If you’re among the high percentage of renters in Philadelphia, then you should know your rights. Why? Because if you’re as unfortunate as me, you could end up in a legal agreement with a building manager who takes two weeks to repair your hot water heater, won’t fix faulty wiring, didn’t have locks on over half of your windows when you moved in, gets in screaming matches with your neighbors over the phone, thinks it’s unimportant to fix a front door that was kicked in by a burglar and no longer closes reliably.
In short, it can be horrible. But there are ways you can stand up for yourself and enforce your rights as a renter. Take it from me, I know.
Do your research before you sign a lease
Here’s a part that, to my regret, I skipped entirely.
The first and simplest thing you can do is to look up your management company on Yelp to scan comments from current and prior renters. It’s important, however, to take some of the comments with a grain of salt. A few vengeful tenants might bad-mouth a landlord because their dog chewed through a door and they’re mad that they didn’t get their deposit back. Conversely, bear in mind that some management companies will create fake positive reviews to balance out the bad ones. But if you see a pattern of complaints, chances are that they’re valid.
You can also google your management company. There will likely be reviews on social media and other sites. And if your landlord is a single individual, you can google that person and talk to the current tenants about their experience.
Another important pre-lease signing search: Check to see if your landlord has been to small-claims court recently.
Log in as a public user and search your landlord as a defendant to find cases in which someone is suing the landlord as opposed to cases in which the landlord is suing a tenant for non-payment. Look back at least two years in the records.
You can also see if your property has had any code violations with the Philadelphia Department of Licensing and Inspection.
Finally, read your lease thoroughly and negotiate things that you do not like.
What to look for on your walk through
I have rented apartments where I wished I’d thought to check for something in particular.
Look at every single door and window in the unit to make sure they lock. If the floor tiles are broken, remember that grout could pop up and stab you in the foot (which happens to me at least once a week). Make sure the features you have work — like your garbage disposal, dishwasher, lights, doorbell or appliances.
On its website, the city lists the minimum standard codes for rental property apartments.
In general, it’s a good practice to make a list of things you need to check out — not just desired features — before you even set foot into the apartment.
What to do if you’ve signed a lease and are having problems
Every person who signs a lease in Philadelphia should be provided with a copy of the lease and these three things:
I cannot emphasize the importance of the Certificate of Rental Suitability enough. Getting this means that you’re living in a legal apartment that is both zoned correctly and has a renter’s license and has been inspected by L&I. You want your apartment to have been inspected recently so that there aren’t things like gas leaks, faulty wiring or poor infrastructure.
If your landlord does not have a Certificate of Rental Suitability, your apartment is not being legally rented. This will give you leverage if you need things fixed or are having any other problem. It only costs $50 per unit, and your landlord must have one that is valid.
The city’s website has a map that shows you if your property has a renter’s license with L&I. Also, if you happen to know of any other properties this landlord has, it can give you some leverage to know that there are other illegally rented properties.
When things aren’t getting fixed, call L&I. It is illegal for any landlord to retaliate in any way after you’ve called L&I with a complaint.
Be sure that you create a paper trail when you make complaints. Even if you are doing a phone call with your landlord, immediately send an email afterward that includes a summary of what you discussed.
What you should know about your rights
If you’re a dog owner like me, you may not be keen on handymen coming into your apartment to fix things without your knowledge — for their safety and your liability. And it’s actually not legal for your landlord to let people into your apartment without prior warning. Except in the case of emergency, your landlord is required to give you 24 hours’ notice.
Your landlord can never evict you without going through the proper legal process. They cannot change the locks on you. Even if your landlord is not legally renting the apartment, they still have to go through proper channels. Also know that your landlord cannot sue you for non-payment if they are illegally renting — though I wouldn’t recommend not paying rent.
When you’re being wrongfully evicted or threatened, it’s time to call the Fair Housing Commission.
If a landlord is unwilling to fix things in the apartment, you can escrow your rent. This means you can create a third-party account where you hold all rent funds instead of paying it to your landlord. But you must notify your landlord in writing prior to doing this. You should also have several documented complaints prior to making the decision to escrow your rent.
When you leave your apartment
When it comes to security deposits, remember that you’re only responsible for paying for damage caused by you. You are not responsible for paying for maintenance. For example, if there is something wrong with your stove, you should not be paying for a new one unless you personally set it on fire. Ask for receipts for all deductions from your deposit. If something doesn’t look right or if they can’t provide that information, it’s probably time to talk to a lawyer.
Having an unscrupulous landlord is a nightmare. Be sure you know your rights and use these steps to get action on things you need done.