Tips for Military Renters

(Photo: Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel under the Creative Commons license.)
(Photo: Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel under the Creative Commons license.)

The housing bust created many reluctant landlords -- especially within the military. We purchased our house near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2004 when the market was at its peak. When we received orders to move in 2007, our Realtor shook her head and simply said: “Rent it out if you don’t want to lose money.” We became military landlords.   

It’s actually turned out well. We’ve had some great military tenants who treat our house like their own. Often they ask, When are you guys returning?” Our military renters want to make sure they won’t get booted if orders send us back. 

And while we definitely won’t be moving back to JBLM anytime soon (don’t worry, renters, you’re safe!), what does happen if your military landlord wants their house back?  In my work as an attorney, I know there are several issues you need to consider if the lease is broken early or extended. Here are some common issues faced by military renters:   

  1. Help! My military landlord wants me out early. In most states, a landlord must allow you to remain in the home until your lease terminates. If you pay rent on time and take care of the premises, you should be legally entitled to remain -- even if the landlord has orders to return. Beware: Sometimes there are clauses added to a lease to address early termination. Be sure to carefully review your lease before you sign. Make sure it doesn’t give the landlord power to end the lease early on her own terms.        

Your landlord might be inclined to sweeten the deal in order to make it worth your while  to end the lease early. Perhaps the landlord can compensate for moving expenses (hiring a U-haul, packing materials, etc.) or offer a free month’s rent while you search for a new place. It helps to have an agreement in writing signed by you and the landlord to ensure you are both on the same page. Consult your local legal assistance office for specific state laws.  

  1. What if I need to move out earlier?  Don’t forget, if you’re an active-duty servicemember, you can end a lease with permanent change of station (PCS) or deployment orders over 90 days under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Make sure there’s a military clause mentioning this before you sign a lease. Even if the SCRA clause is not in your lease, your landlord is still obligated to honor this federal law once you give proper written notice and a copy of your orders. 

Some military renters sign leases longer than their expected duty assignment because they know they can break a lease under the SCRA. For example, you could sign a 12-month lease knowing you’ll only be assigned for six months. This is legal, but not always the most ethical decision. 

Military assignments can be unpredictable, and being honest with your landlord about your assignment length might prevent a major headache down the road. Check with your local housing office for referrals for “military-friendly” landlords in the area. These landlords are often more understanding when it comes to the needs of military renters.

  1. What if I need move out later? What if your lease expires and you still have three months left before you PCS? Make sure you let the landlord know you want to extend as soon as possible. If you are a good renter, she may be happy to learn you’ll be paying for the next few months. In most states, you can sign an addendum to the lease for the amount of extra time you plan to remain. Putting an agreement in writing is key. A written addendum is often good for people who have a specific, set amount of time to remain.

Month-to-month rentals are also common: It’s a lease that renews itself every 30 days and doesn’t necessarily have to be in writing. However, it’s easy for a landlord to end a month-to-month rental and put you out at the end of the 30 days. On the other hand, it’s also easy for you to end the lease after 30 days. If you’re not sure when you plan to leave, this might be a good option if you’re willing to accept the risk of a landlord ending the lease after a month.

Moving is one of the marks of a military life. It never comes at a convenient time. But if you can accept that and learn to navigate the rental market with these simple tips, your next lease may be the easiest of them all.

-- Julie Heumphreus is an attorney representing servicemembers and their families at She is a military spouse, former active-duty Army JAG attorney, and third-generation Army brat. She found Airborne school to be less challenging than raising toddlers. She lives overseas with her husband and three children. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is for general information purposes only and should not be construed as offering legal advice, or creating an attorney-client relationship between you and the author. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included in this article without seeking appropriate legal advice about your individual facts and circumstances from an attorney licensed in your state. 

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