In this uncertain time of the novel coronavirus, many renters, eager to change their living situations, may consider breaking their lease. Some may be interested in moving from their city apartments and to less populated areas, while others may find themselves suddenly unemployed and forced to look for cheaper housing options.
But can you break a legal lease because of COVID-19?
Generally, it can be difficult and expensive to break a lease. Tenants are typically responsible for paying the rent until their lease is up—so if you’re three months into a one-year lease, you’d still have to pay rent for the remaining nine months. And the same laws still hold right now: If you end a lease early, even in the era of COVID-19, you’re still responsible for your rent until the end date in your contract.
“It’s bad news for tenants these days,” says Craig Blackmon, a real estate lawyer based in Seattle. “Generally speaking, the pandemic does not relieve a tenant from having to pay rent, even if the tenant feels compelled to move out.”
That said, the coronavirus might make landlords more flexible on ending leases early than they may have been in the past. Here’s why—and how you can use this to your advantage.
What happens if you break a lease without a landlord’s permission
For starters: If you’re thinking of just stopping your rent payments and running for the hills without your landlord’s blessing, that’s certainly one way to break a lease. But be warned: Leaving your last place on bad terms could spell trouble when it comes to finding a new place, and it could severely affect your credit rating.
“Many landlords will want to contact prior landlords,” says Denise Supplee, a real estate agent and property manager in Philadelphia. “Whether tenants like it or not, tenant screening is available virtually. And if a renter breaks a lease without a landlord’s blessing, this will certainly not bring a positive reference.”
So if you want to break a lease early, it is important that you check with your landlord first.
Why COVID-19 might let you break a lease early
While you might be legally on the line for your rent until the end of your lease, landlords might be more flexible these days because many tenants can’t pay rent right now.
In the past, such tenants who couldn’t pay rent would be evicted—but COVID-19 has led to the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which prevents landlords of certain residences nationwide from evicting tenants from March 27 to July 25, 2020—and perhaps beyond that. This means that for the time being, many tenants not paying rent can stay put.
“The CARES Act suspends evictions for any properties secured by federally backed mortgages,” says G. Brian Davis, director of education for SparkRental.com. “That includes conforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages, FHA loans, and VA loans.”
So if your landlord has such a loan, you’re safe. Plus, Davis adds, “it also suspends evictions for Section 8 landlords and those taking the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.”
Even if your rental doesn’t fall into one of those categories, Davis says it’s a good idea to check with your city.
“Some cities and towns have also temporarily suspended evictions,” he adds. “Plus, many other jurisdictions have temporarily closed civil courts, preventing landlords from scheduling a rent court hearing.”
Bottom line: Having lost the threat of evictions, landlords may be more lenient about a whole lot of things, including rent due dates and breaking a lease, since the alternative may be that these tenants can otherwise just occupy the unit for free.
“If a tenant calls their landlord and explains that they lost their job and can’t pay rent and asks to move out early, landlords would be wise to let them out, given their inability to enforce evictions right now,” explains Davis. “The landlord can then sign a new lease agreement with an employed renter.”
And even if you can pay rent but just want to break your lease to find a cheaper or more remote apartment elsewhere, a landlord may still show more flexibility than usual rather than put up a fight. With so many now wishing they could end their lease quickly and more conveniently, Davis says that many landlords and tenants alike may find comfort in shorter-term lease agreements.
“It’s a time of great uncertainty, and in times of uncertainty it pays to stay as flexible as possible,” Davis says. “It goes for tenants facing an uncertain employment market, and it goes for landlords, too.”
So how should you approach breaking a lease?
If you’re ready to ask your landlord about breaking your lease, here’s what to do:
- Be upfront about your situation, whether you’ve been laid off or just want to move. Since landlords may be getting skipped or late payments from many tenants, they may appreciate your being honest with them and willing to negotiate. If you can pay one more month’s rent but that’s it, say so and see what your landlord says. There may be a solution.
- Even if your landlord won’t let you out of your lease early, try for a middle ground. “You could also try to negotiate a lower amount for early termination than the lease calls for,” says David Reiss, academic programs director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “You could also forfeit your security deposit.”
- Of course, you could always offer to try to find a new renter, or to sublet your place. While this could be a difficult task in this unpredictable time, however, you might get lucky. You never know until you ask around.
- If your landlord does agree to new terms, get everything in writing and keep a copy for your records. Don’t trust any nonverbal agreements because, when push comes to shove, it’ll be the landlord’s word against yours. The last thing you want is to move out and end up with some legal trouble down the road.
- Finally, ask for a letter of reference. Remember that finding a new lease may be difficult, especially if you’re currently unemployed. A good reference from your landlord could help you get into your next home.