Landlords in Pennsylvania can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in Pennsylvania.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated December 22, 2021
If you’re a renter or tenant in Pennsylvania, you’re probably aware that your landlord has the right to evict you in certain situations. But you might not know what these situations are or how the eviction process goes. This article discusses Pennsylvania’s basic eviction process, including what legal protections and rights tenants and renters have. You’ll find this article especially helpful if you’re a tenant and have just received notice from your landlord that they want to evict you for being behind on rent or because your lease is about to end.
What Is Eviction?
Eviction is the legal process where a landlord removes a tenant from the landlord’s property. In Pennsylvania, the eviction process is outlined by the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951. Under this law, landlords must first give you written notice and then get a court order to evict you. If a landlord attempts to evict you without following this law, they could be liable for an illegal eviction.
Who Can Be Evicted in Pennsylvania?
To evict someone under the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951, there must be a landlord-tenant relationship. Generally speaking, this relationship is created when a landowner agrees to let a person rent their property in exchange for money. In many cases, this agreement is formalized in a written contract often referred to as a rental agreement or lease.
Sometimes, an eviction can occur without the presence of a landlord-tenant relationship. For example, if someone is living with a tenant when the tenant gets evicted, this roommate also needs to move out along with the tenant. This is true even if the roommate never signed the lease.
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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in Pennsylvania?
The Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951 sets out four main scenarios where a landlord may evict a tenant:
The nonpayment of rent, whether the tenant is late, behind, or short on rent.
A lease violation, other than the requirement to pay rent.
The expiration of the lease.
The tenant’s involvement in certain unlawful activities relating to illegal drugs.
The eviction process is similar for all of these reasons, and most of the differences relate to the timing of the eviction notice.
Late, Short, or Behind on Rent?
In Pennsylvania, rent is late when it’s not paid on or by its due date. State law doesn’t provide a grace period. But your lease agreement might include a grace period that allows you to pay your rent a few days late without the risk of eviction or having to pay late fees.
Lease Expiration or Termination
Pennsylvania landlords can evict a tenant when there’s no longer a lease in effect. This can happen if the landlord terminates the lease or the lease expires without being renewed or extended.
A landlord might terminate a lease before the term ends if the tenant violates one of the provisions in the lease. If this occurs, the landlord can evict the tenant, even if they’re current on rent.
A lease expiration occurs when the lease term ends and the landlord chooses not to extend the current lease or enter into a new one. If this happens, the tenant must move out by the end of their lease. If they don’t, the landlord may evict them, even if the tenant has violated no other term of the lease and is current with rent.
The Pennsylvania Eviction Process
An eviction proceeding can take place to remove either a residential or commercial tenant. But the following sections will only give an overview of the residential eviction process in Pennsylvania state.
What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?
No matter the reason for the eviction, before the landlord can start an eviction action, they must provide a written eviction notice (sometimes called a notice to quit) to the tenant. The manner and amount of the notice will depend on the reason for the eviction. The landlord must properly serve the tenant with this notice using one of the following methods:
Personally handing the eviction notice to the tenant.
Mailing a copy of the notice to the rental property.
Posting a copy of the notice in a visible location at the rental property.
One thing to keep in mind is that the amount of notice is subject to change. Tenants may agree to waive their right to notice or agree to shorter notice requirements. But if this happens, these modified notice requirements should be set out in the written lease or rental agreement.
Evictions Notices for Nonpayment of Rent
For evictions due to the nonpayment of rent, the landlord must serve the tenant with a 10-day notice. The tenant then has 10 days to either make up any past-due rent or move out. If they don’t do either, they face a potential eviction action.
The notice for nonpayment of rent must also include the following information:
The date the notice was served on the tenant.
An explanation of how the notice was served on the tenant.
The name of the tenant and the address of the rental property.
The reason for the notice of eviction.
The total amount of unpaid rent, including any late fees or other charges. The notice must also explain where the tenant can pay the unpaid rent and how much time the tenant has to become current with rent or move out (usually 10 days).
Information relating to the landlord’s right to pursue legal action.
Eviction Notices for Breach of the Lease
If the eviction is the result of a breach of the lease, then the notice the landlord provides depends on the type of tenancy.
If the tenancy has no definite expiration date or lasts for one year or less, landlords must provide 15 days’ notice.
If the tenancy is for more than a year, then the tenant receives 30 days’ notice.
Be aware that Pennsylvania doesn’t require landlords to offer tenants an opportunity to cure the breach and avoid eviction. This means the tenant doesn’t get the opportunity to fix whatever problem led to the eviction.
If the landlord needs to evict a tenant due to illegal drug activity then the tenant gets 10 days’ notice. If the tenant doesn’t move out within 10 days of receiving notice, the landlord can proceed with the eviction.
Eviction Notices for Lease Expiration
Landlords wishing to evict tenants when there’s no longer a lease in effect will need to provide notice based on the type of tenancy in place before the eviction:
At-will tenancy: These are tenancies for an undefined amount of time. There often isn’t a written lease agreement. Landlords must provide 15 days’ notice for at-will tenancies.
Tenancies for a year or less: Landlords must give tenants 15 days’ notice.
Tenancies for more than a year: Landlords must provide 30 days’ notice to tenants.
What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court?
After the landlord serves proper notice on the tenant, they can officially begin the eviction action by filing a complaint with the appropriate Pennsylvania court. In most eviction matters, it’ll be a magisterial district court located in the county where the rental property is located. Although in certain counties, like Philadelphia County, some eviction cases could be heard in municipal court. The complaint will explain why the landlord wants the eviction. The court then gives the landlord a summons.
A summons explains why the tenant is being sued and provides a court date for the eviction hearing. The date will be at least seven, but no more than 10, days from the date of the summons. After the landlord gets the summons, they’ll serve it and the complaint on the tenant using any of the methods used for serving the eviction notice.
It’s important that you attend the court hearing listed on the summons. If you don’t, the court will likely grant a default judgment in the landlord’s favor. This means you lose your case automatically no matter how good your defenses to the eviction might be. This could mean you not only get evicted, but you may also have a monetary judgment entered against you if your landlord tries to recover back rent or money for property damage.
At the hearing, the landlord will tell the court why they believe you should be evicted. This includes providing evidence to show what you did (or didn’t do) to justify the eviction. Evidence can take many forms, but it often consists of testimony and documentation. After the landlord presents their case, you’ll have a chance to respond and present your defenses and evidence in support of them.
Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania doesn’t require you to file an official response (answer) to the landlord’s complaint to present your defenses to the eviction. You can present your defenses for the first time at the eviction hearing.
Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims
When presenting defenses in an eviction hearing, your defenses can take two possible forms. First, there are affirmative defenses, which you must raise on your own (you can’t have the judge do it for you). An affirmative defense is a legal argument that, if accepted by the court, will stop the eviction. If your landlord evicted you in retaliation for your complaining to the health department about the rental unit’s unsanitary conditions, you can use this as an affirmative defense, for example.
Second, there are counterclaims. These are claims that are legally distinct from the eviction lawsuit, but often rely on facts relating to the eviction. So even if you win your counterclaim, you could still get evicted. A potential counterclaim in an eviction action might include you suing your landlord for monetary damage because the landlord illegally evicted you by changing the locks to your apartment.
What Happens After an Eviction Trial?
After the eviction trial, the judge will issue a decision granting or denying the eviction. Regardless of how the case turns out, either side may file an appeal to the court of common pleas. The time to appeal will be either 10 days (for most evictions) or 30 days if the tenant is the victim of domestic abuse. You must also place a deposit with the court equal to the amount of rent due as calculated by the court.
If the landlord wins the eviction case and you decide not to appeal, they can ask the court for a writ of possession, which is a court order. The court will issue a writ of possession five days after entering judgment granting the eviction. The writ of possession must be served on the tenant through personal service or by posting a copy in a visible location at the rental property. After the writ of possession is served, you have at least 11 days to move out before you can be physically removed from the property.
If you’re being evicted because of unpaid rent, you can avoid eviction by paying all past-due rent, plus any court-ordered fees and litigation costs any time before the writ of possession is served on you. If you choose to do this, take careful note of who you need to make this payment to (your landlord or the court), and be sure to get a receipt confirming it.
Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in Pennsylvania
If you find yourself facing eviction in Pennsylvania, there are several things you want to remember to get through the process. For instance, if you plan on fighting the eviction in court, you should begin preparing for your eviction hearing as soon as possible. This means the moment you realize you might get evicted, you should start identifying potential evidence.
This includes gathering documents, like bank statements, receipts, invoices, and your lease. You should also consider collecting any photographs, videos, screenshots, or other pieces of evidence that’ll support your defenses and legal arguments. If one of your arguments involves the condition of the rental property, consider contacting a municipal building inspector to visit the property and prepare a report about its conditions.
Do everything you reasonably can to appear at your scheduled court date. Otherwise, you risk a default judgment. If you need to reschedule your eviction hearing, contact the court and ask for a new date. The court can often accommodate you if you have a good reason for not being able to show up to your hearing. If the court can’t reschedule your hearing, at least the judge will know that you’re not showing up and will be less likely to grant a default judgment in the landlord’s favor.
Keep an open line of communication with your landlord. This can reduce any confusion during the eviction proceeding. It may also allow you to negotiate with your landlord to stop the eviction or help reduce its negative impact. For example, your landlord may agree to give you extra time to make up late rent payments. Or if eviction is inevitable, the landlord might agree to give you extra time to move out and to drop their eviction lawsuit against you. Even though you’ll need to find a new place to live, not having an eviction show up in your rental history will make finding a new apartment easier.
Whatever agreement you and your landlord reach, make sure it’s put into writing and that you and the landlord or the landlord’s representative (such as a property manager) sign it.
If you have the opportunity to cure your breach of the rental agreement, take careful note of its conditions. Be aware of any deadlines and get proof you did what you were supposed to do, like a receipt when making an extra rent payment.
Finally, don’t hesitate to make use of the tenant resources available. Because evictions are a common legal struggle for many renters, there are nonprofit legal aid organizations with tenant’s rights lawyers that can help Pennsylvanians navigate the eviction process and understand their eviction protections. Besides providing legal services, these resources may also explain other tenant programs that may apply to you like emergency rental assistance programs.