Your tenant just called in a panic and told you they were robbed at home.

It makes sense that they no longer feel safe living in your rental property. They want to break the lease and get their full security deposit back. What should you do?

Breaking the lease after a burglary

Generally speaking, the answer depends on who and what caused the robbery.

If you, as the landlord, failed to provide a secure unit for your tenant, then you could be held responsible. If there was an issue with keys and locks, responsibility will vary.

However, keep in mind that your duty and liability to your tenants is limited to what is reasonably foreseeable and only what is reasonable for a person in your position.

Cause of Robbery Break the lease? Why?
Doors or window didn’t lock properly. Probably Landlord failed to provide a secure premise.
Tenant didn’t lock the doors. No Tenant was negligent.
Tenant lost a key or gave one to a friend. No If there is no sign of forced entry, then the missing key must have been used.
Tenant lost a key, informed you, and you didn’t change the locks. Probably Landlord was negligent.
Your tenant is involved in some crime/drug-related activity, which followed them home. No The tenant’s behavior made them a target, provided the home was secure.
Your tenant’s home was randomly selected, and it was a forced entry. No A landlord isn’t responsible for the actions of others.

Let’s go over some details on how to protect yourself as well as your tenants.

Replace broken windows and doors immediately

If the robbery was a break-in (forced entry), and the door or windows were broken, you need to fix those immediately—like within 24 hours, preferably before nightfall. You can’t expect a tenant to live in a place that can’t be secured.

Lack of security goes against the implied warranty of habitability: you must provide a safe place for your tenants to live. If you don’t fix a broken door or window within a short period of time, you aren’t providing a safe and secure place to live, and your tenant could have grounds to break the lease.

Do you have to provide an alarm system?

You don’t have to provide your tenants with an alarm system, but you might want to consider using or installing one, particularly if you want to keep the tenant.

It’s also a good idea to provide as much security as the area warrants for that location. Look at what neighbors do. If you provide comparable security to what the neighbors have, what you’re doing would be considered reasonable.

Burglary at a neighbor’s house

When your tenant feels unsafe

Maybe there was a break-in at a neighbor’s house or in a nearby building, and you haven’t installed an alarm system, bars on the windows, or other security measures. (Some jurisdictions don’t allow window bars.) What if your tenant feels unsafe and wants to get out of the lease?

In this case, your tenant probably can’t get out of their lease. If the situation is unbearable for your tenant, but you’ve provided adequate security, they can move, but they’re still liable for paying the rent until the lease ends or until you rent to a new tenant.

This situation isn’t ideal, particularly if your tenant tells you they feel unsafe. They might ask to get out of the lease early or request that you increase security. If you refuse both requests and your tenant leaves early, they might sue you under the implied warranty of habitability doctrine. Your tenant may or may not receive any money from the lawsuit—it’s up to the judge.

Alternatively, work with your tenant, especially if they’re good tenant who is truly scared. After all, it’s best to have a tenant who really wants to live at the property, not one who feels obligated to.

Breaking a lease due to crime

If crime happened in the area

If crime is getting worse in the neighborhood, and you’re not increasing security, you might have a problem.

States vary on how they interpret how safe you need to make your property. Generally, if crime such as burglary, vandalism, and violence in the area increases, you should increase your security if possible. For example, if you have a broken porch light, you should fix it. If you don’t have deadbolts, add them.

It’s in your best interest to make your rental property as secure as possible. If your tenant were injured by a criminal, your tenant might sue you. The court might order you to pay damages to your tenant, particularly if this wasn’t the first break-in at your rental property. Also, it’s the right thing to do. You want your tenants to be safe in their home.

What you can do

1. Meet or exceed safety laws

Make sure you are doing all you can to make your rental property safe for your tenants. You at least need to meet the safety laws in your jurisdiction. For example, you might need to provide deadbolts, peepholes, and window locks. You can exceed safety laws if you like.

2. Secure unsafe areas

If criminals have been breaking into nearby properties through the windows, install window alarms or install bars if you can.

3. Speak with your tenants about security best practices

Tell your tenants the security measures you have taken, and let them know how to use the security system if there is one.

4. Address tenant complaints

Make sure you address tenant complaints, such as adding a deadbolt lock if you have an old front door lock, and fix any security measures that are broken.

Bottom line

In most cases, tenants can’t break a lease because they feel unsafe. But if they feel unsafe, help make the place more secure. If you don’t provide basic safety precautions, such a door and window locks, your tenant may be able to legally break the lease.