Lease Breaks - The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

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COVID has a way of making you question things you thought you knew for sure. For our entire adult lives we’ve lived in major cities, as close to work as possible. We relished our short commutes and took advantage of amazing museums, concerts, and restaurants.

But so many of the things that make living in a city great are inaccessible right now, which is leading many people to reconsider whether they want to stay in a high-cost city or move elsewhere, particularly if remote work is an option.

There is no perfect way to change your housing situation during a pandemic. Moving is more costly and more of a hassle than ever. Urban landlords, generally not the most understanding of people, have been particularly inflexible in many of our friends’ cases, refusing to allow people to overstay their lease or go to a month to month rental.[1] Some friends have had to renew for a year despite currently living with family outside the city. Many people we know would like to break their lease.

Unfortunately, there are few magic shortcuts to getting out of an apartment lease, though the rules vary greatly state-by-state.[2] In most states the tenant is on the hook for any losses to the landlord, meaning that the tenant must continue to pay rent during the remaining term of their lease unless they fit within a very narrow set of exceptions. The only positive is that in most states, the landlord must attempt to find a new tenant, so in the best case you would only have to pay the difference between your old rent and the new tenant’s rent for the remainder of your lease.

Some things to do as you consider a lease break include:

  • Review your lease. Though uncommon, there may be something in your lease discussing the tenant’s ability to move out. It’s even less likely that there is a provision that would let you break your lease without penalty. But take a look.

  • Gather some intel. If you have friends in your building, it’s likely that others have some knowledge, at least secondhand, about what it’s like to break a lease in the building or in a similar one.

  • Assess the rental market. Look at how many apartments are available, and where prevailing rents are for comparable apartments to yours. This will give you some sense of how long it might take your landlord to rent out your apartment, and how much rents have declined.

  • Consider subletting. If your lease allows (landlord consent may be required), consider whether you might be able to sublet your apartment. It is highly likely you’d take a significant loss in this environment, but it could be a way of reducing the financial hit.

  • Try to find a new tenant. In addition, you may be able to search for a new tenant to assume the remainder of your lease, and then connect them to your landlord. You might have much more luck if you offer the apartment to a new tenant at a lower rent than you are currently paying, with you covering the difference. Some basic internet searches turned up a few interesting sites where users can advertise to potential tenants to take over, including Lease Break and Flip. Note: I have not used these sites and am not endorsing them.

  • Communicate with your landlord. In general, you (and your credit) are much better off if you communicate with your landlord and try to resolve the situation, providing them plenty of notice. Many landlords, particularly large corporate ones, allow tenants to exit their lease in exchange for a fixed charge, generally of a couple months of rent. In this environment, these deals may not be possible, but it’s worth a try.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem, and most people trying to break a lease are likely to take at least some financial loss. But there are ways to try to minimize the hit.

I hope this has been helpful. If you liked it, please share it with a friend! Also, please send me your feedback, requests, and success stories.

References and notes:

A few useful articles that inspired this post, and go into far more detail on some of the steps for trying to break a lease include this post on Flip and this detailed article in BrickUnderground.

[1] In their defense, our state and others have adopted temporary rules prohibiting evictions, and so it is not surprising that landlords would not want to risk a nonpaying tenant on a month-to-month lease.

[2] Please note, none of this is legal advice. I am not your lawyer!