We know that many renters are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak right now. Unfortunately, there’s no legal justification for automatically breaking your lease because of the coronavirus pandemic. But you can always negotiate with your landlord to end your lease early—read on for tips to make a stronger case.
Breaking a lease with only a small (or nonexistent) penalty is difficult, but not impossible. If you are a good negotiator—and you spend some time preparing your case and putting yourself in the shoes of your landlord—you may be able to pull it off. Read through these tactics and decide if one or more of them could work for you.
Consider other options for getting out of your lease early
If you’re dead-set on leaving your rental without forking over some cash, your best bet is to either find a subletter or transfer your lease. Why? Except in a handful of scenarios, landlords aren’t legally required to let you out of your lease early—which means they often charge hefty lease break fees in return. So make sure you’ve weighed your options for getting out of a lease early before moving forward with the lease breaking process.
Understand your state's laws about breaking a lease
There are a handful of scenarios in which you can legally break your lease with no penalties (although they vary slightly between states). If you're in the military and have been stationed somewhere else, for example, you're covered by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Most states have laws that allow victims of domestic abuse to get out of their lease early, as well. Choose your state from the dropdown menu at the top of this page for more information about the lease-breaking laws where you rent.
Of course, there are a lot of other reasons to break a lease: buying a house, relocating for a job, or even going through a breakup. None of these are covered by the law, however. Instead, you'll need to double-check your lease.
Re-read your lease agreement
Your first step should always be to re-read your lease to see if there is a “sublets and assignments” clause or an “early termination” clause. An early termination clause may allow you to break your lease without a penalty in case of unforeseen personal events, such as getting laid off or losing a family member. What's more likely, however, is that the clause will lay out the process for ending a lease early—including how much notice you must give your landlord and how much you'll be asked to pay in early termination fees.
Make it clear that the situation is out of your control
Even if your situation isn't covered by the laws in your state, you can still make the case to your landlord that breaking your lease is a necessity, rather than a choice. You'll need to gather evidence to support your claim. Your best bet is a letter from an employer stating that your job is changing.
If you can’t provide hard evidence, there's still a chance your landlord may empathize with your situation and cut you a friendly deal. Give them as much notice as possible, and tell them the whole story—even if it’s personal. If the reason you're leaving has anything to do with your ability to pay the rent, such as losing your job, make that crystal clear.
Figure out if your landlord could earn more by letting you leave
Could your landlord put the unit back on the market now and get more monthly rent than you’re paying? If so, you can likely negotiate your way towards a reasonable breakage fee. Gather evidence that this is the case before you bring it up, including:
- The prices of listings in the building that have rented more recently than yours
- The prices of comparable listings in your neighborhood
If you want your case to be rock-solid, market the unit yourself by creating a listing. Send your landlord documentation of how many leads you received for the prices you listed.
Point out that a lease break would improve the leasing schedule
Landlords prefer leases to come up for renewal in the spring and summer, since more people move when it’s warm out. This means there’s more demand for rental units, which means prices go up. If your lease is not on this schedule and you’re trying to leave in a warm month, then simply point out that this could be a fortunate turn of events for your landlord.
Lay out the alternatives to your landlord
If the landlord won’t agree to let you off the hook with a breakage fee, and you don’t live in a state where they are required to mitigate damages, then you will have to pay the rent for the remainder of your lease.
This may not be an option for you, particularly if you're low on cash. One (risky) alternative is to forgo your security deposit and leave. Explain this to your landlord. When faced with a choice between taking you to small claims court or letting you pay a month’s rent to break your lease, they might take you up on the deal. If not, however, you should still think twice about actually abandoning your apartment—there are lots of downsides.
Claim illegal entry
If your landlord has made a regular occurrence of entering your apartment without permission, then you may be able to terminate your lease without a penalty. You must send written notice to the landlord stating that you intend to do so based on the entry violation. Some state laws hold that you must give the landlord warning that you will terminate if the behavior happens again.
Constructively evict yourself from the unit
There is one situation where it is okay to leave without notice and you cannot be expected to pay a fee. If there are grounds to claim that the unit is uninhabitable, then you can evict yourself and you won't be liable for damages at all. In legal terms, this is known as "constructive eviction." You’re basically arguing that, by not providing you with livable housing, the landlord has evicted you. You'll be required to provide notice and document your living situation, including any communication with your landlord showing that they didn’t fix the problem.
Constructive eviction is only an option when there are really severe problems with the rental unit, however—things like a huge hole in the ceiling or a broken heater in the middle of winter, not peeling paint or the occasional cockroach.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.