General Education

How to Break Your Lease If Your College Shut Down Due to Coronavirus

How to Break Your Lease If Your College Shut Down Due to Coronavirus
As the reality of the coronavirus takes an even stronger hold, many students are coming to terms with the fact that they might not be returning to their off-campus apartments and homes anytime soon. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly April 6, 2020

We have a hunch that the phrase “unprecedented global pandemic” didn’t make it into the terms of your lease agreement.

Article continues here

In the scramble to keep tabs on the rapidly escalating cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness associated with the new coronavirus, colleges and universities across the country have transitioned to online classes, asking students not to return to campus following spring break.

As college campuses emptied, many students left behind off-campus housing for their hometowns in an effort to protect themselves from the virus, protect their mental health by relocating somewhere with more space, or be closer to/take care of family.

But as the reality of the coronavirus takes an even stronger hold, many students are coming to terms with the fact that they might not be returning to their off-campus apartments and homes anytime soon. Many who’d held jobs in industries that were hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic have also lost the income, at least temporarily, needed to pay or supplement rent.

Amid the chaos, the Senate unanimously passed a $2 trillion economic stimulus bill that includes sweeping protections for homeowners experiencing financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

But what about renters, or more specifically, those who need to break their lease? First, it’s crucial to stress that if you haven’t yet left your college town, take some time to listen to the experts, who say that travel and human interaction must be reduced to a minimum.

Still, if you must leave, it’s best to know your options. Here's how breaking a lease conventionally works—and how to get help in a time that's anything but conventional.

Review your lease agreement

As every renter knows, a lease agreement is a legally binding contract between a landlord and a tenant. The agreement outlines the main terms of the lease, including the lease end date and an early termination clause. When signing your lease, you likely had good intentions and planned to occupy your house or apartment until the end of those dictated terms. But then COVID-19 happened.

Before you start the process of breaking your lease, you have to know your rights. The landlord-tenant laws that allow you to break a lease are different from state to state. In most places, rental agreements will outline valid reasons and procedures for breaking a lease in a separate clause. Contracts might allow you to get out of the lease under special circumstances and life-changing events, such as a call to military service, the death of a significant other, or domestic violence.

If a break clause is added to your lease, it effectively means that both you and your landlord have the right to end the lease early. Many break clauses dictate the form in which notice needs to be given, such as a written letter mailed to the landlord. If these regulations do exist in your lease, it’s important to follow them closely, as a minor violation could result in your landlord declining your notice. Keep in mind that, where permitted, state law may require sufficient advance notice of lease termination—often 30 to 60 days.

Unfortunately, an unprecedented global pandemic isn’t a circumstance you’ll likely find listed in the clauses of your lease, which means that you won’t have the license to break your lease and walk away scot-free.

Consult your landlord

Some landlords have made news by giving tenants who are in a financial pinch due to the coronavirus pandemic a break in rent—and urging all landlords to do the same. Others have allowed tenants who had planned on moving in a few months to break their leases early as a result of the pandemic.

At the same time, some landlords have caught time in the limelight for being particularly unscrupulous, threatening to remove tenants for missed rent even as housing advocates and lawmakers push for a nationwide ban on evictions for the duration of the crisis.

In any event, landlords are people, and they may be willing to work with you to find a solution in such uncertain times. But you’ll need to check in with them to find out.

Prepare for potential penalties

Certain contracts may contain a “rent-responsible clause," which implies that you're responsible for paying rent until your landlord finds a new tenant—something they’ll unlikely be able to do in such uncertain times. Another potential stipulation is a “buy-out clause," which requires you to pay a certain fee or an extra month of rent.

If you don’t have a reason outlined in law for breaking your lease, your landlord may also be allowed to impose other types of financial penalties, such as requiring a percentage of your remaining rent or the remainder of your rent for the rest of the lease.

Offering to forfeit your security deposit is an option too—and is especially ideal for avoiding the impact that missed or delayed rent could have on your credit. In a dire situation like this, they may accept your security deposit as compensation for inconveniences and potential losses caused by breaking your lease early.

If you won’t be able to afford the penalties of breaking your lease early, bring it up to your landlord as soon as possible and ask if you can put a plan into place to pay once you have an income or are financially stable again. For example, if you owe four months’ worth of rent, your landlord may accept installments over the next 12 to 18 months.

Leave a paper trail

From the first conversation you have about potentially breaking your lease to giving official notice of doing so, it’s important to get all communication between you and your landlord in writing—especially any conversations regarding money. This will protect both of you legally if for any reason the situation becomes litigious.

The best way to manage this is to make sure your conversations are over email. If you do have any conversations over the phone or in person, be sure to take notes. When the conversation is finished, email your landlord an outline of what you covered during the conversation and get their written confirmation that what you sent is correct.

Even if your landlord agrees to let you break your lease without paying the rest of the rent, be sure to get a written statement—or what’s typically called an early termination notice. This is just in case you need to prove this agreement later.

Reach out to your local tenants union

Many areas, especially larger cities, have tenants or renters unions in place that can help renters handle landlord-tenant disputes or assist with breaking lease agreements.

Tenants unions are a great resource for knowing the specific laws in your city and state regarding leases, so it may be worth checking with one near the beginning of the process. They may also be helpful if your landlord is hard to reach or is trying to charge you more than what’s legal for breaking your lease.

If you can, pitch in

Normally this would include making a coordinated effort to find replacement tenants, or, if allowed, subletting your rental for the remainder of the lease. But as worries about the coronavirus grow, people have put their moving plans on hold until they feel more certain about their jobs and their safety.

With those options out, there are other ways you can help going the extra mile before and during move-out. These include cleaning your unit thoroughly, offering to paint or make minor repairs that don’t require specialized labor, and leaving praise for your landlord on online tenant forums. It won’t take long, and they’ll be sure to appreciate it.

Questions or feedback? Email