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Diplomats Don't Have an Automatic Easy Out

By Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, March 20, 2004; Page T09

QAs part of my job, I orient new foreign service officers at the U.S. Agency for International Development. They are considered diplomats. Many of them have problems getting rentals in D.C. with a diplomatic clause. It seems that management companies have heard of a military clause, but not a diplomatic clause.

Some of these officers have to go overseas before a year is up and therefore don't want to be penalized for breaking a year's lease. If they go overseas on travel orders, can they break a lease without penalty? They'd prefer not to pay the higher rates for a month-to-month that some rental companies offer.

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They, and I, would appreciate any information you have on this issue.

AA diplomatic clause in a lease allows a diplomat who is ordered overseas to break the lease. Surprising as it may seem that apartment management companies in the Washington area have not heard of diplomatic clauses, it makes sense because such clauses are not common.

Unlike military clauses, diplomatic clauses are not automatic. Landlords don't necessarily have to make concessions for foreign service officers and diplomats who may leave the country before their lease terms run out.

That said, in a region where so many foreign service officers and diplomats reside, good landlords write such clauses into leases.

"If diplomatic tenants are smart, they will ask that a clause be put into their lease," said Thomas Chambers, a real estate agent for Herndon-based McGrath Real Estate Services, a firm that helps foreign service officers and others navigate the housing market.

Chambers says U.S. foreign service officers, or renters who think they will become officers during the period of the lease, should expect to pay the penalty if they break a lease -- that is, unless they ask their landlord to write a diplomatic clause into the lease.

With the rental market still relatively slow, landlords in need of tenants may make some extra concessions, including waiving the extra fee for a shorter-term lease or adding a diplomatic clause. Of course, they may not, because they don't really have to. Also, they may stand to make an extra buck or two on such a situation, either by getting tenants to pay a higher base rent each month or by charging them for breaking a lease.

Some landlords may deny a request for a diplomatic clause because, at least where foreign diplomats are concerned, housing costs are often paid by foreign governments and not by individual apartment-dwellers. Landlords may assume that tenants who do not pay their own rent will not complain as vocally about extra fees and penalties because their pockets are not affected. Of course, this is not always the case. Even still, the fear of being taken advantage of across continents has caused many embassies to routinely read and approve leases for their employees before signing them.

In some places, it's possible that foreign service officers or diplomats may avoid lease-breaking consequences even without a diplomatic clause. A few jurisdictions, such as the state of Delaware, allow people to break leases for job relocation, which would cover an overseas transfer.

However, renters in the Washington area cannot rely on such a law, so if they have no lease clause that helps them, they should ask their employers to pay the charges for lease-breaking.

Getting out of a lease is easiest for military personnel.

The military clause gained more strength last December, when President Bush, with bipartisan approval, signed a new federal law, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which affects the rights of military personnel with regard to rental housing, among other things.

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