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Is There a Legal Way to Break My Lease?

Dear Ali; I lost my job -- and being 66 years old, I'm not sure that I'll find another one soon. I live in California. Is there any way to break my lease without coming up with monies I do not have?
A: Oh, dear 66, I feel for you. You'll want to file for unemployment benefits and start looking for a new job immediately. Still, with this recession, it's tougher to get rehired than it used to be.

However, getting behind on your bills won't help, and that's the case whether you're a renter or an owner. (Sadly, I've gotten questions like this about mortgages, too.)

The "easiest" thing to do -- I put that word in quotes because in these economic times nothing is easy -- is to double up with a friend or family member, so that you can split your housing costs and carry them longer. It sounds like you were a WW II baby, but your parents may have told you stories of the Depression, where this was pretty common.

Also, now is no time to be proud. Make sure the people in your social networks -- your church group, say -- know that you are looking for work so that you can stay in your home.

As you do these things, you'll also want to start talking with your landlord sooner rather than later. The direct answer to your question -- whether you can break your lease early because of job loss -- is probably "no" according to the letter of the lease, but it might be "yes" depending on the spirit of the landlord.

Get in touch with him and find out how amenable he is to letting you out of your lease. (It's possible that if you find a qualified replacement tenant, he might be fine with it.) Try saying, "I've always paid my rent on time, and I don't want to be in situation where I get behind on the rent, so what can I do for you so that I can end my contract early?"

I've been a landlady, and I can assure you I was more patient with tenants who were late with the rent but told me that they were working on it than with tenants who said nothing at all. I think the same rule applies here -- the landlord doesn't want you to just move in the middle of the night, so that he has to track you down and take you to housing court! That doesn't work for you, that doesn't work for him -- that doesn't work for anybody.

In the case of homeowners, the rule to speak up still holds. Start talks with your bank as soon as possible, because you're more likely to get forbearance if you ask for it early.

Again, remember that you're not alone. The Christian Science Monitor notes in a real estate article earlier this month that more than one hundred thousand California homeowners received default notices in the first quarter of 2009, according to statistics provider DataQuick.

This flood of defaults, of course, is tying up the customer-service people at the banks, who are being deluged with calls. As you shuttle through the maze of customer-service people who lay out your options, try not to snap; take a deep breath and be patient.

Good luck, everybody!