Rob Gleaner is a real estate attorney serving the entire South Jersey community with all real estate issues, and we asked him to join us to discuss the habitability issues in a landlord and tenant relationship. There are three important points to consider:
- Landlord obligations
- What does habitability mean
- What happens when tenants withhold rent for habitability issues
New Jersey Landlord Habitability Obligations
Landlords have an obligation to provide a habitable property for residents. This means everything is functioning properly, including toilets, plumbing, heating and air and a water-tight roof. This is your obligation as a landlord. You are responsible for providing that habitable property and the tenant is responsible for paying rent.
You can expect your tenant to keep it in good condition. You want them to take care of general clean up and maintenance and you want them to report major issues promptly. It is a joint obligation with habitability issues falling to the landlord.
What are Habitable Conditions in New Jersey Rental Properties?
Habitable conditions include heating and air conditioning. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court recently held that air conditioning is required to make a property habitable. So, it is your obligation to fix it if it breaks. Any environmental condition or plumbing condition also affects habitability. Broken toilets must be replaced and roofing has to be sound. Those are the basics.
Sometimes, tenants will argue about minor conditions that you do not consider to be habitability issues. Analyze the situation and make your judgment. When a tenant complains about a condition in your property, use your common sense. It is always a good idea to fix things to ensure you are protecting the condition of your property, but it is non-negotiable if it is a habitability issue.
Withholding Rent for Habitability Issues
If a resident withholds rent because he or she believes there is a habitability issue at the property and you did not fix it because of your position that it is not a habitability requirement, you would then file for eviction. If the tenant then claims, in Court, that rent was unpaid because of a habitability issue, the Judge would then schedule a habitability hearing.
Here is generally the way it would play out: Assume that a tenant is saying he did not pay because there were leaks. The judge would then schedule a habitability hearing and require the tenant to pay the rent into the Court escrow account by 4:00 p.m. that day. At that point, the tenant may choose to just pay the rent. Or the tenant would pay the rent into escrow and attend the habitability hearing when scheduled by the Judge. Non-payment in either case would result in a Judgment of Eviction being issued.
Here is something that happened in one of my cases: A tenant withheld rent because the landlord did not caulk around the tub and there was leaking. The Judge asked if the tenant continued taking showers. The tenant said yes. The Judge said that by taking showers, there was no habitability issue. In the opinion of that Judge, caulking around the tub does not impact habitability.
Sometimes, in a close case, a judge will agree that there is a habitability issue. The judge might say instead of paying $1,000 a month, the tenant only has to pay $800 a month until the problem is resolved. So, as a landlord you can decide if you want to fix the issue or leave it and collect less rent.
If you have tenants who are arguing with you about a habitability issue, contact Rob Gleaner P.C. or Realty Solutions. We can help with all your New Jersey property management needs.