I see it all too often: a landlord is willing to allow a pet in a rental property, but asks for a pet security deposit in the listing. The logic seems to be, “Well, I’m down with your cat, but you’ll have to put up an additional deposit to cover all the damage that I anticipate over and above the substantial month-and-a-half security deposit I’m getting from you already.” Unfair? Debatable. But is it legal?
In a word, no. Many landlords and real estate agents are oblivious to the New Jersey law that clearly states that a security deposit may not exceed one-and-a-half times the monthly rent. That includes the total of any and all security deposits, no matter how they’re described. Tacking on an additional pet deposit is a clear violation of this law.
Now, if a landlord wants to hold one month’s deposit as security for general damage and another half month as a pet deposit, that would be legal of course, albeit silly. Damage is damage. Replacing a carpet because Grandpa Eddie was incontinent costs the same as swapping one out because Fluffy ate a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.
Let’s face it; a pet in the home is definitely a higher risk factor than three toddlers with crayons, if only by a slight margin. So what is a legal way for a landlord to cover himself in case of fuzzbutt-incurred damage? Increasing the rent by a small amount for pet owners is certainly legal. Some tenants may not like that, but others just may be relieved that Mittens and Bowser finally have a home. The landlord can also insist that tenants with pets pay the full listed price for a rental, if he had been willing to negotiate the price with other applicants. In New Jersey anyway, pets are not a protected class when it comes to housing discrimination.
On the flip side, what is a tenant to do when faced with a listing that requires an additional pet deposit? That can be touchy, but as the tenant’s agent I use the “education with a subtle threat” approach with the listing agent. Education: “Did you know that what the landlord is asking is illegal in New Jersey?” Threat: “You realize, of course, that the tenant can turn around and report everyone to the rental commission for this, and I’m protecting my butt with an ‘I told you so’ letter in my file?” That usually works pretty well.
Sometimes I do not prevail, and the prospective tenant is faced with either paying the additional deposit or losing a rental that meets her needs perfectly. In that case I explain the situation to her in detail, comment that a deposit is fully refundable if her pup barely moves for the duration of the lease term, and let her make the final decision. I then write the butt-covering “I told you so” letter to the listing agent.
Landlords and tenants: when in doubt, refer to the New Jersey Truth in Renting Guide that all landlords are required to give tenants by law. The relevant pet deposit section is on page nine of the guide, which can be viewed and downloaded from here. In the minds of many, our furry little companions are more like family members than pets. Let’s treat their needs with dignity and not quibble over deposits for their, um, deposits.