Landlord and tenant relationships seem simple and straightforward on the surface; however, that relationship has the ability to become confusing once a dispute arises. A dispute between landlords and tenants usually occurs because of an unclear or unperformed responsibility like paying rent, paying for repairs, or paying for damages to either the landlord’s or the tenant’s property.
The relationship between a landlord and tenant is governed by Pennsylvania’s Landlord Tenant Act and reflected more specifically in the lease agreement. A lease agreement is a legally binding contract, which can be written or oral, that outlines what the landlord and tenant responsibilities are and that both parties intend to perform these responsibilities. Some common responsibilities covered in a lease are:
- Length of the leasing term;
- Security deposit and what it covers (Note: In Pennsylvania, the security deposit may not exceed the amount of two months of rent);
- Rent rate and payment schedule;
- Repair policy and Procedures; and
- Right of the landlord to enter the premises.
These are not the only responsibilities that will be included in the lease agreement; however, they are typical responsibilities that would most likely either be unclear or unperformed and would give rise to a dispute as a result. A landlord can exercise their discretion to include additional responsibilities like pet policies and if a tenant may give a spare key to a family member or friend, etc.; however, terms like these do not make or break a lease agreement and are less likely to result in a dispute.
Landlords and Tenants are encouraged to resolve their disputes by themselves or through arbitration before a party files a complaint. If a resolution cannot be reached, landlord and tenant disputes are typically filed in the Magisterial District Court as long as the recovery amount does not exceed $12,000. The hearing for landlord and tenant disputes generally follows the same pattern as a typical magistrate hearing. Those disputes that have a value greater than $12,000 or are appealed from the Magisterial District Court are heard in the Court of Common Pleas.
Going to court over landlord/tenant disputes can quickly become costly for both a landlord and a tenant. It is always more cost-effective to resolve a dispute outside of court and good communication with a landlord or tenant is extremely important as well as being familiar with each parties’ rights under Pennsylvania’s Landlord and Tenant Act and the specific lease agreement in order to come to a fair resolution. Consulting a lawyer is also beneficial even if the dispute is not taken to court.
The Eviction Process
Some common reasons for eviction are failing to pay rent, breach of the lease agreement other than nonpayment of rent, or the term of the lease is up and the landlord wishes the tenant to vacate the property. However, a landlord may not evict a tenant or member of tenant’s family based on race, sex, age, religion, ancestry, national origin, or disability. Similarly, a landlord may not evict a tenant for complaining about unfit housing conditions nor can a tenant be evicted for withholding rent due to a serious defect in the house or apartment that makes the building unfit to live in; however, the tenant must prove these claims to a Magisterial District Judge.
The process for evicting a tenant through a magistrate hearing is generally the same as any other landlord and tenant dispute except a few additional steps. First, prior to filing suit, the landlord must provide a written notice to the tenant stating that they wish to terminate the lease agreement and evict the tenant as well as the reason for the termination and eviction. Second, if the tenant does not move out after an eviction notice is provided, a landlord may file suit in the Magisterial District Court to have the court confirm their reasons for eviction through a hearing. Lastly a judgment is given to either evict or not evict the tenant which is appealable.
The notice typically includes the landlord’s name, the tenant’s name, the date, the address of the property the tenant should vacate, the reason for eviction, and the date by which a tenant must be moved out. If the reason for eviction is because of the nonpayment of rent, the landlord should include the amount of rent that is due and the method and location a tenant can pay the outstanding rent balance. A landlord may give notice to the tenant directly, either by giving it to the tenant themselves or having a sheriff do so. A landlord may also post the notice on the door of the tenant’s leased apartment unit or house.
After a landlord has provided the tenant with a notice, depending on the reason for eviction the tenant has 10 days, 15 days, or 30 days to move themselves as well as their possessions out of the leased property. A tenant has 10 days to move out when the reason for eviction is for the nonpayment of rent. For a breach of the lease agreement other than the nonpayment of rent or because the lease term of one year or less has ended, the tenant has 15 days to move. Finally, a lease term of more than one year requires the landlord to allow the tenant 30 days to move. During this time a landlord may not change the locks or shut off utilities in order to remove the tenant from the property. If a tenant fails to move in these allotted days, a landlord may then file suit.
Within 7-15 days of the suit being filed and the tenant is made aware of the suit, a hearing in the Magisterial District Court will be held where the parties can argue their case. A Magisterial District Judge will issue a ruling within three days after a hearing stating whether the tenant or landlord won the case. If the tenant won, they may remain living on the property. If the landlord won, the Magisterial District Judge will confirm the right to evict the tenant and give the tenant a date when they have to vacate the leased property, usually ten days after a judgment.
The tenant is not really able to fight an eviction until the landlord files a complaint unless they comply with the landlord’s demands prior to the landlord filing suit or the landlord and tenant reach an agreement in arbitration, resolving the dispute. This is because the Magisterial District Judge will have to determine if the tenant’s argument against eviction is valid. If the tenant is being evicted for nonpayment of rent only, and the tenant acquires the money for rent and the court costs incurred by the landlord at any time during litigation or within 10 days after the judgment, the tenant may pay the money to the landlord and remain living on the property by getting what is commonly referred to as a “pay and stay” judgment by the Magisterial District Judge. The losing party may file an appeal within 10 days of the judgment.
The possibility of being evicted or having to evict can be stressful. Add preparing for and going through a hearing makes the process even more overwhelming. Consulting a lawyer will help make the process much easier and can alleviate some of the stress that comes with taking an eviction case to court. Even though a lawyer is not required for a hearing in Magisterial District Court, a lawyer’s guidance on how to prepare for a hearing or advising what documents are needed can make the difference between a judgment for or against a party.
This article was written by writer and legal intern, Jennifer Lapinski.
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