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By Martha C. White
April 28, 2020
Rangely Garcia / Money

The unprecedented disappearance of 26 million U.S. jobs in mere weeks has left many renters scrambling to make their monthly payments.

If your source of income dried up or was seriously curtailed, you might be considering moving into a cheaper place, or even moving in with friends or family to save money. Whether or not this is feasible for you depends on several factors, one of the biggest of which is whether or not you can get out of your rental agreement.

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Breaking a lease generally isn’t easy — or cheap — but it can be done, and you might find your landlord more accommodating than you anticipate. “The best way to break your lease is to be in good standing with your landlord,” says Andrew Barrocas, chief executive of MNS Real Estate, a brokerage in New York City. “The better a relationship somebody has with a landlord, the more open they are to working something out, as long as it makes sense for both of them.”

If you are looking to exit your rental apartment before your next lease is up, here’s what to do:

Figure out what you’ll owe

First, dig out your copy of your lease and read the fine print. Some leases will convert to month-to-month terms after a certain period (a year is typical). If that’s not the case, your lease probably specifies how much in “liquidated damages” you’d have to pay to break the lease — this may be a figure like two months’ rent or a percentage of the remaining rent you would pay over the term of your lease. In the worst-case (and unfortunately quite common) scenario, your contract could say you have to pay through all of the remaining months on your lease.

Even if that’s your situation, though, you might be able to get out of your lease if you can find someone else to take your place.

Find a new tenant

Many lease agreements stipulate that the current tenant is responsible for the rent until the landlord finds a new lessee. “Make sure the landlord is marketing the unit in good faith, and check a few times to see if there are tenants already moved in,” the National Consumer Law Center advises in its “Surviving Debt” guide.

In some locations, you might be required to pay the costs of advertising and showing the apartment. Barrocas says, you might want to offer to pay listing fees, both as a show of good faith and hopefully to get it rented more quickly. While landlords are legally obligated to try to find a new tenant, Barrocas says it can be a point in your favor if you’re proactive.

Sublet — with permission

Subletting is riskier than finding a new tenant to take over the lease, since you’re still the responsible party if the person subletting stops paying or causes damage. But it is an option, especially if you only have a few months left on your lease. A word of warning: Don’t try to sublet your unit on the sly. For one thing, your lease probably prohibits it, which could mean that the person you’re subletting to could get evicted, and you could be on the hook for the full cost of your rent through the end of your lease, and/or have to pay fines for illegally subletting. Depending on your circumstances, the landlord could pursue legal action against you.

Barrocas says he’s dealing with questions from tenants about this issue right now, and that most landlords are willing to be flexible if it helps ensure that they can preserve their rental income stream. “Landlords are being lenient during this time period,” Barrocas says. But it’s up to you to reach out and start the conversation — and don’t wait until you’re deep in the red, he adds. “The preference is to get that call rather than when you’re two or three months late.” And if you wait until eviction proceeding is started, it can make it harder for you to find a landlord willing to rent to you in the future.

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