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Tenant’s Guide to Breaking a Rental Lease in Iowa

Updated on
January 6, 2021
Article written by
Eugene Nassif

This article will provide a comprehensive guide to tenants outlining their rights and how to limit liability when breaking their lease for a rented or leased residence. We discuss the following questions:

  • What are a tenant’s rights and responsibilities when entering into a lease in Iowa? 
  • When is breaking a lease justified in Iowa? 
  • Military Exception to Rental Leases in Iowa
  • Unsafe Rental Unit or Violations of Iowa Health or Safety Codes 
  • Landlord Harassment or Violations of Privacy Rights in Iowa
  • Landlord’s Duty to Mediate in Iowa
  • How to minimize liability when breaking a lease in Iowa

Generally speaking, most if not all tenants who enter agreements to lease an apartment, townhouse or home plan on staying for the full amount of time required by the lease. However, situations sometimes arise where the tenant needs to move out prior to the lease term ending. Maybe you’re a student in college and you are now studying abroad or the school transitioned to online learning due to Covid-19. Maybe you found a new job in a different location or need to move home to take care of family. There are many legitimate reasons for tenants to need to break their leases.  

If you leave before your fixed-term lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent owed, you are considered to be breaking the lease.  

What are a tenant’s rights and responsibilities when entering into a lease in Iowa? 

A lease agreement obligates you, the tenant, and the landlord typically for a set period of time. Most often for residential leases, it is a year. Under most residential lease agreements, a landlord can’t raise the rent or change terms until the lease period ends, unless otherwise provided for in the lease.  A landlord can’t force you to move prior to your lease ending unless you violate your lease terms in some way or fail to pay rent. In that case, the landlord can follow the Iowa legal procedures to evict you. See Iowa Code 562A.27 for more information regarding this. 

When you sign a lease, you are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term. It does not matter whether you continue to live in the place or you move out, you are still liable to pay. However, under Iowa law, there are a few exceptions for tenants to help them with this obligation to pay. 

When is breaking a lease justified in Iowa? 

There are a number of exceptions under Iowa law to the general rule that tenants owe the rent payments for the entire term of a lease. These exceptions may allow you to legally move out and stop paying rent prior to the lease term ending. 

Military Exception to Rental Leases in Iowa

If you enter actively military service after you’ve signed a lease, you have the right to break the lease under federal law. (See War and National Defense Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 App. U.S.C.A. § § 501). To qualify, you must be part of the “uniformed services” which includes armed forces, commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Services and the National Guard. To use this exception, you must give your landlord written notice of your intention to terminate the lease, citing your military service. Once this notice is mailed or delivered, your tenancy will terminate 30 days after the date of the next rental payment due date. Any payments or obligations from the lease after that point are absolved.  

Unsafe Rental Unit or Violations of Iowa Health or Safety Codes 

Your landlord is required under local and state housing codes to provide habitable housing to their tenants. Should the landlord not provide habitable housing for their tenants, in violation of these regulations, the court will conclude that the tenant has been “constructively evicted” which means that the landlord, by having unlivable housing for their tenants, has, for all practical purposes, evicted you. Because of that, you no longer are no longer bound by the lease agreement. Iowa law sets out specific requirements for the procedures you must follow prior to moving out due to a major repair. See Iowa Code Ann. § 562A.23-.24. The issues with the housing must be serious, such as lack of water, heat, etc.  

Landlord Harassment or Violations of Privacy Rights 

Under Iowa law, your landlord is required to provide 24 hours' notice prior to entering your residence. See Iowa Code Ann § § 562A.19, 562A.28, 562A.29). Should your landlord violate a tenant’s privacy rights or do things such as shutting off your utilities, removing windows/doors or changing the locks, you will be considered “constructively evicted” as described above. As such, this will allow the tenant to break the lease without being further obligated under the lease contract. 

Landlord’s Duty to Mediate in Iowa

Even if you don’t have any exception or justification to break your lease, the good news is that you may still be off the hook for at least some of the remaining payments you owe. Your landlord is required by law to mitigate their damages. See Iowa Code § 562A.29(3). In other words, the landlord must make reasonable efforts to re-rent your unit rather than simply sit on the empty unit and charge you for the remainder of the term. The result is that you might not have to pay much, if any, if you break your lease so long as the unit is quickly re-rented. You would only be liable for the amount of rent the landlord loses between that period of time. This is known as mitigating damages under Iowa law.  

When a landlord goes to re-rent your unit, they are not obligated to relax or otherwise lower their standards for renting. For example, they do not have to rent the place to tenants with credit scores or other financial issues that would typically not qualify them to rent from the landlord. Additionally, the landlord isn’t required to reduce the cost of the unit to get it rented. Any advertising expenses or other costs associated with finding another tenant can be recoverable from you by the landlord. 

There is always the chance that the landlord is unable to re-rent the property. In that case, you would be liable for the remainder of the rental payments. The landlord can use your security deposit to cover some of what is owed. Should you still owe money, the landlord may sue you in court for the remainder. Oftentimes this happens in small claims court, since the cost is typically under $5,000.00. 

How to minimize liability when breaking a lease in Iowa

Communication and immediacy are key to reducing your liability if you’re breaking a lease. If you intend to do it in the future, be sure to provide notice to the landlord that you are doing so in order to allow the landlord time to find a replacement tenant. Additionally, if you have a replacement tenant who is qualified to lease or rent the unit, provide the landlord with their information. This way, you can minimize your liability for breaking your lease. 


Tenant’s Guide to Breaking a Rental Lease in Iowa
Author

Eugene Nassif

Eugene Nassif is an associate attorney in Des Moines, Iowa. His primary focus is in business and civil litigation matters.

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