The first thing that you should understand as the tenant is that leases aren't designed to be easily broken. There are no specific laws that allow you to get out of your lease because of something like a pandemic or an economic crisis. Although the laws about lease breaking 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.
A global pandemic isn't one of these situations. This means that the process for getting out of your lease is the same now as it has always been: either by subletting or transferring your lease to a replacement tenant, or by paying an early termination fee to break your lease.
However, these are unprecedented times. Your landlord might behave differently than normal if you ask to break your lease.
What's the best-case scenario?
It's possible that your landlord may be more willing to negotiate ending your lease during this time, just out of the kindness of their heart. If you make it clear that you simply cannot afford the rent anymore, they may allow you to terminate your lease without a fee so that they can find a new tenant who will be able to pay. Your landlord may also be motivated by more practical reasons—a lot of tenants are currently protected from eviction due to the pandemic. Rather than be saddled with a defaulting tenant they can't legally kick out, your landlord might prefer to cut a friendly deal.
What's the worst-case scenario?
It's more likely that your landlord will tell you to pay a hefty fee or find a replacement tenant. It will be hard to find someone willing to pay the old rent price. At best, the COVID-19 outbreak has triggered a recession—and during economic downturns, rent prices drop. You may have already noticed that other, similar units in your building or neighborhood are going for less than what you're paying. Before you start trying to find a replacement tenant, you should ask your landlord if you can advertise your unit with a rent price that's been reduced to reflect current market rates. If they say no, then you need to may need to hit them with the law (keep reading).
What other laws protect tenants like me?
If your landlord isn't cooperating at all, find out if they're required to mitigate damages in your state. This means that they have to make a reasonable effort to find a replacement tenant to take your place and pay the rent instead of you.
If your landlord is responsible for mitigating damages, then they're responsible for doing whatever they would normally do to fill a vacancy—that means advertising your unit at today's market rate and accepting any qualified applicants. If you've found a qualified replacement tenant who will pay market rate (even if that's less rent than you paid under your original lease), your landlord is legally required to accept them.
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 you may be able to request an early lease break as a reasonable accommodation. If not—for instance, 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.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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