Yes. If the landlord wants you to pay for regulated utilities separately, they must be separately metered. So, for example, in a three unit building, there must be meters for each of the apartments and for the common area. The common area is the landlord’s responsibility. If the units are not separately metered, the landlord must pay the utility bill and include it as part of the rental price.
If the tenants suspect the meters are not separate, they may ask the utility company to investigate whether there is a “foreign load.” If there is, the utility will put the bill in the landlord’s name and not change it until the wiring has been corrected. The landlord cannot begin an eviction action or raise the rent because the tenants report a foreign load. Retaliation is prohibited under the law. The court should refuse to evict the tenant and may award damages if the tenant files a cross complaint.
If your landlord is responsible for utility payments according to the lease, but does not make the payments, you may still be protected against a utility shut-off. In Pennsylvania, public utilities are required to notify the landlord of a proposed shut-off. The landlord must send the utility company the names and addresses of any tenants that would be affected.
Next, the utility company is required to provide tenants with 30 days’ notice of a proposed termination of service and of the tenant’s right to receive continued service if the tenant pays an amount equal to the most recent 30-day bill. If this amount is paid before the proposed date, the utility company will not terminate service. If it is paid after the termination, the utility company must restore service. The tenant may continue to pay the monthly bill and deduct that amount from the rent.
A landlord can evict you for non-payment of rent. As a tenant, you are legally responsible to pay the full amount of rent in a timely manner. The lease will set the terms of your rental payments. Generally, the rent is due on the first of the month. If you don’t pay your rent on time, the landlord can file an eviction action against you. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability, your money was stolen, you just lost your job, it is the wintertime, and/or you have children. You can still be evicted for non-payment of rent.
If you will not be able to pay your rent, you should tell your landlord as soon as possible. You should not wait until the day it is due or a few days later. Explain why you can’t pay the rent and ask to make a payment arrangement. If your landlord agrees to enter into a payment arrangement, get this agreement in writing and keep a copy for your records. Remember, if you do not keep the agreement, the landlord will be able to evict you. The eviction process is discussed on the eviction article.
When you do have an unexpected loss of income, you may be able to get help from a local agency or the county assistance office for rent payments. Assistance may only be available during certain times of the year and usually only once per year. Local religious and community organizations may also offer emergency financial help. Look at our Getting Help guide or call 211 for referrals in your area.
When you sign a lease with other people, you should understand the lease terms. Each person may be responsible for the full amount of the rent if the other tenants leave without paying. This is called “joint and several liability.” So, if one of the people who signed the lease leaves or cannot pay the rent, the others will be responsible to pay the full amount due. If you think you will only be responsible for your portion of the rent, review the lease carefully or seek legal advice before signing.
• Your landlord’s insurance does not cover your personal property. The landlord is not responsible for your belongings; you are. You will need to get renters insurance to cover theft, loss, or damage of your personal belongings.
• Contact several insurance agents and compare costs. Renter’s insurance is surprisingly affordable. A policy may cost approximately $120-$240 per year. Check whether discounts are available.
• If a landlord’s negligence causes damage to your property, you may have a claim against the landlord. But you might be faced with filing a lawsuit, proving the negligence and then collecting on the judgment. This is very difficult to do, especially if you are still living in the property or have limited resources. If you have renters insurance and the insurance company has evidence that someone else is responsible for the damages, they can hire an attorney and sue that party. But you still get your property repaired or replaced in a timely way by the insurance company.
What are the landlord’s responsibilities?
The landlord must provide the following:
• Drinkable water / Water in kitchen and bathroom
• Hot water
• Heat (in cold weather)
• Working sewer system
• Bathroom (bath tub or shower and toilet)
• Safe, working electrical system
• A lock for the door(s)
• An apartment or house not filled with insects or rodents
• Safe, sanitary condition of the structure of the house and outside area
• Working smoke alarms
• No chipping, peeling paint
What are the tenant’s responsibilities?
• Pay the rent on time and regularly for the full length of the lease.
Keep canceled checks or money order slips as proof of any rent or security deposit you paid.
Remember to get a receipt if you pay in cash or money order. You should never pay your rent without getting some sort of receipt from your landlord! If your landlord will not give you rent receipts, write your own receipt and ask the landlord to sign it when you give the landlord the rent.
The receipt can simply say: Received $__________from_______ for ____________(month). Balance due $_______________ Date___________ Landlord__________________
• Take care of repairs when the damage is your fault.
• Clean the apartment or house to keep it in good condition.
• If repairs are needed, put a dated request in writing to the landlord. Keep a copy.
• Keep agreements made in the lease, such as not making too much noise.
Tips to remember when moving
Telephone, Cable, and Utilities
• You need to contact the local telephone, cable, and utility companies for installation and connection of whatever services you want.
Fire and Police Information
• Find the telephone number of the local fire and police departments and emergency numbers. Post these numbers by the telephone so they are handy in an emergency. Are you in a 911 area? For local resources and referrals, call 211 for information.
• If possible, have at least one fire extinguisher handy, preferably in the kitchen. Know how to operate the extinguisher. There should also be an extinguisher in the common hall of a multi-unit building.
• Pennsylvania law requires that the landlord supply a smoke alarm in working condition in each unit. The lease will state whether the tenant or landlord is responsible to check the smoke alarm and replace batteries when necessary. If the smoke alarm is not working, inform the landlord by phone and in writing. The landlord has 72 hours (3 days) to replace the smoke alarm. If the landlord doesn’t replace it within that time period, you may send the landlord a letter stating that you are purchasing a smoke alarm and deducting the price from the next month’s rent. When you pay the next month’s rent, you must include the receipt for the smoke alarm. Multi-unit buildings will usually be required to have hard wired smoke detectors and Code Enforcement will order the landlord to follow the law.
Although the fees for paying your rent late may vary from landlord to landlord, the amount charged must be reasonable. As part of a contract, late fees are not supposed to be punitive. For example, a late fee of $25 assessed after a five-day grace period may be reasonable, while a late fee of $10 per day after the first of the month will likely be deemed excessive if the issue comes up in court. You should be careful about signing a lease that includes such charges.
Once you have found a home that meets your needs, your first step will be to fill out a rental application. The landlord may charge an application fee and will review the information you supply.
Information needed to fill out the rental application
• Identification with a picture.
• Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and full legal names of yourself and any adult(s) over 18 who will live with you.
• Place of employment for each adult, correct company name and address, the full names of immediate supervisors, and gross yearly or monthly income.
• Amounts of money in: Bank account(s), bank loans, and credit card debt for any adult named on the lease. The landlord uses these to check your credit rating and evaluate whether you can pay the rent.
• Driver’s license and motor vehicle description if you have a car.
• Rental history, including the addresses and phone numbers of your former landlords or the people you lived with for the last few places you lived. This can help you in showing the landlord that you are a responsible individual.
To increase your chances of getting the apartment you want, have the information organized and ready. Be honest with all the information you give. Landlords have the right to obtain a credit report and do a criminal records check. If you lie on the application or give false information on purpose, you are committing fraud. Be prepared to explain how you have dealt with your credit problems, or evidence of rehabilitation or other appropriate counseling programs.
If the landlord rejects your application, the landlord may explain the reason, but often will not. A public housing authority must provide a reason for the denial and give an opportunity to appeal the denial. If you suspect that the landlord rejected you for a discriminatory reason or because of a policy that is discriminatory, you should consider talking to a fair housing advocate or an attorney or filing a fair housing complaint.
Negotiating with the landlord
If the landlord approves of your application to rent the apartment or house, you may be asked to sign a lease. Here are some things to look for in the lease:
You may be able to negotiate with the landlord to improve conditions in the apartment or provide more services. It may be harder to do this with apartment complex managers because of company policy, but ask! At some point, you may have to settle for what is offered, or you can decide to look elsewhere.
The time to make deals with the landlord is after you have been accepted as a tenant, but before you sign the lease. The landlord will usually ask for a security deposit (up to two months’ rent) and require you to sign a lease. The lease should state clearly for which utilities the tenant is responsible. The landlord is responsible for maintaining the common areas in a multi-unit building. Beware if lease transfers these responsibilities to the tenant, especially if they would be difficult or costly for you.
Remember that once you sign the lease you are in a contract for the period of time listed in the lease. The only way you can make changes that will be enforceable in court is if you and your landlord both agree to change the contract in writing
Lead-based paint is something to be aware of in homes built before 1978. Lead was used in making paint before people knew about the health and safety concerns. Since existing apartments or homes may have lead-based paint, you should be informed about this by the landlord before signing the lease or buying a house. Other sources of lead may be lead pipes in the apartment or house or lead in the soil.
The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 requires the landlord to provide tenants with information about lead-based paint in the apartment or house being rented or bought.
Since 1996, the act has applied to all rental properties. An owner or landlord who fails to give the proper information can be sued for triple the amount of damages. In addition, the owner may be subject to civil and criminal penalties. The landlord or owner is not required to test or remove lead that exists in the unit, unless ordered to do so by the local Code Enforcement Office or other local, state, or federal agencies.
Long-term lead exposure is especially dangerous for unborn babies and young children. Ask your pediatrician or local health department how often your children should be tested for elevated lead levels. If lead levels are elevated, seek help investigating the source of exposure and eliminating the risk. Families with children suffering from lead poisoning may have rights under federal and state fair housing laws; seek advice from a housing advocate or attorney if you are unable to get assistance with your situation.
If your residence needs lead abatement work done, check with your county or municipality to see if funds are available.
Should I move into an apartment or house where there are problems? What if the landlord promises to fix them?
Generally, the answer is no. You should try to find a place that does not need significant repairs. Even if the landlord promises to make the repairs once you move in, there is no guarantee that the landlord will do so. If the repairs are minor ones (new light bulbs or shower curtain), then it might not make a big difference because you could fix these problems yourself. If the repairs are major (no smoke alarms, broken windows, no heat), you should not move into the apartment.
Many people do move into places with bad conditions because the rent is cheap, the landlord promises to make the repairs and they need a place right away. Make sure that you get the landlord to sign a written agreement added to the lease stating the date the repairs will be completed. If you agree to do some of the work in exchange for a reduction in rent, get that in writing or it will be difficult to prove later.
You should also take pictures of the repairs that are needed. If the landlord doesn’t make repairs and you need to sue him to try to get the repairs made, you will then have the pictures and signed agreement as proof of the conditions and the landlord’s promise to make the repairs. Remember to keep a copy of the agreement signed by your landlord.
You want an apartment or house that meets your basic needs, but preferably more than just the basics for shelter and safety. A unit should look clean and well maintained and have a certificate of occupancy, if required. You can call the city or municipality to find out if a certificate of occupancy is required, if an inspection will be required and if the landlord is in good standing and has no outstanding violations.
You may want to talk with tenants in the apartment complex or the neighbors in order to get a sense of how the landlord responds to the needs of the tenants. Do a Google search of the landlord or company you will be renting from to check their reputation in the community. Use the apartment inspection checklists at the end of this booklet as a guide to ensure that you have taken a careful look at the property.