NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—It’s a special time of year in some neighborhoods, as large numbers of homes transition to new renters as Rutgers summer break begins.

Since 75% of New Brunwick residents are renters, it’s important for both tenants and landlords to understand their rights and responsiblities under New Jersey state law, and local ordinances.

The process can be confusing, especially for students or others living on their own for the first time.   Being familiar with your lease, not being afraid to ask questions, and developing a positive relationship with your landlord can go a long way towards making renting in New Brunswick a positive experience.

If there is a foot of snow on the sidewalk or rats move into the kitchen, the lease will be the law for who reaches into their wallet to solve the problem. A clearly outlined lease will protect tenants from landlords who may try to illegally deduct bills from the security deposit or refuse to provide services agreed to in the lease.

Security deposits on residential rentals in NJ cannot exceed more than a month and a half of rent. Once collected, the landlord has 30 days to place the money in an interest-bearing account and to notify the tenants of where the funds are held.

Landlords can’t request additional or “pet deposits” that bring the total amount of the security deposit to more than a month and half of rent.

Landlords can deduct from the security deposit to cover physical damages beyond normal wear and tear and to make up for any unpaid rent or fees at the end of the lease term.

Perhaps the most important advice for renters is to read their lease, which explains both the relationship between the two parties and the rules for using the space. Though it might sound like a no-brainer, many people sign contracts without reading them.

Landlords often write the lease themselves, though sometimes a standard boilerplate lease is used. That document is final say about what is allowed in their space, and who is responsible for taking care of things like paying utility bills, shoveling snow on the sidewalk, and regularly taking out garbage and recycling.

If the city housing inspectors issue a summons for a property maintenance violation, the landlord is legally responsible.  But often the costs of those fines are passed down to tenants by way of a deduction from the security deposit at the end of the lease.

Larger landlords in town, including some who own dozens of properties, may have a rental office or central headquarters where prospective tenants can walk in, and current tenants can drop off their rent or ask for help.

While many landlords live or own businesses in the area, others may not be local.  They may also have a separate person who is in charge of building maintenance.

It is important to understand who to call in the event of an emergency, such as a flooded basement or broken window.

The lease also spells out who pays for what utilities and services. Before boxes are unpacked, it is important to decide who is responsible for paying utilities, especially if the costs are being divided up among tenants.

This could be include everything from electricity, water, gas, oil, garbage collection, snow removal and lawn care to extermination costs if a property becomes infested with pests.

Landlords can include certain requests in the lease and renters are expected to abide by them.

Reasonable requests might be:

  • Not allowing subletting or subleasing of the space
  • No pets
  • Allowing the landlord to have a copy of the keys and/or
  • Requiring the tenant to have renter’s insurance.

Agreeing to give the landlord a copy of the keys and then failing to do so could land a tenant in court. As long as the rules are reasonable, tenants are required to understand what the landlord does not allow and commit to following those rules.

Many landlords advertise their rental properties through online avenues like Craigslist or the Rutgers-endorsed website  Others may post flyers, place a classified ad, or just put their phone number on a “For Rent” sign and strap it to the porch.

Often the biggest challenge can be finding a group of precisely the right number of tenants to fill out a given rental home, and making sure those tenants have the money to put down a security deposit in advance.

Security deposits are usually required at the time of signing and many of the more coveted properties are leased for the coming school year as early as January or February of the prior year.

Landlords can ask for a credit or background check from prospective tenants.  Sometimes landlords pick tenants based on the strength of their credit or based upon the results of a background check.

The landlord has the right to ask you to pay for the credit or background screening.  If they will not rent to you based on this kind of information, the landlord must explain the decision in writing.

The lease is legally binding from the time that it’s signed. A signature means the tenant agrees to and understands the rules of the lease.

If it does not include a section that allows a period of time for an attorney review, the tenant is expected to follow what the lease says from the moment it is signed. Landlords can sue if a tenant decides not to rent after signing, so renters should be aware of what the lease requires before putting a pen to paper.

Once a lease has been signed, neither party has to accept any changes. The landlord cannot change the rules mid-way through the agreement and force the tenants to accept a new lease.

One additional detail that you will want to work out before signing a lease is parking.  Because many of New Brunswick’s neighborhoods were designed before cars became so popular, there simply isn’t enough room for everyone to park.

If the house has a driveway or other off-street parking, make sure the group on your lease knows how many spots they are entitled to, and what to do if someone else is blocking them in.

For house with no off-street parking, tenants can use their lease to obtain a number of parking permits from the New Brunswick Parking Authority.

The landlord has the right to enter the property, but the tenant should agree to how and when. There are no laws that say how and when a landlord can let him/herself into the rental, so this should be spelled out in the lease.

To protect yourself from a landlord who opens the door whenever he or she wants, be sure the lease clearly spells out the amount of notice he or she must give before unlocking the door. Tenants do not have to allow the landlord entry if he or she does not follow what it says in the lease.

Knowing how to break the lease and what it will cost can be important. A bad roommate or a life-changing event may be the cause to leave a lease earlier than expected.

No matter the reason, the tenants are still responsible to uphold their part of the deal unless the lease is broken. Address in writing in advance the issue of what it will cost to break the lease to avoid an expensive headache in the future.

The lease should explain how to return the property to the landlord at the end of the rental period. Minus regular wear and tear, the unit should be left in the same condition in which it was received.

For this reason, it is advisable that tenants and landlords take photographs of the space at the very beginning of the lease term.

The landlord must give tenants a copy of the “Truth in Renting” booklet, which explains the rights and responsibilities for renters and landlords in New Jersey.

To protect yourself from issues of illegal occupancy, it is advisable that all people living in the rental be listed on the lease.  Each building rented in New Brunswick is approved for a certain number of residents based on the size of the home and its rooms.

Violating these rules can get a landlord in trouble, and also lead to tenants being forced out of the home by housing inspectors.

To avoid being hit with a late fee or sued for unpaid rent, it is important to have a clear explanation of who the rent is paid to and when it is due.

Some leases might give the tenant a few days before a late fee is charged, but there is no required grace period under state law.

If a tenant falls behind on the rent or breaks the lease, a landlord can initiate eviction proceedings.  But tenants are not allowed to be kicked out of their rental property until a judge has ruled in favor of the eviction.

Tenants have a chance to make their case against an eviction before the landlord-tenant judge at the Middlesex County Courthouse in downtown New Brunswick.

When the lease concludes, it will likely specify that all garbage and personal belongings be removed from the property.

If tenants leave the unit dirty or full of trash, they risk losing all or part of their security deposit to garbage removal fees, or losing any personal items left in the unit.  It is important to have clear communication with a landlord to understand what is expected of tenants to make sure that no money is owed for forgetting to clean out the space.

When in doubt, making sure any and all promises be made in writing and are signed by both the tenants and the landlord.

A lease doesn’t always protect a renter from bad landlord or tenant behavior, but it will be the final say in court.

Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.