If a rental property develops a serious problem, such as a lack of heat or running water, the landlord is required by law to fix it. If they don’t, tenants in New Jersey can stop paying rent until the issue is resolved—a tactic known as “rent withholding.” Although some states have laws on the books that govern the process of withholding rent, in New Jersey the right to withhold rent was created by a specific court case.
Not all conditions qualify for rent withholding in New Jersey
A landlord is legally obligated to keep an apartment in good condition—an obligation that’s known as the implied warranty of habitability. In order to justify rent withholding, the problems with a rental have to be considered a breach of the warranty—meaning they make the apartment unlivable. In Berzito v. Gambino, the court case that created the remedy of rent withholding, the tenant’s apartment had broken or missing screens and storm windows, there were holes in the floor, and there was insufficient heat or no heat during the winter months.1
Other situations that have qualified for rent withholding in New Jersey include:
In that same case, Academy Spires, Inc. v. Brown, the judge also listed several issues that were not serious enough to justify withholding rent. These were:
- Malfunctioning venetian blinds
- Small water leaks in the bathroom
- Cracked plaster on the walls
- Unpainted walls
As the court noted, living with these issues “may be unpleasant” and “aesthetically unsatisfying,” but they don’t make the apartment uninhabitable.
Tenants must first inform their landlord of the problem
Before withholding any rent in New Jersey, a tenant must inform their landlord about the problem with their rental. The tenant also has to let the landlord know that they plan to withhold rent if the problem isn’t fixed.4 Although case law doesn’t specify a particular method by which to inform the landlord, it’s recommended that tenants send a written notice via certified mail.
Landlords have a “reasonable” amount of time to make a repair
A tenant must give their landlord a “reasonable” amount of time to respond to the request and complete the repair before withholding rent. What’s considered reasonable varies depending on the facts of the case—a reasonable person would expect a hole in the roof during winter to be fixed more quickly than a broken stove, for instance. Court cases can offer real-life examples, too: taking a week to fix the air conditioning system in an apartment was considered reasonable by a New Jersey judge in 1981.5
Tenants can be sued for withholding rent
If a tenant chooses to withhold rent, it’s recommended that they deposit the withheld rent in a separate account in case there is a dispute with the landlord. A landlord can still sue a tenant for not paying rent, even if they withheld rent because of a major issue with the apartment. The court may side with the landlord if the conditions in the apartment were not serious enough to justify rent withholding—or if the tenant failed to give notice or a reasonable amount of time to repair.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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