How to Break a Lease on Your Apartment

A renter might choose to break a lease for many reasons. But when a tenant breaks a lease, there could be financial and legal consequences. Whether you have to relocate for a job or military service, find a more affordable lease agreement or move before your lease ends for any other reason, breaking a lease requires planning. And learning how to get out of a lease early can protect your credit score, minimize fees and avoid legal problems.

A lease is a binding legal contract between the tenant(s) (or lessee) and the landlord (the lessor). This rental contract allows you to make payments on a rental unit every month until the lease expires. A rental contract is typically a one-year lease or a month-to-month lease. You're legally bound to pay rent for the entire lease period specified in the rental contract.

What happens if you break your lease?

If you break your lease, the best-case scenario is that the property manager or building owner is sympathetic and won't penalize you. At worst, there could be serious legal and financial consequences when a tenant breaks a lease. It could also make it harder to find an affordable rental unit in the future.

How much does it cost to break a lease?

Early termination of a lease without legal grounds could require you to give up your security deposit or pay a fine. These early-release fines may equal one or two months' rent. You could also get stuck paying rent until the lease expires — whether you're living there or not.

If you ignore these fees or don't pay the rent owed you owe, this debt could be sent to collections. This can lower your credit score and have a negative effect on your credit report. A low credit score on your credit report can make it hard to get loans or rent a new place to live.

What are the legal repercussions of breaking a lease agreement?

Most landlords are willing to work with you. But it's possible that the owner of your building could take you to court if you break your lease. This can cost you time and money and damage your ability to rent in the future.

Concerned couple reading over a lease

Protecting yourself when terminating your lease early

To protect yourself, it's important to understand how to break a lease so it has the fewest negative consequences.

  • Read your rental agreement
  • Talk to your landlord
  • Find a new renter
  • Consider termination offers
  • Be prepared to pay fees
  • Check with local tenants' unions
  • Get everything in writing
  • Seek legal advice
  • Know the exceptions

Read your lease agreement

The first step to take when you're considering breaking a lease is to read your lease carefully. Read through each section to see if any include information about how to get out of an apartment lease and what the penalties are. Look for words like “early release," “sublet" and “relet." Take note of the page number so you can read through it again later if necessary.

The lease may indicate that you have to provide notice of your intent to vacate 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

Communication with property owners and managers is tricky. But total transparency is the best way to proceed.

To stay on good terms, give as much notice as possible. This shows you respect your agreement and that you're willing to help them find a new tenant and keep rent payments coming in.

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 or pay a portion of the rent. If your landlord agrees with the plan, the process might go fairly smoothly.

Find a new renter to take over your lease

In many states, both you and your landlord will need to try to find a replacement renter if you move out early. This is known as “mitigating the damages" from breaking an apartment lease. In other words, finding a new tenant lessens the rent payment 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 is when you or the landlord find someone who's willing to take over your current agreement as a month-to-month 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. You won't get your security deposit back until the end of the original rental contract, so keep that in mind.
  • Re-renting involves finding a new tenant for the unit. Unlike subletting, they'll sign a brand new lease commitment and pay their own security deposit. For the landlord, this often means re-listing your unit and showing the property to interested renters.

Who is responsible for finding a new renter?

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 on social media to see if anyone you know is looking for a place to live. Since your name might still be on the lease and the new tenants will be responsible for your mail and deliveries until you set up your forwarding address, it's reassuring to know the new renters are people you can trust.

If no one finds a new renter quickly, you may have to pay for the days the unit remains vacant. 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.

Consider lease 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, consider the termination offer detailed in your lease. Breaking a lease often requires paying two or three months' rent and forfeiting your security deposit altogether, though every lease will be different.

Check 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. 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.

Woman paying bills

Be prepared to pay rent and early termination fees

Breaking a lease is not cheap for you or your landlord, so don't be surprised if you have to pay lease penalties. Remember that this situation is difficult for you, but it's also a financial burden on your landlord. They're depending on your rent money each month as a substantial part of their income.

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. If your landlord is able to find a renter but can't charge them as much as they charged you, you may need to pay 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 disputes or assist with breaking lease agreements early. Tenant unions are a good resource for knowing the specific laws in your city and state regarding leases. It's worth checking with one near the beginning of the process to know your rights as a tenant and learn about consumer services that can help your cause.

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. They can also help if your landlord won't accept a legal reason for breaking a lease

Get everything in writing before breaking a lease

From the very first conversation you have with your landlord about potentially breaking your lease, it's important to get everything in writing. That's especially true regarding any conversations about money. If you have a record of a landlord agreeing to terms in writing, it's more difficult for them to go back on those terms later. It also protects both of you legally if the situation becomes litigious.

The best way to manage this is to communicate via email. If you do have any conversations over the phone or in person, take notes. When the conversation is over, 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 for rent, it's a good idea to seek legal advice.

Soldier in the US Military

Exceptions where you may legally break a lease

Every state has different laws when it comes to breaking lease agreements, but there are several legal reasons that allow a tenant to leave their apartment before the lease term is up. Some of the most common reasons you may legally break a lease early without consequences include:

1. Landlord fails to maintain the property

In most states, landlords must 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'll open a claim and send someone out to inspect the issue. If they're able to confirm your complaint, they'll send notice to your landlord requiring them to address and fix the problem within a certain amount of days. (The number 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. A tenant may legally break their lease if the landlord doesn't comply. Typically, the tenant needs to provide their landlord notice — in writing — indicating their intent to vacate. Depending on state laws, a tenant has to wait a certain number of days after sending this notice to vacate before they can move out. This may not apply if the renter's health and well-being are at risk. 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, you may get to break your lease. This applies to basement apartments in some places.

3. Tenant is active duty in the military

Military service is also a legal excuse for breaking a lease. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects U.S. military members who need to break a lease early due to a change of station orders. If a service member needs to relocate for a period of at least 90 days, the Civil Relief Act allows the tenant to legally give their notice to terminate the lease agreement.

In most cases, military service members will need to give notice at least 30 days before the desired move-out date. They will need to show proof of their official orders per the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

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. The tenant can give notice of their intent to terminate the lease if the landlord violates the order again.

5. Tenant is a victim of domestic violence

If a tenant has been a victim of domestic violence, they may legally be entitled to break their lease. In those cases:

  • The act of intimate partner 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 sexual assault or domestic violence
  • Renters must provide notice within at least 30 days prior to moving out

Landlords may request proof of domestic violence. This 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.

6. Renter experiences a health emergency

You may also leave your lease early due to unexpected health circumstances. These could include a serious injury or illness. If you can't live independently or need to enter a rehab facility, your landlord may agree to release you from your lease early.

If you provide a letter from your doctor or the court, you could be able to terminate your agreement within 30 to 60 days. Read the lease to determine the exact time frame required to give notice.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst when breaking your lease

Whatever the reason for breaking a lease early, you'll need to plan for the worst-case scenario. Educate yourself on your rights and responsibilities as a tenant and learn how to get out of a lease early in a way that's respectful of all parties. If you do your part by following the above guidance, chances are good things will work out in the end.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.
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Alicia Underlee NelsonAlicia Underlee Nelson is a freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in Thomson Reuters, Food Network, USA Today, Delta Sky Magazine, AAA Living, Midwest Living, Beer Advocate, trivago Magazine, Matador Network, craftbeer.com and numerous other publications. She’s the author of North Dakota Beer: A Heady History, co-host of the Travel Tomorrow podcast and leads travel and creativity workshops across the Midwest.

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