows. Then return your keys to the landlord.
Any one of the previous remedies, by itself, may not be totally suitable for you. Your situation may allow you to use a combination of different remedies.
Suppose, for example, that for the past 2 months you have paid the full rent but you have not had hot water. You have told the landlord about it, but he has not made the repairs in a reasonable length of time. In the meantime, you have found another place to live and plan to move there next month. What can you do? You may choose to:
• request that a part of the past 2 months’ rent be returned to you;
• pay your landlord a reduced amount of this month’s rent; and
• move out next month without being responsible for future rent to your present landlord.
You should be aware that none of these options are perfect or easy winners. Any of them could cause your landlord to try to evict you before your next home is ready. However, if your landlord is truly not providing you with safe, sanitary conditions, it is unlawful to evict you for complaining to Code Enforcement or seeking necessary repairs.
“Specific performance,” in these situations, means getting a court to order a landlord to make necessary repairs to an apartment. This sounds like a great solution, but unfortunately it’s very difficult to get a court to look over a landlord’s shoulder and make sure he does something he may not want to do. As a result, courts will most often choose not to do this. Specific performance is something that must be ordered by a Common Pleas Court, not the Magisterial District Judge. As a result, you should contact a lawyer if you have questions about whether this is possible in your case.
Suing for damages may be a good solution for you if you’ve already spent your own money to get things repaired, or if you’re moving out and think you deserve some rent back because the home had serious problems. You can sue whether you are staying in the home or moving out, although it’s usually difficult while you are still a tenant.
Before bringing this kind of lawsuit, you should make sure that you’ve notified the landlord of the problems in writing, and given a reasonable chance to make the repairs. You may also bring the complaint as a “cross complaint” if the landlord files for eviction.
Pennsylvania’s “small claims court” is the Magisterial District Court and cases are heard by the Magisterial District Judge (MDJ). MDJs hear landlord tenant cases and civil complaints. There are standard “complaint forms” available at the local office or on the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) website at www.pacourts.us.
In this complaint, you can ask for money damages. For example, you can ask for the amount of money you’ve spent to repair the problem or to make your place more livable. You might want to ask for a refund for part or all of the rent you paid during the time period when the problem made your home uninhabitable. If your utility bills were unusually high because of the problem, you could ask that the landlord be charged the difference.
If your property was damaged or destroyed because of the bad conditions (spoiled food, damaged clothing, or furniture), include the reasonable value of the items in your complaint. You would have to show that the landlord knew about the need for the repair and failed to take necessary action.
You will have to bring evidence, such as photographs. It is best if you print out pictures that are on your cellphone or camera. It would also be helpful for other people who have seen the bad conditions to come to your hearing and testify for you. If the local Code Enforcement inspector ordered repairs and the landlord failed to comply, ask the inspector to testify at the hearing and bring any notices sent to you and the landlord. If they need a subpoena, the MDJ can issue one upon request of a party to the lawsuit.
You will need to prove that these problems were your landlord’s fault or responsibility and that the landlord didn’t fix the problems within a reasonable time after you told the landlord about them. Bring to court all receipts for your expenses, back rent, utility bills, and for anything else you are asking the MDJ to reimburse you for having to deal with this problem.