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
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
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
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
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
Corrections or additions?
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