Residential Leases and the Military

Your Rights as a Servicemember

When you are in the military, one of the concerns you will face is housing. Constantly facing the threat of a move makes it difficult to commit to buying a home, yet you need a comfortable place to live. While many will choose to live in housing provided by their base, some families appreciate the freedom and distance that a house off-base offers. Because of these realities, many military families choose to rent, rather than buy, a home.

In 2010, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Housing and Competitive Sourcing ordered a survey of a section of military families to determine what their housing choices were. The study found that 22 percent chose to live in military family housing, 32 percent rented, and 38 percent owned their homes. An additional 7 percent lived in privatized housing. With 32 percent of military families living in rented homes that are not in military housing establishments, it's critical that members of the military understand their rights when it comes to housing and rental leases.

Because of the nature of military careers, there are times when you may need to break your lease before the end of your contract term. Some of these times may include:
  • When you have to PCS (Permanent Change of Station)
  • An order to move onto the base
  • The offer of base housing which is more affordable or appealing than rental housing
  • Deployment, training, or other time in the field that will last more than 90 days
If you're facing one of these situations, and you are not at the end of your existing lease, you need to understand your options so you know how to best proceed. A lease is a legally binding contract, and without the right protections in place, you could end up in serious legal trouble by walking away. This guide will help you understand the law surrounding leases and how it affects you as a member of the military. It will also help you understand what your options are if you have to break your lease because of your military service.

Does Your Lease Have a Military Clause?

When your military work takes you to a new state or even a new country, walking away from your lease is risky. Depending on the terms of the lease, simply moving without taking other measures could land you huge fees. While there are certain protections in place on both Federal and state levels to prevent this hardship, one of the first lines of defense you can take is to ensure your lease has a military clause.

A military clause provides protection for servicemembers by adding a clause to the lease that allows for breaking of the lease without penalty for specified military action, such as the move to military housing or the need to deploy. If your lease contains this clause, take the time to read and understand it. If it does not, consider asking your landlord to agree to add one, particularly if you have an idea that a change in duty or a move to military housing may be coming.
 
After the passing of Servicemember Civil Relief Act in 2003, the need for military clauses diminished somewhat. However, before this act was on the books, a military clause was the only protection for servicemembers to prevent them from costly penalties if they received orders before the end of their lease. It's still a valid protection today, because it provides an easier way to enact the rights outlined in the law.
 In general, a military clause will:
  • Allow for the termination of the lease in specified circumstances
  • Give the tenant the chance to negotiate the specifics of the termination agreement
  • Protect the military servicemember only for those moves that take place due to the military
In your military clause, you will want to include:
  • The circumstances you may be facing - The lease can state specific circumstances you may face as a servicemember that would warrant a breaking of the lease, such as PCS, move to military housing, and deployment. Often it will define just how far away your move needs to be to make the clause valid.
  • The number of days’ notice you will give the landlord - You may be required to give at least 30 days notice to your landlord, or face an additional month of rent to pay.
  • Any pro-rating of rent should you move before the end of the month - Moves rarely happen on the 1st of the month. If you need to move sometime in the middle of the month, the clause may outline how you will handle pro-rating your rent.
  • Requirement that you would be able to provide a statement signed by your Commanding Officer that you have a change of service - If you can't get a copy of your orders quickly, the military clause can allow for a signed statement from your Commanding Officer. This helps protect you from the inevitable delays that happen while you are waiting to receive your official orders.
  • Inclusion of the spouse - When including a military clause, make sure that it allows for the spouse of the servicemember to take measures to terminate the lease if the servicemember is unable to do so.
If you need to break a lease under a military clause, you will want to provide your landlord with the following:
  • Proof of your PCS, move to base, or deployment
  • Notice to terminate provided in writing
  • Specified proposed ending date
  • Specified date that you must report based on your orders
A military clause does not give permission to terminate the lease for any reason, but only for the specific reasons outlined in the clause or under Federal or state laws as pertains to military moves.
 
If you don't have a military clause in your contract, consider requesting one. Most landlords who are used to renting to members of the military will understand the need for this protection. Simply have the clause added as an addendum to the lease. If your landlord is not interested in adding the clause, your local housing office may be able to help. They may be able to point you toward better housing options that include this lease. Finally, check with an attorney to see if you live in a state that requires this clause.
For more information about military clauses, visit:
 
Options for Breaking the Contract Without a Military Clause

If your lease does not have a military clause and your landlord is not willing to add one, or you don't remember to ask before your orders arrive, you may still have some protection. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act places a number of protections in place for active duty servicemembers who are deployed or moving for other reasons.

The SCRA is not a new law, but rather a revision of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act. It contains a number of provisions and protections for servicemembers, including the right to terminate a lease in specific circumstances.
In general, the SCRA offers the ability to break a lease in one of three instances. These are:
  • Permanent Change of Station Orders - Provide your PCS orders to your landlord 30 days from the day rent is due to receive this protection.
  • Deployment or Other Orders 35 Miles or Farther from the House - In this case the orders needs to last for more than 90 days. You can't break your lease for short-term deployments.
  • Move on Base - In most states, the lessee is able to break the lease if base housing becomes available and the tenant wishes to take it. This one is a not quite as clear in the law and requires an analysis of your state's laws to determine if it applies.
 
Understanding this law will help you understand the protections that apply to you. Here are some of the details about the SCRA.
  • You can break the lease if you executed the lease while in military service.
  • You may also be able to break the lease if you enter the military after signing it and have a required move.
  • If you receive orders, you must supply your landlord with a copy of your orders and a written notice of termination. This must be delivered through a certifiable delivery method, such as private business carrier, delivered by hand, or mailed, return receipt requested, to ensure it is delivered to the landlord.
  • After the landlord receives the notification, the termination on a month-to-month lease becomes effective 30 days after the first day when the next rental payment is due. This can be a little confusing. Consider a rental agreement that is due on the first of the month. If you deliver all of the documents to your landlord on April 10, then the lease will be considered terminated on May 31, 30 days after your next rental payment is due. Even if you have to move before this time, you will need to cover that remaining rental payment.
  • For other lease types, termination is effective on the last day of the month following the month in which you deliver notice. In the same scenario, if you deliver notice on April 10, the effective date of termination would be May 31.
  • In leases which require more than month-to-month payment, the landlord is required to pay back any rental payments collected for the period after the termination, and the unused portion of any rent paid in advance may be prorated based on when the servicemember moves out. This repayment must occur within 30 days of the new termination date.
  • Because of the way the timing works, it is best to deliver your notice on or right before the date your rent is due. This will prevent you from having to pay for a month of rent in which you are not enjoying the home.
  • The law gives your landlord the ability to challenge a termination notice if you do not provide the proper documentation.
  • The protection applies both to the servicemember and any co-lessees. So, if you and your spouse sign the lease, and you are deployed, you can terminate your lease and your spouse will not be held to it either. The spouse or a similar dependent may also be able to terminate the lease after deployment should they decide to live somewhere else while you are deployed.
  • While residential leases are the most commonly considered under the SCRA, it allows for the termination of "residential, professional, business, and agricultural" leases.
The SCRA provides quite a bit of protection, but it also requires quite a number of hoops to jump through to terminate the lease. If you want to have better control over how you terminate the lease, you will want to ask for a military clause that better outlines the terms of termination should the need arise.

In addition to the protections afforded in the SCRA, you may have provisions on the state level that add more protection. One of the most distinctive is the protection in North Carolina. Other states have similar protections that a local lawyer could help you discover.

For more information about the SCRA and how it applies to your lease, visit:

Budgeting Around the Potential Need to Move

In addition to these protections, you can protect yourself as a servicemember from the likelihood of having to break your lease by properly budgeting for that inevitability. If you have some money set aside for this potential problem, and you do find that you have to break your lease, and there are some penalties as a result, you will have the money ready to cover those penalties.
  • Set aside enough savings for several months’ worth of rent. If you should need to terminate, you will be able to pay any of the fees associated with the termination.
  • Be prepared for the costs of a move. While the military will pay a large amount of your moving costs, there are those additional costs, like dining out and staying in hotels, that you may have to cover. You will need several thousands of dollars in the bank to cover these costs.
  • Start planning early, even before you know what your orders will be. This will allow you to start saving and avoiding last minute costs.
  • Learn to lessen your expenses so you can be prepared for your move and have some wiggle room in your budget to save.
  • Choose an insurance provider that covers all 50 states, if you can, so you don't have to switch providers every time you move.
  • Open a separate savings account and contribute to it each month, then dip into it when the move rolls around.
  • Make your savings payments automatic transfers so you never forget to save.
  • Read your lease carefully so you know the potential costs you will face if you do have to break the lease. Remember that even with protections in place, you may have to pay for a month or more of the lease even after you move, depending on when you report your move to your landlord.
In addition to these budgeting tips, it's important to know what penalties you could face if you break your lease without proper protections in place. Some of these penalties include:
  • Paying to cover the advertising and showing costs for the home or apartment
  • Paying for the days the unit sits vacant
  • Paying for the difference between your rental price and a lower rental price a new tenant has
These costs will remain in effect for the duration of your lease. They can add up quickly, and for this reason you want to ensure that you have the right protections in place at the start of your lease.
For more information about budgeting for your inevitable move, visit:

Know Your Rights as a Tenant to Protect Your Finances

When it comes to rental leases, members of the military need to know their rights. A move is almost inevitable when you are in the military, and you need to know how a move would affect your lease. The good news is that with the right protections in place, including the protections afforded in the SCRA and the addition of a military clause, as well as proper budgeting for your move, you can move forward with your military career without fear of your residential lease. To ensure you are properly protected and have a thorough understanding of these factors, consider the following resources:

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