Members of our United States Armed Forces must be ready to deploy at any time, depending on our nation’s defense and personnel needs. So when they hear, “Time to move out!” for their next mission, it can often mean move-out time for the service member living in an off-base apartment.
Although military members often have to leave on short notice, they have some special rights when it comes to breaking a lease. While this doesn’t mean they are exempt from normal move-out responsibilities, it does give them the privilege of leaving when they need to.
Landlords also have rules to follow when it comes to renting to military personnel. These regulations require landlords to allow military members to end a lease if they are deployed or receive a permanent change of station (PCS). While these rules are in place to protect our service members, they also allow landlords to perverse their investments.
To ensure the law is being followed, it’s important for both military renters and landlords to be aware of the proper documentation and move-out procedures required. Even if a PCS order isn’t on your radar at this time, there is a high chance you’ll experience one at some point in your military career.
Moving Out and the Landlord Tenant Law
Since military members are assigned to locations across the United States and the world based on Department of Defense (DoD) needs, they are not in total control of where they live and for how long they will be there. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), a federal law enacted in 2003, provides protection to our service members whenever they move while they protect our citizens, borders, and national interests.
This act provides protection for service members in the event that their military obligations impact their ability to meet certain financial obligations. These protections reach far beyond rental housing contracts, allowing service members to be exempt from lease agreements regarding housing, vehicles and storage units, among other benefits.
Who Is Eligible for SCRA Lease Termination?
Military members are covered by SCRA beginning on the date they enter active-duty service and ending between 30 and 90 days after the date of discharge from active duty. Specifically, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act applies to:
- Full-time active-duty members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard
- National Guard members on federal orders for a period of more than 30 days
- Commissioned officers of the Public Health Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Reservists on federal active duty
Although those defined by the above characteristics are covered by SCRA, military members are still required to follow certain procedures if terminating a lease.
SCRA Lease Termination With 30 Days Notice
To get out of a housing lease without penalty, there are steps a service member must follow under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Providing a 30-day notice to the landlord is the main element that will enable the military member to depart without additional fees for breaking their lease.
Additional SCRA Requirements for Breaking Lease
- Written notice of ending the lease
- Copy of the official military relocation orders
- Rent payment up until the date of leaving
- Any other charges of fees (utilities, damages, etc.)
When delivering notice of termination, check your lease agreement to determine how your landlord would prefer to receive this news. Some prefer certified mail, while others are flexible and perfectly fine with being handed the letter or having it slipped under their front door.
Once service members deliver notice, the landlord usually has about 30 days to return any prepaid rent and security deposits. Of course, military members are still responsible for unpaid rent or charges to repair damages beyond normal wear and tear.
It’s important to remember that landlords also have the authority to begin searching for new renters once notice is provided. So, don’t depend on being able to purchase your move-out date back, as it is likely a new contracted tenant may be moving in right after you leave.
Important Reminder: The timeline for the ability to leave without penalty can only start after the military member provides written notice and copies of their orders.
Apartment Move Out Cleaning
While PCSing, military members have a million things on their minds regarding their move. From packing up a family as quickly as possible to securing last-minute housing in a new area, PCSing is known for being quite stressful. Therefore, it’s understandable how cleaning a rental isn’t a top priority.
Keep in mind that keeping a rental as clean as its move-in state is one of the best ways for you to receive back your full security deposit. To ensure every corner gets cleaned, plan to have most of your furniture moved out before the last few days of your occupancy. This will make walls and floors easier to access for cleaning.
The same strategy can be applied to your refrigerator, cabinets and even closets. Moving as much stuff out as possible will help you achieve a deeper clean. Think about the condition that the property was in when you first walked in the door, and try to restore it to that condition, if possible.
Expert Tip: If you’re cleaning the rental yourself, plan to dedicate a day of cleaning, packing and moving to each room in the house.
If you don’t have time or motivation to handle the cleaning yourself, look for services that will handle the hassle for you. Especially in communities with a large military presence, cleaning companies will likely be familiar with the cleaning standards local landlords expect. Rates for cleaning services can vary by company and region, so be sure to get an estimate on how either the time or area of your apartment will be calculated for the cost.
What Can a Landlord Charge For When You Move Out?
Now that you have a plan for how to clean your rental, it’s important to know where to focus your efforts. “Normal” wear and tear to an apartment, which sometimes depends on the length of a stay in a property, usually isn’t cause for a landlord to subtract from a deposit for repairs.
However, actual damage to an apartment will definitely hurt a tenant trying to get back their full refund. Typically, landlords will compare the state of the rental to how it appeared when you first moved in. Now is the time when you realize just how important that initial walk-through inspection was.
What Is Considered Normal Wear and Tear for Renting?
The following traits are generally considered to be normal wear and tear. According to security deposit laws, these cannot be deducted from security deposits or charged as “damages”:
- Faded paint, wallpaper or curtains
- Carpet wear from normal use
- Carpet indents from furniture
- Broken appliances, if not from misuse
- Small pin or picture-hanger holes in walls
- Burned-out light bulbs
- Battery replacement in smoke alarms
- Some naturally-occurring dust
What is Considered Rental Property Damage?
Damage to a rental, which the tenant will be liable for, is typically more than the normal wear that occurs due to everyday use. These damages, for which money would likely be subtracted from a security deposit to pay to repair, could include the following:
- Excessive or large holes in the wall
- Broken or missing windows, screens, blinds or curtains
- Broken doors and locks
- Holes, tears, burn marks or animal stains in carpet
- Filth on or inside an oven or other kitchen appliances
- Clogged drains from neglect
- Broken appliances/fixtures in the kitchen or bathrooms due to misuse
- Mildew and mold in the bathroom
- Paint applied by the tenant without permission
Once cleaning is complete, the landlord or property manager will do a walk-through of the rental and assess any concerns before the security deposit is returned. Another good way for a service member to maximize their security deposit return is to schedule and be present when this walk-through occurs.
At this time, it may be possible to remedy any issues the landlord will seek to repair. While this action isn’t always possible depending on when you need to leave, it could mean the difference between receiving some of your despite back versus none.
How Long Does a Landlord Have to Return a Deposit?
Laws about how long a landlord has to return your deposit are as numerous as the states themselves, ranging from 14 days in Alaska and Hawaii to 60 days in Alabama and Arkansas. Research your state for guidance regarding landlord and tenant regulations in your area.
Depending on the amount of the initial security deposit and the amount that’s withheld for damages, service members may be wondering, “Can I sue my landlord?”
While it’s preferable if all parties can reach an agreement among themselves, that isn’t always the case. Most states require landlords to itemize the exact amounts deducted for cleaning and/or repair. If a landlord doesn’t provide this explanation when the remaining deposit is returned, or if the deductions seem excessive, legal action may be an option for the military renter.
Find Exceptional Military Housing
Whether you’re a service member moving your household for the first time or the 15th time, there’s always much to consider when leaving a leased property. But knowing the steps to follow and the best practices at each stage can make the whole process a bit easier for renters and landlords alike.
Due to SCRA, tenant and landlord laws and moving out doesn’t need to come with added stress and burden for both military renters and landlords.
Expert Tip: You can easily use AHRN.com to look for single-family homes, townhomes, duplexes, and apartments for sale or rent in any designated area. Here, you can also discover Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), Permanent Change of Station (PCS), Temporary Lodging Allowance (TLA), and Expiration of Term of Service (ETS) military housing information.