A lease is a binding legal contract between the tenant(s) (lessee) and the landlord (lessor). Although a year-long rental agreement essentially allows you to make payments on a monthly basis, it doesn’t constitute a month-to-month arrangement. Whether you have to relocate for a job, take on a roommate or move for any other reason, breaking a lease should be done with proper care and planning.
Depending on your reasons for breaking your lease, your landlord may be sympathetic and not penalize you. At worst, however, breaking a rental contract could have serious consequences. If you break a lease without legal grounds to do so, you may:
- Be required to pay the rent for the remaining months on your lease
- Be subject to legal action from your landlord, and/or
- Receive a negative mark on your credit report
To protect yourself, it’s important to understand the steps involved in properly breaking a lease so it has the fewest negative consequences for both you and your landlord.
Here are the important steps and considerations when you need to break a lease:
- Read your rental agreement
- Talk to your landlord
- Find a new renter
- Consider termination offers
- Be prepared to pay
- Check with local tenants’ unions
- Get everything in writing
- Seek legal advice
- Know the exceptions
Read your rental agreement
The first step to take when you’re considering breaking a lease is to thoroughly review your rental agreement. Read through each section to see if any include information about how to break a lease or what the penalties are. Look for words like “early release,” “sublet” and “relet,” and when you find them, take note of the page number so you can read through it again later if necessary.
The lease agreement may indicate that you have to give notice of your intention to vacate the apartment one or two months in advance or that you have to find a replacement renter. Many leases will also have an option for terminating the agreement immediately, but they often come with hefty fees and a loss of your security deposit.
Talk to your landlord
The landlord-tenant relationship can be tricky, but open communication and total transparency are the best ways to handle a touchy situation like leaving before the lease is up.
Email your landlord and building manager as early as you can in the process. Your landlord is a business person, but they’re a human being, too, so if you’re honest about the situation, they might be understanding (of course, there’s always a chance they might not be). But if you’re a responsible renter and have a good relationship with your landlord, the process of breaking an apartment lease might go pretty smoothly.
To stay on good terms, give your landlord as much notice as possible. If you need to break the lease immediately and can’t give the standard amount of notice specified in your rental agreement, offer to find someone to sublet from you.
Find a new renter
In many states, both you and your landlord are required to try to find a replacement renter if you move out early. In legal terms, this is known as “mitigating the damages” from breaking an apartment lease. In other words, lessening the rent amount still owed for the remaining months.
There are two possible scenarios for finding a new renter: subletting and re-renting. Here’s a breakdown of each:
- Subletting: Subletting is when you or your landlord find someone who’s willing to take over your current lease. While they’ll likely sign their own sublease agreement, the lease will still be under your name, making you legally responsible if they smash a hole in the wall or forget to pay rent for a few months. You won’t get back your security deposit until the end of the original lease term, even if you find a subletter, so keep that in mind.
- Re-renting: Re-renting involves finding a new tenant for the unit, but unlike subletting, they’ll sign a brand new lease agreement and pay their own security deposit. For the landlord, this often means re-listing your unit and showing the property to interested renters.
If your landlord isn’t able to find a new renter quickly, you may be required to pay for the days the unit remains vacant. Renting your apartment isn’t the landlord’s top priority, so finding a renter to replace you may help speed things along. Remember, your landlord doesn’t have to go with the first person who wants to sublet or re-rent your apartment. There are a number of things that might keep a landlord from deciding to rent to an applicant, including credit score, rental history and availability of funds.
In some states, both you and your landlord are legally responsible for trying to find a new renter. However, since you stand to lose a lot of money if you can’t find one, it’s a good idea to put in a lot of effort from the beginning. Check with your friends or post a Facebook status to see if anyone you know is looking for a place to live.
Consider termination offers
If you’re unable to take the time to find a new renter or you’re in a situation where you need to leave the apartment immediately, you may need to consider the termination offer detailed in your lease. Breaking a lease agreement often requires paying two or three months’ rent and forfeiting your security deposit altogether, though every lease will be different.
Again, it’s a good idea to check in with your landlord at this point, because there’s always a chance they’ll reduce the fees involved or return your security deposit, even if the lease says they won’t.
Remember that this situation may be difficult for you, but it’s also a huge financial burden on your landlord who’s depending on your rent money each month as a substantial part of their income. A good landlord-tenant relationship can go a long way toward making the situation more bearable for both parties, so make sure you’re staying positive and patient.
Be prepared to pay
Breaking a lease is not cheap for you or your landlord, so don’t be surprised if you have to pay lease penalties. If you don’t pay to terminate your lease immediately, depending on where you live, you’re responsible for paying your rent until the time you or your landlord finds a subletter or re-renter.
In many states, if your landlord makes an effort to find a new renter and can’t, you’ll have to continue paying the rent until your lease term is up. Even if your landlord is able to find a renter but can’t charge them as much as they charged you, you may be liable for paying the difference.
Check with local tenants’ unions
In many areas, especially in larger cities, there are tenants’ unions in place that can help renters handle landlord-tenant disputes or assist with breaking lease agreements. Tenant unions are a good resource for knowing the specific laws in your city and state regarding leases, so it may be worth checking with one near the beginning of the process in order to know your rights as a tenant.
Tenants’ unions may also be helpful if your landlord is hard to reach, doesn’t put in an effort to find a new renter or is trying to charge you more than what’s legal. A union may be able to offer a solution that you haven’t considered.
Get everything in writing
From the very first conversation you have with your landlord about potentially breaking your lease, it’s important to get everything in writing — especially any conversations regarding money. This will protect both of you legally if for any reason the situation becomes litigious.
The best way to manage this is to make sure your conversations are over email. If you do have any conversations over the phone or in person, be sure to take notes. When the conversation is finished, shoot your landlord an email of what you covered during the conversation, and get their written confirmation that what you sent is correct.
Just send a simple note that says, “Hello, just wanted to make sure I understood our conversation points correctly — can you confirm this is what we agreed?”
Seek legal advice
If you feel you’re in a situation where your landlord is trying to take advantage, you can prove your apartment is unlivable or you’re being charged too much, it’s a good idea to seek legal advice.
Know the exceptions
Every state has different laws when it comes to breaking lease agreements, but there are several that allow a tenant to leave their apartment before the lease term is up if there are special circumstances. Some of the most common reasons you may be legally allowed to break a lease without consequences include:
1. Landlord fails to maintain the property
In most states, landlords are required to maintain a fit and habitable property in the following ways:
- Providing running water at all times
- Performing repairs
- Adhering to health and safety codes
- Keeping all common areas clean
- Providing proper trash bins
If a tenant believes that there’s a significant health or safety violation, they have two options:
- Complain to the department of public health: Contact your health department to file a complaint against your landlord. They will open a claim and send someone out to inspect the issue. If they’re able to confirm your complaint, they will send notice to your landlord requiring them to address and fix the problem within a certain amount of days, which varies by state. Make sure to check your local statutes.
- Complain to the landlord: Most states require landlords to fix a significant health or safety violation within a certain amount of time, with a promise to follow up in the case that the landlord doesn’t comply. In that case, a tenant may be able to legally break their lease. Typically, the tenant is required to provide to their landlord — in writing — some form of a notice of intent to vacate. Depending on state laws, a tenant has to wait a certain number of days after their notice to vacate has been received before they can move out unless the violation is incredibly severe and detrimental to the residents’ health.
When complaining directly to your landlord, make sure you put it all in writing. You may need documentation/proof in the future if things end up in court.
2. Illegal apartment
If you live in an apartment that’s considered illegal in your state (some states regulate basement apartments, for instance), you may be able to break your lease.
3. Tenant is active duty in the military
Members of the U.S. military are protected under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act when needing to break a lease early due to change of station orders. In the case that a servicemember is ordered to relocate for a period of at least 90 days, the tenant can legally give their notice to terminate the lease agreement along with proof of their official orders. In most cases, notice must be given at least 30 days before the desired move-out date.
4. Landlord illegally enters the property
Landlords are generally required to provide tenants with at least 24 hours’ notice before they have the right to enter the property. Landlords can legally enter your property to:
- Make repairs
- Inspect the property
- To show the property to prospective tenants
If a landlord repeatedly attempts to or succeeds in entering a property without proper notice, tries to enter for reasons that aren’t legally allowed or harasses a tenant, the tenant may have legal grounds to break their lease. In order to do so, it’s usually required that the tenant obtain a court order telling the landlord to stop. If the order is violated, then the tenant can give notice of their intent to terminate the lease.
5. Tenant is a victim of domestic violence
In many states, if a tenant has been a victim of domestic violence, they may be legally entitled to break their lease. In those cases:
- The act of domestic violence typically must have occurred within the last three to six months.
- The tenant must provide the landlord written notice of their intent to break the lease due to an act of domestic violence
- Provide notice within at least 30 days prior to moving out
Landlords are entitled to request proof of domestic violence, which can include an order of protection or a police report for the specific incident. If granted, tenants are only responsible for rent payments up to the day they vacate.
Unexpected health circumstances, like a serious injury or illness, may also enable you to leave your rental agreement before the lease term is up.
A lawyer can help you come to terms with your landlord, or they may advise you to file a suit in small claims court. The latter isn’t as pricey as other types of legal recourse and could protect you from having to pay an unfair amount to your landlord.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst when breaking your lease
Whatever the reason for breaking a lease, you’ll need to plan for the worst-case scenario. Educate yourself on your rights and responsibilities as a tenant regarding the lease. There may be a few bumps in the road, but if you do your part by following the above guidance, chances are that things will work out in the end.