Questions and Answers for January 2016

Questions and Answers adapted from our Message Boards.

Q: My tenants just told me they're buying a house and want out of their lease, which still has nine months remaining. Would it help to have a lawyer remind them of their obligations under the lease?

This is a frustrating situation. If a landlord wanted to break the lease, tenants would easily get a tenant advocate to snap the landlord back in line. But when the tenants want to do it, who snaps the tenants back in line?

Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • A landlord does have a duty to mitigate their loss.
    • If the tenants leave and stop paying under the lease, the landlord has to try to rerent the apartment.
  • It's important to get rid of tenants who don't want to be there:
    • they won't keep the place in good shape;
    • even if it's not malicious, they'll feel far less bad about scratches, dents, etc.
  • We have heard of lease-break fees for tenants with time left on their lease.
  • Having a dialog and getting the tenants' cooperation would be the best way to mitigate financial loss and apartment damage.

Tenants do tend to have more rights than landlords, but lease obligations are one of those things that could be taken seriously by a judge, especially when there's no hardship involved. They're not breaking the lease because they're indigent or in crisis. They're breaking it because it's convenient for them to buy a home.

The best advice is to first ask for a break fee equal to a few months' rent (say, three months' rent), enough to get you back into the summer rental season, conditional upon their vacating early enough for you to paint, make repairs, etc. If you can rent it earlier, you will return whatever portion would have been double-rent to you.  Be friendly.

If the tenants demur or refuse this offer, try to sell them on having more time to move. "Stay in the place through most of the winter, take your time moving, and pay a shorter break fee (say, two months' rent)."

If they don't like that, have a lawyer draft a less friendly letter stating their legal obligation to pay the sum total of all outstanding rent. Have the letter reiterate one of your offers to settle.

If the attorney's letter doesn't do the trick, that's beyond our experience. Good luck!

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