Landlord/Tenant Law

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the April 15, 2008 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live.

Landlord/Tenant Law

Common Questions

I’ve signed a lease and moved into my new apartment. It looked fine at first, but now I see there are many items that need repair. Is there anything I can do?

The first rule of thumb is to always check your lease. Sometimes leases will say who is responsible for certain repairs. Generally, unless the lease states otherwise, the landlord is responsible for repairs that are necessary from normal wear and tear and for major repairs. For example, if your furnace goes, it is the landlord’s responsibility.

The rooms in the home that I’m renting badly needed to be painted and re-wallpapered. I’ve done these updates myself. Can I now get the landlord to reimburse me?

Generally, if your lease says nothing about it and you alter the condition of the property, not only is the landlord NOT responsible for reimbursing you, he/she can also require you to return the property to its previous condition before the repairs were made. For example, if the walls were a drab baby blue when you moved in and you paint them a bright cheery yellow without the landlord’s permission, you may be footing the bill to paint everything the drab blue before you move out.

My hot water tank has died, and when I call the landlord all I get is voicemail. Doesn’t he/she have to respond and fix this immediately?

While the landlord does have a duty to respond and make the repair (this is considered a major repair), you do have to give him/her a reasonable time to do so. "Reasonable" is generally a day in the case of major repairs such as this, but there are ALWAYS exceptions. If, for example, your furnace goes out in the middle of winter when it’s 20 degrees below zero, one or two days is not a reasonable time. Also keep in mind that just because you know someone who you think can respond faster, that does not mean that the landlord is required to use that person.

If a repair is needed, you must first contact the landlord, then follow up with a written letter detailing the problem and requesting the repair. If this is done and the landlord still fails to act in repairing the problem, then you may have legal recourse and should talk to an attorney.

I’ve accepted a job in another city and need to terminate my lease and move out of my apartment. How much notice do I have to give my landlord, and is there anything I am responsible for? Can I get my security deposit back?

Again, always check the terms of your lease. Usually a lease will not only set out the terms of the lease and its duration, it will also set out how much notice is to be given when terminating. If the lease does not say anything about the notice required, a tenant is not required to give any notice to the landlord when moving out as long as it is done when the lease ends. If the lease says nothing and the tenant wants to move out before the end of the lease, at least 30 days are required. Also, the tenant should notify the landlord as soon as possible so that the landlord may try to rent the property. Keep in mind that once a lease is signed, if you move out before the end of the lease, the landlord can hold you to the full term of the lease.

To get the security deposit returned, the tenant must give the landlord, or his/her agent, a forwarding address in writing at or before the time the tenant actually moves out. The landlord must then, within 30 days from the date the tenant moves out (1) return the security deposit or (2) send the tenant a list of damages the tenant caused in the apartment, the cost of the repairs, plus any extra money left over from the security deposit. If the landlord does not return the security deposit or does not provide the written list of damages within thirty days, the tenant can sue the landlord for double the security deposit by going to a magistrate's office and filing a complaint against the landlord.

I’ve lost my job and have fallen behind on my rent. The landlord said I need to be out by the end of the week. What rights do I have?

There are three reasons a landlord can evict a tenant:

  1. the term of the lease has ended;
  2. the tenant is behind in the rent; or
  3. the tenant has breached some clause in the lease

A landlord cannot just change the locks. There is a specific procedure that must be followed. The landlord must:

  1. Give the tenant an eviction notice by either handing it to the tenant or posting it on the property. The notice must state the reason for the eviction and the date when the tenant is being asked to leave. Usually a lease will state the time to be given for an eviction notice. If the lease says nothing however, and the lease is for one year or less, the tenant must be given 30 days notice.

  2. File a landlord tenant complaint with the local magistrate. The tenant will receive a copy of this complaint both in the mail and by either being personally served or having the complaint posted on the property. The complaint will ask for possession of the property and money damages for failure to pay the rent due.

  3. Attend a hearing where both he/she and the tenant will present testimony and request the court to find in his/her favor. IF THE TENANT DOES NOT ATTEND THIS HEARING THE LANDLORD WINS BY DEFAULT.

  4. Request an Order of Possession if the landlord wins at the magistrate hearing. No sooner than 15 days after winning at the magistrate hearing, the landlord can have the constable give the tenant an "Order for Possession." This is a notice telling the tenant that unless the tenant is out of the property by a certain date (no sooner than 10 days after the date the tenant receives the notice) the Constable can forcibly set the tenant and their property out of the apartment. This gives the tenant at least 30 days to vacate after losing at the magistrate hearing.

I had personal property that was left in my old apartment after I was evicted. What happened to it, and isn’t the landlord responsible for keeping my property safe?

If you had to be forcibly evicted, and you haven’t secured a place for your belongings, the Constable can store your things at a storage company at your expense, although they are not required to. You must pay any storage bill before getting your things back. If you don’t pay the storage bill or make arrangements regarding your things, they can be sold by the storage company to pay the storage bill.

A landlord cannot keep your things or sell them to recover money for damages to the property or back rent.

As always, for a referral to an attorney who practices in the field of landlord/tenant law, call the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.