For most landlords, nothing can be more frustrating than a tenant who decides to break the lease and move out early. With that loss of income, landlords often feel panicked about how they will pay their mortgage and find a new tenant.
But Washington, DC landlords do have some rights when it comes to tenants that break leases early. Here's what you need to know in order to protect your investment and keep tenants from breaking their leases in the first place.
What landlords need to know about breaking leases
A tenant breaks a lease when he or she decides to move out of your property before the end of the term outlined in the lease, which is usually one year or sometimes six months. This could be for a variety of reasons. Partners who break up decide it's easier to break the lease than to live together, but others need to move closer to family or to a job. A tenant who has lost a job suddenly might need to move right away.
Your lease agreement with your tenant should outline what will happen if the tenant decides to leave early. In most cases, he or she will be responsible for paying the rest of the rent owed on the lease, regardless of whether the tenant lives on the property or not. There are a few exceptions, however, in which can a tenant can legally break a lease. They are:
- Invasions of privacy: Once a tenant moves into your property, you are no longer allowed to come and go as you please. Laws in Washington, DC instruct landlords to give what is called "reasonable notice" — usually about 48 hours — before entering the property, which also must be done during usual daytime hours. The purpose must also be considered reasonable. You can't just show up to inspect the property every week and stay for a few hours, even if you give notice. If you continue to violate your tenant's privacy, then he or she can break the lease and move.
- Active duty military members: A federal law allows active duty "uniformed service" military members to legally break leases. The military often moves its people around on short notice, but military members must mail a letter informing their landlord of the lease break. Once they send their letter, the residency "will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months before [the] lease expires," according to NOLO.com.
- Extensive property damage: If your property falls into such a state of disrepair that it could be breaking health or safety codes, then your tenants have the right to lease your property before the lease is up. This usually applies to properties in which serious damage has occurred, such as a broken heater or no running water. If this happens, the law basically says that the landlord has "constructively evicted" the tenant because the tenant no longer has the option to stay.
- Domestic violence: Victims of domestic violence, including both adults and children, have a right to break a lease to get away from an abusive person. There are certain conditions that need to be met, such as filing a police report, but the law does recognize that it will be necessary in these cases to get the victims as far away from the abuse as possible.
Now just because a tenant breaks a lease does not mean that the landlord can sit back and collect all the rent that is owed. In fact, tenant laws in Washington, DC state that landlords must make what they call a "reasonable" effort to fill the property and find a new tenant. This means that landlords have to at least try to find a new tenant. What it doesn't mean is that landlords need to accept risky tenants or go above and beyond the regular marketing in order to find a tenant.
How to discourage tenants from breaking their leases early
Sometimes, a lease break is inevitable and unplanned, but that's not always the case. Some tenants get tired of dealing with the same broken appliances or feel frustrated when their calls for repairs fall on deaf ears. There's actually a lot that landlords can do to keep tenants happy and discourage them from breaking their leases.
Here are a few ways to keep tenants from breaking their leases.
- Go over the lease with your tenant: When a new tenant signs a lease, it's a good idea to sit down with him or her and go over it. Take this time to highlight how long the lease will last and what will happen if the lease is broken. Clarifying expectations can go a long way towards lease breaking. All Atlas Lane tenants receive this special care when they sign their leases.
- Keep the property in excellent condition: The easiest way to keep a tenant happy living on your property is to take care of said property. When something breaks, don't wait to fix it and don't take the easy route to fix it. If a gutter breaks, replace it right away before the rain water starts seeping into the basement, don't just remove the broken pieces. At Atlas Lane, our tenants have access to our HomePro team 24/7, so if pipe breaks in the night, tenants can get someone to come to their property right away to help.
- Be communicative: All landlords should respond to tenant calls and emails within 24 hours. If you wait any longer, any damage to your property might get worse, and tenants will feel neglected. All Atlas Lane properties are assigned a property asset manager who communicates directly with tenants and landlords. This gives tenants a single point of contact, and it takes the burden off landlords of responding to every question.
It's not unheard of for a tenant to break a lease early, but when they do, both tenants and landlords have certain rights to protect themselves. The more you know about your rights, the better you'll be able to protect yourself and your property.
Atlas Lane can help you guard against lease breakers. Learn more about our tenant screening and our one-of-a-kind service here.