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VERIFY: Can you break your lease in DC, Virginia and Maryland because of the pandemic?

Read through your lease agreement before terminating it early, as you could be on the hook for the entire rent if your landlord can't find another tenant.

WASHINGTON — QUESTION:

Can you break your lease in D.C., Virginia and Maryland?

ANSWER:

Yes, but be prepared to pay a penalty.

SOURCES:

Karen Straughn- Assistant Attorney General at the Maryland Attorney General's Office, Director of the Mediation Unit for the Consumer Protection Division

Patrick Algyer- Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Apartment Association

Catherine Denny- Senior Attorney at the DC Tenants' Rights Center

PROCESS:

With colleges moving classes online and more jobs allowing telework permanently, some people might not need to rent anymore.

A viewer asked us to Verify: Can you break your lease?

Our Verify researchers asked experts across the DMV, randing from an assistant attorney general in Maryland to the executive director of the Northern Virginia Apartment Association and a senior attorney at the D.C. Tenants' Rights Center.

They all said that no one on the state or local level has come out and said that the pandemic is a legal reason to break your lease without a penalty. 

But technically, a tenant can break their lease and face a penalty. There are some exceptions. Service members, for instance, who must move or victims of domestic violence would not be forced to pay a penalty. 

"You can break your lease at any time, you just may have to face certain ramifications as a result of breaking your lease," Straughn said.

"If it turns out you’re not going to be moving to D.C. because your school gets canceled or your job gets canceled, obviously a landlord can’t force a tenant to move into the property," Denny said. 

So yes, in general you can break your lease, but all our experts say before you do that, read over the fine print.

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You could be responsible for paying rent for the duration of your lease if the landlord can’t find a new tenant. If you refuse to pay, you could face legal action when the courts reopen, which would impact your credit score, making it more difficult to find a new place.

"Nobody wants to evict anybody from an apartment," Algyer said. "It's expensive, it's no fun to tell someone they don't have a house anymore, and it takes a while to do it." 

Evictions also have financial ramifications for the landlord.

"Landlords also have mortgages that they have to pay," Algyer said. "Depending on the building they might be responsible for electricity, water, heat -- all of those bills have to be paid. The minute a tenant can't pay rent that automatically then trickles down to the management company or the ownership group, where they now can't pay their mortgage or their utilities to keep that building going."

If you’re considering signing a lease, but you're afraid to commit during the pandemic, our experts say talk to your landlord about adding a line in the lease that takes your situation into account.

"Try to add something to the lease that covers the situation," Straughn said. "Or you can talk to your landlord about what that situation is and make sure that you have something in writing that goes along with the lease as an addendum to show that you have agreed that in the event that school does not go forward, that you will not be responsible for renting the premises."

Straughn said landlords may ask that you limit that to a period of time, so that the landlord can move forward and find a different tenant.

"There's no harm in asking," Denny said. "The worst case is that landlord says no." 

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