When renting in New Jersey there are several things you need to know. Like most young people my age, I made a lot of mistakes the first few times I rented apartments. Now that I am a little bit older I have learned there are certain rights that landlords and property managers cannot deny tenants. First of all, no matter what state you live in you are entitled to three basic rights; privacy, health, and safety. Of course there are all sorts of other rights you also entitled to in New Jersey like proper notification of security deposits, unit entrance by people other than tenants, and repairs.
Right to Safe and Decent Housing
The first mistake that most people make when choosing an apartment or home to rent is not inspecting the property completely. In New Jersey, if you haven’t inspected the property prior to move in and documented issues you have no proof of anything later on. When you are choosing an apartment or home for rent it is important to not just inspect the inside of the apartment, but the outside too. In New Jersey all tenants under a rental contract are entitled to the right to safe and decent housing. When you inspect the inside of the home look for broken fixtures, bare electrical wires, water problems, heat problems, and the like. Also note any rooms that need fresh paint, new carpet or flooring, and windows that are missing storm screens. Make sure that everything is documented on paper and that you and the landlord both sign and date the document.
When you are inspecting the outside of the home or apartment there are several things that you should look for. Structural damage that can cause later issues should be documented. Structural damage includes broken railings, cracked foundations, broken steps and sidewalks, improper lighting, and insufficient parking. Also note debris and garbage on the property, broken glass, car parts, vagrants, and stray animals in the area. These are just some of the things you may find on some properties in New Jersey. If you reside in a city like Elizabeth or Atlantic City you are less likely to find damages of this nature, but in rural areas like West Milford, it is not uncommon. As with the inside of the property note everything on paper and have it signed and dated by both you and the landlord.
Also get a signed agreement to fix repairs. Later on, if repairs are not met or the property condition is not up to par you will have evidence proving that the landlord knew and did nothing. In a New Jersey court of law you must provide documentation of the condition of the property and the agreement for repairs. If you do not have these documents it is more than likely you will loose your case. Unkempt property can be the cause of many dangers like health problems and injury. Be especially aware of water leaks because they can cause mold growth which is very dangerous to humans and animals. In New Jersey, it is the responsibility of the tenant to let the landlord know what repairs need to be done. Failing to do so could result in your landlord suing you for damages. Under statute of New Jersey law tenants are only responsible for normal wear and tear damages. Any existing damages must be covered by the landlord.
According to New Jersey State law every lease must be written in plain English. This means that the lease contract should be simple, clear, and understandable. Landlords cannot use tricky grammar to fool you or confuse you. If you have any questions ask. No question is a stupid question. I learned very quickly that being an educated renter is much easier than being uneducated. If you ever have a problem with your landlord or property manager it is very easy to negotiate when you know your rights. Know your lease like the back of your hand. If there is something you still don’t understand after reviewing the contract with the landlord or property manager, speak to a lawyer or your local housing authority. They will be able to tell you if you have a legal contract.
Most leases in New Jersey cannot be changed after they have been signed and dated. If your landlord wishes to make an amendment to the rental agreement he/she must contact you in writing with the supposed amendment. Both parties must agree on the amendment, in writing, or it cannot be approved. Once I had to go to court over a lease argument and I learned very quickly that amendments made verbally do not stand up in court. In New Jersey you must show proof of documentation or your case will be denied.
The first thing that you need to know about giving a security deposit in New Jersey is that the landlord can only charge one and half times the rental as security. If your rent is $1000/month the most the security deposit can be is $1500. Anything over 1.5 times the monthly rent is in fact illegal. Also rent increases are subject to a maximum of a 10% increase over 12 months.
During the late 1990s the New Jersey Rent Security Deposit Act was passed. This act states that the landlord is required to put security deposits in separate interest bearing accounts. This means that the landlord must open a new bank account specifically for your security deposit. This bank account cannot be linked to any funds under the possession of the landlord. Under this New Jersey law it is stated that the security deposit is the property of the tenant and not the landlord. Also, the landlord must notify the tenant within 30 days of this deposit of the security. In this notice landlords are required to tell you what bank the account is at, how much is in the account, and the interest rate. If the landlord fails to notify you of this deposit or simply fails to deposit the security within 30 days, by law it has to be surrendered toward the payment of the rent.
Landlords in New Jersey cannot take any money at all from the tenant security deposit while the tenant still resides in the rental unit. Any damages above normal wear and tear caused by the tenant, the tenant’s children, guests, or pets can be withdrawn from the security deposit only after the tenant has moved out of the rental unit. Of course damages must be reasonable and proven to be the fault of the tenant. I found it is easier to just pay the repairs and leave, rather than go to court which can take months. Of course if the repairs are unreasonable there is no reason not to fight for your money, it’s yours!
Right to Privacy
In New Jersey, as in almost every other state, every tenant is entitled to exclusive possession of the rental unit. If you signed a lease or contract, you have exclusive possession of the unit meaning that no one may enter without your permission. This law is called the New Jersey Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment (1991). When the landlord signs a rental agreement he/she is agreeing to stay out of the rental unit, that the tenant is the sole possessor. If your landlord would like to come into your apartment he/she must give you reasonable written notice. Usually notifications must be received by the tenant 30 days prior to the landlord entering the rental unit.
Also, a specific time and date must be agreed upon. For example 4 a.m. is an unreasonable time, but 11 a.m. is reasonable if the tenant is at home. Holidays and other religious observance days are not appropriate times for landlord entrance. If you discover your landlord enters your property without permission or very often (more than 2-3 times per year) it is recommended to just call the police. Landlords that don’t stay out are breaking New Jersey law and are subject to fines as well as jail time. Keep a record of every time the landlord enters the rental unit, and note the purpose of entrance. The only time that a landlord can enter a private rental unit is in case of an emergency like flood or fire.
As in all states tenants cannot be unlawfully ejected from a rental property. Proper written notification must be received by the tenant from the landlord. In some counties of New Jersey the statute of notification is less that 4 days, in other counties it is up to 30 days. Your local housing authority or HUD department can provide you with books and brochures explaining your rights.
Non payment of rent or rent increases, destruction or damage of rental property, disorderly conduct that disturbs neighbors, violation of lease agreement, and illegal use of drugs or other illegal activity are some things that can get you evicted in New Jersey. There are a wealth of things that you can be evicted for and it is wise to research them for the town you live in. For the most part all of rural New Jersey follows the same tenant protection laws. Sometimes you will find amendments that apply only to residents of city and suburb areas.
In New Jersey it is illegal for landlords to cut off heat and water as a means of eviction. Heat must be provided from October 1st to May 1st every year or when the outdoor temperature drops below 40 degrees fahrenheit. The temperature must be maintained at 65 degrees fahrenheit or warmer. It is also illegal for landlords to change locks, remove tenant belongings, bar tenants from entering or leaving property, or harass tenants as a means of eviction. Landlords that commit these crimes in New Jersey are subject to lengthy jail time and possible revocation of their rental permits.
If you can meet the terms of the eviction, please do and then vacate the property. This will save you from having to go to court, which can take up to 6 months. If you don’t receive a notice of eviction and instead get a summons you need to seek legal representation immediately. It is against the New Jersey Tenant Protection Laws for a landlord to begin the eviction process without first notifying the tenant.
As always, document everything and call the police or proper authorities when necessary. As in every state, New Jersey does not practice rental discrimination. Anyone in New Jersey can live anywhere they please. If you feel you have been discriminated against contact your local housing authority. They will be able to direct you to the proper legal services for discrimination. Sometimes legal services are offered free because of the nature of the crime committed. In New Jersey landlords that practice discrimination will most likely serve some jail time, pay fines, and can possibly loose their rental permits.
Knowing your rights when renting in New Jersey will help you save a lot of time and headache later on. Alway document everything from the condition of the property and rental unit, to any issues that you may have with your landlord or property manager. Remember, in New Jersey if you do not have documentation you have no case.