At Caretaker, we’ve helped thousands of people get out of their leases. Our state-by-state guide to rental law includes general guidance on how to break a lease early—but here’s what you need to know about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, specifically. Plus, check out our additional resources for renters dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

We get a lot of questions from readers about whether or not they can break their lease. Can I break my lease if I haven’t moved in yet? Can I break my lease if I just bought a house? Can I break my lease if my boyfriend and I split up?

Yesterday, we got a particularly topical strain of this question: Can I break my lease because of coronavirus?

The first thing you should understand as a renter is that leases are not designed to be easily broken. Often, that’s to your benefit—it keeps unscrupulous landlords from kicking you out for no reason. But it can be deeply frustrating when you’ve got a good reason to leave. Although the laws vary by state, there are really only a handful of situations where you can legally break your lease without your landlord’s agreement:

  • You’re a member of the military who’s been deployed or reassigned.
  • You’re a victim of domestic violence.
  • You’re a senior citizen moving in with a family member or into a nursing home (less common, but still true in some states).
  • Your rental unit has become uninhabitable because your landlord refuses to make necessary repairs or is harassing you.

As you can see, none of these reasons are related to the effects of a global pandemic. The law typically doesn’t consider medical issues a reason to break a lease without penalties—or other things like losing a job, wanting to relocate to be closer to family, or additional unexpected expenses (such as paying for childcare now that schools have closed).

What if I'm at a higher risk for COVID-19?

Some renters are at a high risk of becoming seriously ill if they are exposed to the coronavirus. If you're high-risk because of a medical condition that's considered a disability under the Fair Housing Act, then there's a chance you can request an early lease break as a reasonable accommodation. If not—for example, you're high-risk because of your age rather than an existing condition—there are no laws that allow you to automatically break your lease because of medical concerns.

What if I can’t go to work because of the coronavirus?

If you’re worried about making rent, be aware that a growing number of cities—and even a few states—have placed a moratorium on evictions for the rest of the month (or even longer). For now, the list includes the states of New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and the cities of San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, Newark, Charleston, Detroit, Denver, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. More will likely join in the coming days and weeks. So if you’ve lost your job or had your hours slashed because of quarantine measures, you may be protected from eviction until these sanctions are lifted.

I’ve heard people mention “force majeure.” Could that apply to me?

In plain English, “force majeure” is a concept that addresses unforeseen events that are beyond anyone’s control—and that make it difficult for a tenant to fulfill their obligations as they’re laid out in the lease. In most contracts, these include:

  • “Acts of God,” which generally include natural disasters like floods and earthquakes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Labor strikes

In these scenarios, tenants may be allowed to suspend rent payments or even, in select cases, terminate their lease altogether.

As a residential renter, the first thing you should understand is that force majeure provisions are almost exclusively associated with commercial leases. There’s a pretty good chance your residential lease doesn’t include one. The other thing to keep in mind is that courts are quite strict when interpreting force majeure provisions. So, even in the unlikely chance that your lease includes one of these clauses, it would need to explicitly mention pandemics or global health crises to apply to COVID-19—and most do not.

What about the “doctrine of frustration”?

Another concept that’s being tossed around in conjunction with COVID-19 is the “doctrine of frustration.” It’s similar in some ways to “force majeure” provisions, in that it deals with unforeseen events and their effects on contracts. If a tenant could prove that this global outbreak fundamentally altered their original lease agreement in such a way that it made the contract worthless, then they could ask for it to be terminated. For this strategy to work, however, a judge would have to agree with the renter's assessment of the situation.

There are obviously no court cases that deal with COVID-19 (yet), but there is a similar case that took place during the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong back in 2003. The government issued an isolation order that made it impossible for a tenant to get back into his apartment for 10 days. He attempted to break his lease, claiming that this situation made his apartment uninhabitable—and therefore “frustrated” the lease agreement he’d entered into. But judges in Hong Kong didn’t buy it. They said 10 days out of a 24-month lease wasn’t enough of a disruption to make the rental unlivable.

The courts also said that, even though the outbreak of SARS could arguably be considered an unforeseeable event, it wasn't so severe that it fundamentally altered the obligations laid out in a rental lease. So, it's likely courts won't consider the coronavirus a reason to terminate your lease, either—even if it feels like it’s turned your life upside down.

So I’m stuck in my lease?

Not necessarily. Even if there’s no legal loophole that would let you get out of your lease because of the spread of COVID-19, you’re always allowed to negotiate with your landlord to get out of a rental. You generally have four options to end a lease early: sublet, assign, pay a lease break fee, or move out and hope your landlord re-rents quickly. Each choice has its own pros and cons.

And you don't have to do it alone! We built Caretaker to make it easier for you to get out of your old place and into a new one. Find out more about how we can streamline your lease-breaking process.

For answers to other coronavirus-related questions facing renters right now, explore our COVID-19 resources.


Abigail Cain

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