Looking to rent in Pittsburgh? Here’s what to know before signing a lease

Tenants have rights, but also responsibilities — and if you’re renting, you should keep an eye out for red flag lease terms.

by Jack Troy, PublicSource

It’s always rental season in Pittsburgh, which means you or someone you know could be pondering the fine print of a lease right now.

The pandemic broke the typical May-to-August peak in apartment hunting and replaced it with a constant demand, according to Megan Confer-Hammond, chief executive of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh. 

Housing costs, meanwhile, are rising: Apartment listing firm Dwellsy.com found that Pittsburgh rents leapt 13% in the 12 months ending in August. That means signing a lease can be more consequential than ever.

Attorneys and advocates in landlord-tenant law say the perfect lease is elusive, but it’s important to be aware of your rights and obligations as a renter before putting pen to paper. 

Read on to learn about common elements of a lease, legal guardrails on the landlord-tenant relationship and potential red flags. 

What laws govern rental housing? 

First off, some good news: You won’t have to master obscure legal jargon to understand a lease. The Pennsylvania Plain Language Consumer Contract Act requires that leases be written in simple and direct terms. 

This clarity will come in handy. Your rights and responsibilities as a tenant exist mostly on a lease-by-lease basis in Pennsylvania. The state’s landlord-tenant laws lack guidelines on fees for late rent, notices of entry by a landlord and other key clauses. 

At the federal level, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination against renters based on race, nationality, religion, sex, familial status, age, status as a victim of domestic violence or disability. That last category can be particularly relevant to rentals. 

Tenants with disabilities can count on receiving “reasonable accommodations,” such as ramps, grab bars or having the landlord waive their “no pets” policy for assistance animals. The Fair Housing Act also requires landlords to treat disability checks as equivalent to earned income during the application process. 

Pittsburgh added gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes in 2019. City Council also tried to ban all forms of discrimination by source of income, which would have effectively forced landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers, but the state Supreme Court struck down the ordinance. 

What can you expect from the screening process?

Landlords commonly run credit and background checks on applicants. They’re also able to reject prospective tenants with incomes below what may be necessary to consistently make rent. 

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