Pennsylvania's landlord-tenant laws provide rights to both parties in the event of a dispute. A tenant and landlord may have a significant disagreement when the tenant withholds rent due to unsafe or uninhabitable conditions on the rental property. The tenant should follow the proper procedures to withhold rent.
Even when the tenant places the rent in an escrow account, however, the landlord may have the right to evict the tenant after proceedings in a Pennsylvania court.
Reasons to Withhold Rent
The North Penn Legal Services organization explains that a tenant should only withhold rent if the landlord refuses to fix a problem that diminishes the habitability and living conditions of the property. Significant problems include lack of heat during winter, lack of hot water or a functioning sewage system, structural damage to the property or a serious infestation by rodents or vermin. Lesser problems such as leaky plumbing, small cracks in the walls, normal wear-and-tear or a few bugs likely don't justify rent withholding. If the tenant pays to fix a minor problem, the tenant may be able to deduct the expense from a rent payment—however, the tenant should make sure the lease agreement doesn't prohibit this type of one-time reimbursement without prior landlord approval.
Procedures to Follow When Withholding Rent
The tenant should start by providing a written request asking the landlord to fix the problem with the rental property. The tenant should take care to keep copies of all letters. If the landlord refuses to help or fails to fix the problem within a reasonable period of time, the tenant may need to file a complaint with the local health department serving the Pennsylvania county where the tenant lives. If the tenant decides to withhold rent, he should calculate the amount to withhold by considering the severity of the problem and its effect on the tenant's living conditions. Before withholding rent, he should again contact the landlord in writing. The tenant should then place the withheld rent in a separate bank account, also known as an escrow account, to show that he does have the money to pay rent. If the tenant and landlord later have legal proceedings, the separate bank account will show the court that the tenant properly set the money aside.
Landlord's Rights in Pennsylvania
A tenant should understand that rent withholding may serve as a basis for eviction proceedings filed by the landlord. The landlord has a right to file an eviction action against the tenant, serve the tenant with the paperwork and request a court hearing in front of a Pennsylvania magistrate or district judge. The tenant may need to file a cross-complaint against the landlord if the landlord's conduct has resulted in financial losses to the tenant. The tenant may also try to explain the reason for rent withholding and use those circumstances as a defense to the eviction action. The landlord has a right to explain the situation from the landlord's perspective.
Tenant's Rights Before and During Eviction Process
The Pennsylvania Bar Association warns landlords that they can't change the locks, shut off utilities to the rental property or remove the tenant's belongings when a tenant begins to withhold rent. Though a landlord may feel upset, inconvenienced or financially-strained by the rent withholding, Pennsylvania landlord-tenant laws protect the tenant by requiring the landlord to initiate court proceedings rather than act independently to force out the tenant. The landlord must go through the proper legal procedures before regaining control over the rental property.
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