Back to Basics: Landlord Tenant Law

By Desiree Brougher | Sept. 29, 2023 | 6 min. read

A day on the PAR Legal Hotline wouldn’t be complete without a handful of calls about landlord and tenant issues. With several laws from the federal, state and municipal governments having implications on your practice in this area, there is a lot to remember. For your reference, here is an overview of the basics of landlord/tenant laws applicable to Pennsylvania and some real questions that we have received.

The main state law that you should be familiar with as a landlord or property manager is the Pennsylvania Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951 (yes, 1951). This is the law that sets out requirements for leases, procedures for how to recover unpaid rent and recover possession of the leased premises and tenants’ rights. You should also be quite familiar with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which is the law that prohibits discrimination in making housing-related decisions. These are the laws that will impact every landlord-tenant relationship in Pennsylvania.

Relevant federal laws include the Fair Housing Act, which, like the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, prohibits discrimination in housing-related decisions, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which carries certain responsibilities for those who use consumer reports to make housing decisions. Locally, the laws may vary greatly. Some municipalities require rental properties to be registered and inspected before a landlord may enter into a lease, while others require nothing at all.

We understand that it’s a lot, even for this article, which truly only covers the basics. While no separate license is required to be a property manager, there is a reason that the State Real Estate Commission made it the mandatory CE topic during the last renewal cycle.

Here are just a few examples of some of the calls we’ve received:

Caller: Can you believe his tenant never told us that they have a service/support animal? Don’t they have to tell us?

Hotline: No. In fact, it’s probably better for your landlord if the tenant doesn’t tell them prior to submitting the application, because then any argument that the landlord used the tenant’s disability against them would be a very weak one. Since a landlord cannot use a person’s disability – or their service/assistance animal – as a factor in a housing-related decision, then it does not matter that the landlord wasn’t told at the time of application. Once the tenant has been approved and the landlord learns about the animal, there is documentation that the landlord can ask for, the requirements of which can be found in the Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act. PAR has set up a resource page with many articles and FAQs on service and support animals, and we strongly suggest that you review these resources before calling the Hotline with your questions.

Caller: Is it true that a landlord can only ask for two months’ rent upfront?

Hotline: Not exactly. Though there has been a limitation in the Landlord and Tenant Act for years, this most recently came to light for many people in 2018 when the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided the case of E.S. Management v. Yingkai Gao, et al., the details of which were explained in a previous post by Attorney Jim Goldsmith. The court found a violation of Section 511.1 of the Landlord and Tenant Act, which prohibits any residential landlord from requiring “a sum in excess of two months’ rent” to be deposited into escrow for the payment of damages, either to the property or for default of the lease. This prohibition is only for the first year of the lease; in the second and subsequent years, the maximum that a landlord can hold is the equivalent of one month’s rent.

Callers often ask questions about various other ways that a landlord might collect extra money upfront. For example, it’s common to be asked whether the landlord could collect the last month’s rent or a “pet deposit” (for a legitimate pet, because of course, you can’t collect extra deposits for an assistance animal). If the goal is to collect extra money that would be held back to cover potential damages (pet deposit) or unpaid rent (last month’s rent), then the answer is “no” – anything collected in advance to protect against damage or non-payment is covered by this cap. We also field questions about whether landlords can collect rent for more than one month at a time – for example, whether tenants could agree to pay three months at a time, or even a whole year at once. The answer to that one is, you guessed it, it depends. A lot would depend on the reason for collecting those funds and how they’re held, so our best advice is to contact a local attorney with landlord-tenant experience to advise on the details. PAR does have a form for collecting additional funds upfront called the Advance Payment Addendum to Rental Application, but you have to be sure the payment is permitted before using that form to collect it.

Caller: My buyer is purchasing a tenant-occupied property. Can they tell the tenants to vacate after they purchase or increase the rent?

Hotline: Probably not. A lease is a binding contract and if the lease itself doesn’t say that it is binding on the landlord’s successors in interest, then Section 104 of the Landlord and Tenant Act does. A new owner may decide not to renew current leases or may increase rent in the next term for a tenant, but a change in ownership does not give a landlord the right to evict compliant tenants or change lease terms unless the lease itself contains language allowing the owner to end the lease on a transfer of ownership.

Caller: What is the process for eviction?

Hotline: There are different procedures depending on the reason for eviction, which may be modified by the parties’ lease. Giving the proper steps really requires a deeper knowledge of the circumstances, which we do not have on a hotline call. If you are trying to represent your client – or trying to do it for yourself – and do not know the process, then our answer will always be that your client (or you) should hire an attorney to handle it.

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