The Intersection of Housing and Consumer Law
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that residential leases are considered consumer transactions. That doesn’t seem like a big deal to us today, but back then it was a big shift in real estate law. Real estate law developed from English common law to define the relationship between landlords and tenants. Before the industrial revolution, most of those tenants were tenant farmers, and the relationship included money and crops to the landlord in return for the right to farm the land for a period of years.  The buildings were less important than the land, so the tenant was expected to repair them as needed.
As “tenement” flats developed, the relationship became one between owners of buildings and those who would rent units in the building. The relationship was still based upon property, but now the property was a place to live, generally in exchange for monthly rent paid to the owner, and not so much about the land beneath the building. Today, landlord tenant law is a contract between owner and renter, governed by federal, state and local laws; rules of court; property and contract law; and equitable principles.
Sixty-four years ago, Pennsylvania passed the Landlord Tenant Act of 1951, 68 Pa.C.S.A.§§ 250.101-505, which includes, for example, procedures for Magisterial District Court evictions, limitations on the length of verbal leases (three years), and rules governing security deposits. However, the common law rule of “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware” still applied to residential leases. Moore v. Weber, 71 Pa. 429 (1872).
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 1979 abolished the doctrine of caveat emptor in favor of the modern view that leases are contracts for housing services. Pugh v. Holmes, 486 Pa. 272, 405 A.2d 297(1979). The Court ruled that there is an implied warranty of habitability in every residential lease. Recognizing the unequal bargaining power between tenant and landlord, particularly in a time of housing shortage. The implied warranty of habitability protects tenants whose rental units are all or partially uninhabitable. This rule applies at the beginning or for the duration of the lease. The tenant may raise the warranty of habitability as a claim against the landlord or as a defense to a claim for rent.
The Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) allows consumers to seek actual and treble damages if they have been subject to unfair or deceptive practices in trade or commerce. 73 Pa.Cons. St. § 201.1-3. In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Monumental Properties, Inc., 459 Pa. 450, 329 A2d 812 (1974), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that this statute applied to residential lease and should be liberally construed. In a case where the landlord claimed that repairs were needed to the property after the tenant vacated, but the tenant was able to prove no repairs were in fact needed, the Superior Court upheld a finding that the UTPCPL was violated. Wallace v. Pastore, 742 A.2d 1090 (Pa.Super.1999). The court found that the landlord had “knowingly misrepresented that goods, replacements or repairs are needed and they are not needed” UTPCPL, 201-2(4)(xv). The UTPCPL provides for damages for the consumer, which may include actual damages, attorneys’ fees and costs of the suit. A trial court may, in its discretion, award up to three times the amount of damages.
Whether the lease is written or verbal, the parties must agree on which party is responsible for the utilities. The tenant may be responsible for electric and gas, while the landlord is responsible for water and sewer, for example. But the Pennsylvania Utility Code provides certain protections for consumers. For example, the landlord is required to ensure that each residential unit is “individually metered.” 66 Pa. C.S. 1520.1. This means that there cannot be a “foreign load” on the tenant’s utility bill; the tenant’s wiring cannot include the common areas or another apartment.
If the unit is not individually metered, the remedy under the Utility Code is to put the utility bill in the owner’s name, including past due balance. The utility company will not allow the tenant to be billed for the service until it is confirmed that the wiring has been repaired. The anti-retaliation provision of the law applies and there is a presumption of retaliation if the owner seeks to raise the rent or evict the tenant within six months of the tenant acting with regard to this section. 66 Pa.C.S. §1530.
This presumption is rebuttable by the landlord, if the landlord can prove that the action was not related to the foreign load problem. But if the defense is unsuccessful, the landlord can be subject to a claim for actual damages, two months’ rent and attorneys’ fees. The tenant may also have a claim under the UTPCPL, but must be able to prove that there was deceptive conduct, which resulted in an ascertainable loss in order to establish damages. Grimes v. Enterprise Leasing, 105 A.3rd 188 (Pa. 2014).
Tenants who have questions about how the law applies to their situation may call our intake line, and apply for services. An advocate will review your situation and provide advice, often on the same day. Applicants must meet eligibility criteria, including income guidelines. Our Intake number is 1-877-953-4250; hours are Mon-Th., 9:00-11:30, 1:30-4:00; Fri 9-11:30.
In addition, North Penn Legal Services provides outreaches in the community and CLE’s for attorneys and paralegals interested in providing pro bono advice or representation. For more information, please contact the local office manager. For CLE’s or outreaches on landlord tenant or consumer law issues, please contact Lori Molloy, Managing Attorney, at 610-317-8757, extension 5306 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The relationship between tenants and landlords in Western Pennsylvania in the 18th century, including a description of George Washington as absentee landlord in that region, is described in the journal. “Tenancy and Asset-Holding in Late Eighteenth Century Washington County, Pennsylvania”, Lee Saltow and Kenneth W. Keller, Western Pennsylvania Historical Journal, (1982) https://journals.psu.edu/wph/article/viewFile/3746/3564.
 “ The rule here, as in other cases, is caveat emptor. The lessee’s eyes are his bargain. He is bound to examine the premises he rents, and secure himself by covenants to repair.” Id. at 432.