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Can You Break Your Lease During a Pandemic?

Multi-ethnic businessmen packing cardboard boxes in creative office
By Ashley Ravid on June 16, 2020 2:33 PM

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the economy and keep unemployment rates high, some people may be looking for more affordable housing options. If you are in this boat as a renter considering breaking your lease, you should be aware that the pandemic does not grant an exception to the terms of your lease unless otherwise stated by state or local laws, lease terms, or landlord agreement.

Lease Terms and Local Laws

The terms and conditions of each lease may vary, with some containing specific conditions in the case of a tenant breaking the lease. Your lease may require you to:

  • Give advance notice before breaking the lease
  • Pay penalty fees
  • Forfeit any deposits

Tenant laws often vary by city and state, meaning that it is important to check local and state laws before breaking a lease. If you don't do this, you could leave yourself open to serious financial penalties, including having to pay rent on the remainder of the lease.

Because of the economic and safety concerns caused by COVID-19, states like New York have put temporary moratoriums on evictions in place. Cities including San Jose and Santa Monica have suspended rent payments for limited times as well. The CARES Act, which would provide further eviction protections and rent payment relief for tenants in all states, has been introduced in the Senate but has yet to pass.

If you are unsure whether there are any additional tenant protections in your area, you can find information on state laws and local orders online, or a local landlord-tenant attorney could help you understand your options.

Possible Alternatives to Breaking a Lease

If you have concerns about your ability to pay rent or continue in your leasing agreement, there may be intermediate steps you can pursue before you attempt to break a lease.

Tenants can consider discussing reduced rent or alternative payment plans with their landlords. If you stop paying rent, your landlord also loses that source of income, so they may be open to dialogue about alternatives to breaking the lease. In some states, tenants have organized to form unions in order to negotiate for more favorable rent conditions during the pandemic.

In most cases, tenants are no longer charged with paying rent after breaking a lease once the vacancy is filled. If you can find a replacement tenant, you may be able to reduce the damages you might have been required to pay. If you wish to pursue this option, speaking with your landlord about filling the vacancy may help lessen the consequences of breaking your lease early.

If you are considering breaking your lease or have done so already, a lawyer may be able to help you navigate the legal and financial repercussions of that decision.

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