Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the March

21, 2007 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Real Estate Notes

The gap between landlord and tenant is ancient and deep.

Many landlords have come to view regular trips to the

courthouse as a standard cost of doing business. Yet under

urgings from New Jersey’s current legal system, a host of

ways are being found to both prevent disputes and settle

out of court.

The New Jersey State Bar Foundation presents the latest

developments in "Landlord/Tenant Rights" on Monday, March

26, at 7 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New

Brunswick. Visit www.njsbf.com.

On hand to field questions are Scott Conover, supervising

staff attorney for Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, and

Michael Gildenberg, senior staff attorney for Central

Jersey Legal Services.

Conover grew up in several Jersey shore towns and attended

Villanova University, graduating in l986. He took his

electrical engineering degree to RCA’s West Windsor

facility just as the firm was merging with General

Electric. After three years he opted to go to law school

with the idea of becoming a patent attorney. The move

proved a personal epiphany.

"I saw the law as a real vehicle to help people," Conover

says. "And I’ve never regretted the choice." Upon

graduating from Vermont Law School, he joined Ocean

Monmouth where his detailed-oriented engineering mind now

helps low-income folks through divorce, bankruptcy, and

elder law problems. He handles approximately 5 to 15

landlord tenant disputes a week – a hefty majority of

which are about nonpayment of rent.

"Whether New Jersey is a strongly pro-tenant or

pro-landlord state depends who you are speaking with,"

says Conover. "I actually find it fairly balanced." The

major legal bible in landlord/tenant disputes remains the

Landlord Tenants Act (also called the New Jersey

Anti-Eviction Act), last amended in l974.

The real benefit of this act for landlords is that if the

owner rents fewer than three units and resides on site

even part time, the tenant protections of this law are

void. All other landlords are required to register with

the state, under this act. No state registration means no

standing in courts and no judgments.

Security hassles. Landlords may collect up to

one-and-a-half month’s rent as initial security against

damage. The key here is to put that money in escrow, and

tell the tenant in writing exactly where it is deposited.

Landlords who have legitimately banked and recorded each

tenant’s security have actually been forced to return it

when the tenant moves out in cases where they did not

advise him of the money’s location.

Were those screens broken beforehand – or during the

tenant’s occupancy? Such age old questions are easily

avoided, suggests Conover, by both parties walking through

the property together, video-recording all the rooms, and

then mutually signing a two-sentence stipulation that this

video is valid.

Generally courts provide a great latitude to landlords

whose property is abused. If the walls were originally

painted white, and you have written in the lease agreement

that they must be returned to that color, the tenant must

do so.

Whatever part of the security is owed must be returned

within 30 days, or the tenant has the right to sue for

double the amount.

Rent: plus and minus. The rent may be due on the first of

each month, with generally a six-day grace period. Come

the seventh, the landlord has a legal right to charge

reasonable late fees. Trying to nudge such fees over $50

or five percent, or including a host of add-on charges,

although legal, will not be viewed favorably by judges.

However, the landlord trying to dispossess a tenant may

use that renter’s tradition of never paying before the

sixth as a statement of habitual lateness, and thus hasten

the eviction process.

Rent strikes or withholding typically come down hard

against the tenants. Basically, New Jersey law allows

tenants to hold back rent only in cases of serious

problems, such as no heat or water.

Leaky plumbing, peeling paint and paper, broken windows

and interior doors – even all taken together – don’t

qualify. Tenants who believe they have a serious issue

must, after a history of notifying the landlord, file a

complaint with the court.

In such rulings the judge assesses an appropriate rent

percentage to be withheld and put in escrow. The landlord

must be informed of where this money is deposited, and,

when the repair is made, he is immediately due his rent.

"In New York, renters do not have to put the withheld rent

in escrow, and the landlords have a devil of a time

getting it back," says Conover.

Dispossession highway. As long as they pay the rent

promptly, and obey the rules of the lease, New Jersey

tenants may remain tenants for life. The landlord who

wants to part ways with his tenant is out of luck unless

the tenant has committed an offense.

"The landlord has to have good cause under 18 grounds of

the Anti-Eviction Act," says Conover. Reasons for eviction

include disorderly conduct that disturbs other tenants,

assaulting the landlord, using illegal drugs or committing

a criminal act on the property, and stealing from the

landlord. Far and away the most frequent cause of

dispossession notices is non-payment of rent.

The process here is strict, and must be followed precisely

if the landlord hopes to evict the tenant. First, the

landlord must file a Tenancy Summons of Eviction Complaint

with either the municipal court or the State Supreme

Court’s special civil division. The court sets a hearing

and summons the tenant to appear. This hearing may take 20

days.

If the tenant doesn’t appear, he is given three days to

plead his cause, and then usually the court lawyer and a

locksmith generally will grant the landlord repossession.

The landlord has a right to remove the tenant’s

belongings, but whether he can actually sell them comes

under the rather complex abandoned property laws. Conover

suggests checking chapter six of the landlord/tenants book

on www.lsnjlaw.org.

If the tenant does appear at the court hearing, typically

a payment schedule is worked out. The tenant who fails to

meet this schedule may mark himself as a habitual late

payer and be open for eviction. Even when the landlord

receives a favorable ruling or repossession, he does not

get any money. To gain the amount owed, the landlord must

again file in civil court. If noted in the lease, the

tenant may be held responsible for back rent, interest,

and all legal fees. Whether the landlord sees this money

could depend whether the tenant actually has it.

"If you are going to go this route, spend the extra cash,

to have a lawyer do it," says Conover. "There are scores

of little loopholes and undotted `i’s’ that foil landlords

every day."

Cash for keys. The landlord who wants to sell his property

or go condo must by law give his tenants three years

notice. Rezoning requires 18 months notice. The problem

here is that very few sellers or buyers are going to wait

more than a year to close the deal, so the landlord is

faced with trying to bribe his tenant out of the lease.

The tenant now can squeeze the landlord until he makes it

worth his while to move. "On the street we call this

extortion, but in the renting game it is referred to as

personal service negotiation," says Conover. .

– Bart Jackson

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