Residential landlord/tenant cases are also handled by the local district courts in Pennsylvania as well as the Special Civil Part in New Jersey. If you are a landlord with a problem tenant or vice versa, much of the information covered in my previous blogs regarding where to file your complaint and how to proceed will be applicable to you as well. However, there are some differences. Let’s start with the landlord first.
The complaint will ask you whether you are seeking a judgment for money or possession or both. If you want both, say so. Otherwise, you may not get relief you forgot to ask for. Getting a judgment for unpaid rent is fairly easy. Still, it is good practice to keep a payment log so you can easily show the judge which months, and whatever additional late fees, utility bills, or other additional rent are due. If you are seeking possession, you better be able to show you gave written notice to vacate in accordance with your lease or at least 30 days’ notice if month to month. Be sure to show a credit for the security deposit against the unpaid rent or damages you are seeking. And don’t forget to give a copy of the lease to the judge!
New Jersey is especially tough on landlords. Not only is it tougher to evict tenants in the Garden State, New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act does not allow landlords to simply refuse to renew a residential lease except under the circumstances set forth in the Act. Therefore, landlords have a greater burden than tenants to document to the penny the rent owed and to show repeated breaches of the lease by the tenant or the likelihood that the tenant’s continued occupancy would risk injury to persons or property. If the police have been called out to the property, get the reports. If the property has been damaged, take pictures. Again, a payment log will help you show the tenant is habitually late with the rent. Finally, landlords should make sure their properties are in good repair before they seek to evict a tenant. A tenant can raise a code violation as a defense which, in New Jersey, will result in the judge throwing the case out until the landlord can demonstrate the property is up to code.
If you are a tenant with a slumlord, you need not grin and bear it. However, you cannot simply stop paying rent and spend it on other things instead. If you withhold rent, set up an escrow account at your bank and pay the money into the account every month on time. Before withholding rent, be sure you can document that you gave notice of the items needing repair to the landlord. These items should be something that create a health or safety hazard or seriously disrupt your occupany like a leak or faulty electrical wiring. I do not recommend withholding rent for flaking paint (unless it is lead) or other cosmetic defects. Take pictures to show the judge the conditions the landlord is forcing you to live in. You may file a complaint yourself to compel the repairs, but withhold rent long enough and you will be sure to get your landlord’s attention.
So there you have it! Spend a little money for a consultation and save yourself alot by representing yourself in small civil matters in your local courts.