A. WHO IS RESPONSIBLE - LANDLORD OR TENANT?
Written leases sometimes state who is responsible for different kinds of repairs. For example, a tenant who is renting a house, rather than an apartment, may have a lease which states that all minor repairs are the responsibility of the tenant and all major repairs are the responsibility of the landlord.
If the tenant has an oral lease, or a written lease that does not state who is responsible for repairs, the general rule is that the landlord is responsible for all major repairs and repairs necessary because of normal wear and tear. If the tenant caused the damage, the tenant may be responsible for repairing the damage. For example, it a tenant's child breaks a window, the tenant may have to repair it.
If the lease does not state who has responsibility for a particular repair, the housing code of the city or township may have the answer. In Harrisburg, check with the Bureau of Codes Enforcement (255-6552).
B. WHAT SHOULD THE TENANT DO?
When repairs are needed, the tenant should tell the landlord what is wrong, in writing, and give the landlord a chance to make the repairs. If the tenant has trouble getting the landlord to make the repairs, there are several things the tenant can do
- Call the City Bureau of Codes Enforcement and request a housing code inspection (see Section III).
- Terminate the lease and move out.
- Arrange to have the repairs made himself/herself by a reputable repair person and deduct the cost from the rent. (Warning -- this procedure can be dangerous if done without the landlord's agreement. Read Section C below carefully before using this remedy).
Recent new law in Pennsylvania now allows the tenant to stop paying some or all rent if the landlord does not make necessary repairs. A tenant who withholds rent when a landlord has failed to make necessary repairs may have a good defense it the landlord decides to sue for back rent or eviction, if s/he can prove that the house or apartment is worth only the smaller amount of rent. This new law is called "implied warranty of habitability" and gives tenants more rights than the old law did.
C. REPAIR AND DEDUCT AND IMPLIED WARRANTY OF HABITABILITY
Pennsylvania law allows a tenant to make necessary repairs and deduct the cost of the repairs from the rent under certain circumstances. Under the old law, repair and deduct was allowed in only two situations:
- The landlord had promised to make repairs but repeatedly failed or neglected to do so.
- The repair was necessary to prevent further injury to the property.
The old repair and deduct remedy could result in eviction based on non-payment of rent. To avoid eviction for non-payment of rent, the tenant had to show that the landlord consented to the repair. The best protection for the tenant was to get a signed agreement from the landlord authorizing the tenant to make the repair. Then, when the repair was made, the tenant paid the balance of the rent with a copy of a receipt for the repairs. The cost of the repair had to be reasonable and receipts were absolutely necessary.
If the tenant failed to get the consent of the landlord, the landlord could decide to terminate the lease and evict the tenant.
Example: Ms. Adams rented an apartment from Mr. Baker for $150.00 per month. The roof in the apartment developed a leak in April in Ms. Adams' living room. The rain water that seeped in through the leak was discoloring the walls and warping the wood floor. Ms. Adams called Mr. Baker, but he did not make the repairs. The stains on the wall kept getting bigger, and the floor became more warped. Ms. Adams then sent Mr. Baker a letter saying that if Mr. Baker did not make the repairs within two weeks, she would have the repairs made and deduct the cost from the rent. Ms. Adams heard nothing from Mr. Baker. Ms. Adams called Collins Roofers, a local company with a good reputation, and Mr. Collins made the repairs at a cost of $100.00. Ms. Adams paid Mr. Collins. In her next rent payment, Ms. Adams sent Mr. Baker a copy of her receipt from Mr. Collins plus $50.00. Ms. Adams' rent for that month was paid in full.
Under the old law, it was not clear whether or not Ms. Adams might be evicted for non-payment of rent or in retaliation for using this procedure against the landlord's desire.
Under the new "implied warranty of habitability" law, the tenant's obligation to pay rent and the landlord's obligation to maintain habitable (safe, sanitary and fit) premises depend upon each other. If the landlord breaks his obligation to keep the premises in a reasonable fit condition, this may relieve the tenant from his obligation to pay part or all of his rent until the landlord makes all necessary repairs. The landlord must be given notice of defects and a reasonable opportunity to make repairs, but he does not have to promise to repair before the tenant withholds rent. The warranty of habitability is required by law in all leases (oral and written). The repair need not be necessary to prevent further in jury to the property to justify the use of the warranty; generally, substantial housing code violations are sufficient. In the above example, Ms. Adams could not be evicted for non-payment of rent it she used the warranty to justify a rent payment of only $50.00.
It is important that the tenant inform the landlord in writing of his/her intention to stop paying all or part of the rent if necessary repairs are not made in a reasonable amount of time. The tenant should keep a copy of the letter and copies of all receipts for repairs. If the landlord decides to sue the tenant for that portion of the rent which was withheld, the tenant will need these records as part of his/her defense.