How to Break
When you first signed your lease, you likely did it in good faith. The home or apartment you wanted to rent felt safe, comfortable, and suitable for all of your needs. There was an air of excitement and possibility as you filled out the paperwork and made that big-step commitment.
However, things don’t always go 100% according to plan. Even if you initially intended to stay at the property for the full extent of your lease, there might be a reason that you need to leave early. For instance, your relationship with your landlord might have changed. Or, you may be going through a major transformation in your life and you simply need to move.
Usually, tenants remain in a lease for at least one year. If you need to get out before then, there are options. You should never feel forced to live somewhere against your will, especially if you feel unsafe.
While every state has its own landlord/tenant laws, there are general steps you can take to secure your rights and successfully complete an early lease termination. Today, we’re sharing how to get out of your rental agreement without suffering any major setbacks.
What Is a Lease?
Before we dive into the details on how to break your lease, let’s quickly cover what a lease entails in the first place. Put simply, this is a legally binding contract between you and your landlord.
Unless you’re able to secure a short-term rental, you’ll usually agree to rent the property for at least one year. If that time comes up and you aren’t ready to leave, most landlords will allow you to renew the lease agreement for an additional year or longer.
While it’s not too difficult to extend your lease, it can be significantly more difficult to cut it short. While they differ, each state has landlord/tenant laws in place that could determine your best course of action. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can change your address without jumping through hoops.
Why Would You Need to Break Your Lease?
There are many different reasons why you might need to get out of your lease agreement early. Here are some of the most common ones.
You’re Ready to Buy a Home
Let’s start with a great reason to break your lease: You’re ready to stop renting and start owning!
With average rent prices rising at an exponential rate, this is a smart move. One report shows that nationally listed rents for available apartments are 15% higher than they were only a year ago.
If you’re ready to put your money to better use, it might be a good time to invest in a home of your own, rather than continue to pay for a space that isn’t truly yours. Not only does owning your home give you a sense of security and stability, but it also allows you to personalize the property however you’d like.
Real estate is a historically solid investment, and it also comes with certain tax advantages. As you pay your mortgage each month, you’re building equity and wealth, which can help you maximize your lifelong savings.
If you’re considering this possibility, it helps to be as informed as possible. A real estate agent can help you understand your local market, research available properties, and decide if it’s a good time to break your lease so you can buy.
As you begin to think about taking this exciting next step, check out our homebuyer resources for helpful tips and advice!
The Unit Isn’t Habitable
Sometimes, rental units become inhabitable. This means that staying in them could potentially damage your health. A few of the reasons why this might occur include:
- Black mold
- Improper waste disposal practices
- Running water issues
- Plumbing issues
- Electricity issues
- HVAC issues
- Structural instability
All cities have their own health and safety codes, and the structure you’re living in should meet all of them. If your home or apartment does not comply with these codes and you believe your health, safety, or well-being is compromised, then you should be able to break your lease.
In most cases, it’s your landlord’s responsibility to ensure these issues never occur, and to fix them immediately if they do. Routine maintenance is typically all it takes to keep major problems under control and ensure your space stays clean and safe. This duty of care is called a warranty of habitability and should be listed in your lease agreement as such.
If your home becomes unfit to live in for any valid reason, you may be able to break your lease without consequence. The only caveat is that you can’t move out immediately and claim negligence. Usually, you’ll need to give your landlord an appropriate amount of time to correct the problem as soon as you bring it to their attention.
As soon as you notice an issue, send a written notice right away. If they fail to correct the problem swiftly or don’t respond at all, then you have the right to move forward. In addition to withholding your rent payments, you may also be able to take the following actions against your landlord if the property is deemed inhabitable:
- Move out
- Repair the defect and deduct the cost from your rent
- Sue the landlord for the difference between the monthly rent and the value of the defective unit
- File a complaint with your state or local health inspector, building inspector, or housing authorities
You’re Called to Military Service
If you’re an active member of the military, you could be called into duty and required to move. Most landlords are flexible and understanding when it comes to deployments. In fact, this right is covered under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which states that you can break your lease without penalty if you:
- Can prove you signed the lease before you entered active duty
- Can prove that you will remain on active duty for at least 90 days
- Provide your landlord with written notice of your intent to leave
- Provide your landlord with a copy of your military orders
You should provide the notice to your landlord at least 30 days before you plan to terminate your lease early. The notice should be hand-delivered or mailed through a private business carrier, such as FedEx or UPS. Request a return receipt so you’ll have proof of delivery.
Even if you signed your lease agreement after beginning active duty military service, you may still be able to break it early if the following conditions apply:
- You received a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) or deployment order that will extend beyond 90 days
- You can provide written notice to your landlord, along with a copy of your military orders, with a notice of at least 30 days.
If you can comply with these requirements under the SCRA, your lease should officially end 30 days after your next monthly rent payment is due.
The Property Isn’t Peaceful
This one can get a little ambiguous, but it’s still a viable option. Some states allow tenants to file for early lease termination if they can prove that their property is no longer the safe, quiet spot that they once believed it would be. In fact, this clause could even be right in your lease under the term “breach of peace”.
A breach of peace can include anything that disrupts your quality of life and makes the home or apartment uncomfortable to occupy. Examples include:
- Constant dog barking
- Excessive phone calls
- Excessive smoking in adjacent units
- Excessive landlord visits
- Unreasonably loud neighbors
- Unnecessary and ongoing remodeling, landscaping, or maintenance work
There Was a Natural Disaster
You should not be forced to stay in a rental unit that suffered extensive damage from a natural disaster. These conditions can be unsanitary, as well as unsafe.
Read through your lease agreement to find the “Acts of God” or “Force Majeure” clause. These clauses allow you to terminate the agreement if there is an event beyond your control that makes it impossible for you or the landlord to fulfill your contractual obligations.
This includes natural disasters, such as earthquakes, as well as other events such as acts of terrorism. Some contracts even include clauses for public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Usually, these clauses are very specific and narrow in nature. Courts are unlikely to go beyond the specific events listed in writing. If you need to invoke this clause, make sure the situation applies.
You’re Experiencing Domestic Violence
If you’re afraid to enter your rented space due to fear of domestic violence, let your landlord know. This applies whether your partner lives with you or not. You should never feel required to stay anywhere that you don’t feel safe, so seek help as soon as possible.
In addition to domestic violence, there are also landlord/tenant laws to protect victims of sexual abuse or assault, as well as stalking. Once you provide your landlord with your written intent to move out, most laws require them to break your lease within 30 days.
If your state law also requires you to provide proof of the claim, any of the following will suffice:
- A copy of a restraining order
- A copy of a court order of protection
- A copy of your Address Confidentiality Program card
Some states will also require victims to enter into a sexual assault or domestic violence program to ensure their safety. If this applies to your case, you may also be required to submit a copy of the safety plan provided under the program.
You’re Experiencing a Health Emergency
If your health suddenly and drastically changes, you might not be able to live in your home for a set amount of time. For instance, you might have to spend months in rehab attending physical therapy to recover from a car accident.
It can be a major financial strain to pay for the costs of your inpatient medical treatment and your empty apartment. If you suffer an unexpected health circumstance and cannot live independently, your landlord might agree to release you from your lease ahead of schedule.
To qualify, you’ll usually need to provide your landlord with a letter from your doctor or the court. When you do so, you should be able to terminate the lease agreement within 30 to 60 days.
Your Landlord Enters the Home Illegally
In general, your landlord should not be entering your home unannounced or unscheduled. If they need to visit for a legal reason, such as to perform routine or corrective maintenance, they should let you know ahead of time so you can coordinate a convenient appointment.
If they break this rule and enter the space without your knowledge or allow other people to do so, you can contest it in small claims court.
Your Landlord Is Harassing You
Many states have laws in place to protect tenants against certain landlord actions, such as harassment. A few reasons why your landlord might harass you include:
- You constantly complain: You frequently call the landlord with new complaints or repair requests, and they’ve heard enough.
- They need you to move: This is common in rent-controlled apartments, where government programs limit the amount of rent that landlords can charge.
- They’re unfairly discriminating against you: They are basing the action on your gender, religion, nationality, disability, or family status.
Note that discrimination of any type is considered illegal under the Federal Fair Housing Act. If you’re suffering any form of harassment, you can take legal action against your landlord. Common forms of harassment include:
- Entering your unit without notice
- Refusing to make necessary repairs
- Raising your rent without notice
- Shutting off or reducing your utilities
- Removing your possessions from the property
- Refusing to accept your rent payment
- Changing the locks on the doors
- Physically or verbally attacking you
All of these forms of harassment are illegal. If your case goes to court, the judge might rule that the harassment has caused you to become constructively evicted. This would allow you to break your lease without further obligation.
There’s Criminal Activity at the Property
Domestic violence is one form of criminal activity that most states protect tenants against. If you can prove that this is happening, or that any other type of illegal criminal activity is taking place at the residence, then you might be able to break your lease without penalty.
To do so, you must be able to prove that the activity is currently occurring. You can gather evidence and details through the following documents:
- Police reports
- Court orders
- Medical records
You’re Struggling to Pay Rent
If your financial circumstances have changed since you first signed your lease, talk to your landlord about it. There are many reasons why this could occur, from an illness in the family to a layoff, and most are beyond your control.
You might be able to break your lease for any of the above reasons. When approaching your landlord, be as transparent and up-front as possible.
Steps to Take Before Breaking Your Lease
Regardless of why you need to break your lease, there are three steps you should always take before making any sudden moves.
First, read through your lease agreement carefully to make sure you understand the terms. Then, research the potential penalties you could face if you decide to move forward with the action. Finally, understand your local housing laws to know your rights, especially regarding the financial repercussions of your move.
Let’s take a look at why each step is important.
Understand Your Lease Agreement
If you need to get out of your lease for any reason, your first step should be to go through your lease agreement with a fine-toothed comb. As you read through each section, look for two important keywords or phrases related to breaking your lease, such as:
- Early termination
- Early release
You might not have paid too much attention to these terms when you first signed your lease. However, they’ll definitely matter now. Check out the details to learn what your contract says about getting out of your lease early, and any penalties that you might face if you do so.
For instance, some lease agreements might require you to give advanced notice if you need to change or cancel your rental terms for any reason. The same might apply if you want to allow someone else to take over your lease until the full term is up (subletting). Other times, you’ll be able to terminate the contract early by paying a fee or surrendering your security deposit.
While these options might allow you to break your lease without legal consequences, they won’t always be straightforward or easy. Most of the time, you’ll have to pay a penalty for moving out earlier than the date stated on your contract. Those charges should be clearly laid out in the agreement, but let’s go over them here.
Understand Potential Penalties
When you’re faced with an unexpected move, the last thing you want to do is shell out extra money. Sometimes, you won’t have to.
Though landlord laws can vary, most states will allow you to break your lease without financial penalty if you need to move for reasons that are outside of your control. As mentioned earlier, this might include:
- Fleeing domestic violence
- Responding to a call for military service
- Living in an unsafe/unhabitable environment
If you can prove that these situations apply to you, then you might be able to avoid paying an early lease termination fee. Yet, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck otherwise.
Even if none of these scenarios apply, you may still be allowed to break your lease. The only caveat? Your landlord is legally allowed to impose an extra charge if you do so.
Most of the time, this fee will be a percentage of the rent you would have paid if you would have stayed in the property for the entire duration of your lease. Some landlords could even charge you the total amount of rent that you’d owe and will continue charging you until they can find a new renter.
They may also refuse to give you back the security deposit you paid when you first signed your rental contract. This deposit is usually equal to the cost of one month’s rent.
If you refuse to pay or cannot pay the charge, your landlord could file a lawsuit against you. If you lose the case, the court may award judgment to the landlord. This can include the rent you did not pay, as well as any associated court costs.
If you cannot pay these fees up-front, the court could take the money that you owe out of your paycheck via a wage garnishment order.
Sometimes, instead of suing their tenants, landlords will simply choose to turn over their debt to a third-party collector. The collector will call or visit you until you pay the full amount that you owe. If you continue to refuse payment, the debt collector could take you to court and sue you for the money.
Credit Score Penalties
Usually, landlords won’t report rent payments to the four major credit reporting bureaus. This is because rent is not considered to be a debt or a type of credit. Thankfully, this means that breaking a lease under legal terms shouldn’t negatively affect your credit report.
However, this doesn’t mean you’re free and clear.
If your landlord turns your account over to a debt collection agency, those collectors won’t be as lenient. They can (and usually will) send your account to the credit reporting bureaus. If this occurs, the balance that you owe will display on your consumer credit report. It can also lower your overall credit score.
The change can remain in place for up to seven years, and anyone who checks your credit will have the opportunity to see it, including future lenders. If you apply for a home mortgage, personal loan, or any other type of loan in the future, this could lower your chances of approval.
Finally, breaking a lease can also damage your reputation. While valid and legal concerns shouldn’t work against you, the same can’t be said if the situation turns ugly and malicious.
The terms of your broken lease agreement will show up on a document known as a tenant screening report. Separate from your credit report, this document contains a complete overview of your history as a tenant.
Landlords can add information to this report and make changes to it at any time. This includes your payment history and any reports of altercations, disputes, or other relevant information. Future renters can access and review this information before deciding to allow you to rent their property.
If you broke your lease without just cause, it will be a major warning sign and red flag. This could make it more difficult to secure a new place to live down the road.
In addition to reading your tenant screening report, prospective renters could also contact your current landlord, asking them to review their time working with you. If you left on bad terms, they’ll have no reason to give you a four-star review. If you can keep the conversations constructive and straightforward, the situation is less likely to turn spiteful.
Research Local Housing Laws
The prospect of paying rent for a home or apartment you’re no longer leasing might sound ludicrous. It could also be financially impossible.
The good news is that most states have a law that protects you from paying an exorbitant amount. Typically, your landlord is legally required to actively seek a new tenant to take your place as soon as you break your lease. When he or she arrives and moves in, you’re no longer held liable for paying rent on that property.
While this is the general rule, there are exceptions. You can reach out to your local housing authority to learn what your state’s specific laws say about your financial obligations once you break your lease.
How to Break Your Lease: Options to Consider
If you’ve read through all the legal jargon and you’re still determined to break your lease, there are a few ways you might be able to do so.
While not all of these options will apply to your specific case, here are a few ways that tenants can possibly pursue a lease termination without suffering major roadblocks.
Option 1: Consider Your Landlord’s Actions
When you sign a lease, you’re contractually obligated to hold up your side of the rental agreement. However, this responsibility and oversight work both ways. Your landlord must also uphold their end of the deal for it to be considered valid and legally binding.
The contract should include details on the expectations that your landlord must meet and follow throughout the duration of your lease. If you can prove that they failed to perform their duties, then you may be able to activate the early termination clause without penalty.
While it can be tempting to point fingers, this is also a slippery slope. Unless you have actual evidence that your landlord has acted in a manner that violates the term of your lease, taking this action could do more harm than good. It could also sour your relationship with your landlord, which could make the next steps even more difficult.
If there are obvious issues, such as water damage or mold, that affect the property, then take pictures and videos of the space. Walk through and take notes of everything you see, including when the problems started. There’s a chance that your landlord could try to sue you for damages or withhold your security deposit, blaming you for the state of the property. If you have photographic evidence that this isn’t the case, then you’ll build a stronger claim.
Option 2: Seek Legal Counsel
If your landlord’s actions or inactions are behind your move, consider reaching out to a lawyer. An attorney can help you read your contract closely to understand if an infraction truly occurred. If you act out of turn or inappropriately accuse your landlord of misbehavior, then it could turn into a messy legal debacle that heaps time and cost onto your current dilemma.
Your lawyer will advise you to always keep a paper trail that shows evidence of your communication with your landlord. If you can prove that you tried to reach out about critical safety or maintenance issues and they avoided your calls, texts, or emails, this could help your case down the road.
If you send letters, use certified mail to track their delivery. If you’re communicating via email, star the messages and save them in your inbox. The key is to establish an irrefutable timeline of events, even if the conversations are one-sided. In this case, your landlord’s silence speaks volumes.
Option 3: Prove Your Contract Is Void
If you don’t want to deal with the debacle of going after your landlord, or if there aren’t any actions to dispute, take a second look at your contract. Sometimes, you can get out of it early if there’s anything in there that makes the terms null and void.
There are two main elements that could render your contract non-binding. These include:
- If you were forced to sign it under duress (force)
- Your rental property is considered illegal in your state
That last one can be a little tricky. It essentially means that the unit you agreed to rent isn’t considered a valid rental environment. For instance, some states do not recognize basement suites to be legal apartments.
If you can prove that you’re staying in a property that’s essentially considered illegal in your state, it could automatically nullify your contract. This would allow you to leave without paying.
Option 4: Talk to Your Landlord
This next option seems pretty straightforward, but it can be more complicated than you might think. If you’re on good terms with your landlord, you can always try to approach them and explain the situation directly.
Even if your reason for leaving isn’t legally valid or covered under your lease agreement, they might be willing to work with you. After all, they are human, even if they have the authority in this situation.
Explain what’s going on, and remember to be as polite and gracious as possible. The odds are much more likely to turn in your favor if you’re honest and considerate versus belligerent and defensive. Go into as much detail as you feel comfortable sharing, and make sure they understand the reasons behind your request.
If you’re experiencing circumstances that are making it difficult for you to continue paying your rent, make sure to explain this. From a recent job loss to a roommate moving out, there are some situations that change your financial stability drastically.
If you can relay that information to your landlord, they may be willing to be more flexible with your rent terms. This way, they can also get a head start on searching for your replacement. If the issue was with your finances and not with the actual property, then they’ll be motivated to find someone to take your place so they don’t miss out on any more rent payments.
Remember that while one-on-one conversations are great, you also need everything in writing. If your landlord agrees to let you out of your lease early, you need written verification for your records.
If they change their mind for any reason and things go south, it can be difficult to prove a verbal agreement. If the case goes all the way to court, the only actual evidence will be your lease terms.
Option 5: Talk to Your Local Tenants’ Union
In many areas, especially large cities, there will be a tenants’ unions in place. These unions are specifically designed to help renters navigate disputes with their landlords. They can also help you break your lease agreement early as required.
This is a good place to check, especially if you’re unsure about the landlord/tenant laws in your city or state. Union experts can tell you what your best courses of action might be, as well as the personal rights that you can fight for. If possible, check for one near you at the start of this process to avoid potential headaches down the road.
Not only can your local tenants’ union fill you in on your legal options, but they can also help you prove instances of landlord negligence, such as:
- Unable to contact
- Not putting in the effort to find a new renter
- Charging you more than the legal limit
- Won’t accept a valid reason for breaking a lease
Option 6: Help Find Your Replacement
To sweeten the deal, you can even offer to help your landlord with the search for a new tenant. As soon as someone new moves in, you’re off the hook for paying the rent any longer. Sometimes, the market is hot and finding renters is easy.
Your landlord might even keep a wait list filled with names of people who would be more than happy to claim your home or apartment as their own.
Other times, it’s much more difficult to find a reliable, trustworthy tenant who can meet all of the rental terms. If this is the case, your landlord might need help getting the word out.
If you offer to design and post flyers, share about the listing on social media, or talk to your friends and co-workers about it, then they may be more receptive to the change.
Option 7: Consider Subletting the Space
What happens when you can’t find anyone to take over your lease, and there are no applicable opt-out clauses in your contract that you can activate? In this case, your landlord might require you to pay the remainder of the rent that’s due in your lease.
To avoid this unnecessary charge, consider subletting.
Also called sub-leasing, this is the process of adding a new renter to an existing lease. In this case, it would simply mean allowing someone else to move into your space when you move out. You would rent out the home or apartment to that individual, but your name would be the only one on the lease.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to find someone willing to take over your rent completely. However, even if they only pay 70% to 80% of your current rent, it could still save you a substantial amount of money for the duration of your lease term. Subleases often have shorter terms and lower rates than standard leases, which can make this offer attractive.
Before you move too far forward with this idea, check with your landlord. Make sure you’re allowed to sublet and see what your lease agreement says. Even if there’s not a clause specifically written into your contract, there could still be state and municipal laws that determine if it’s legally permissible.
Sometimes, landlords won’t want anyone except for their designated tenant to occupy the property. They might have their own thorough vetting processes and are unwilling to let someone move in simply on your word alone.
Even if your local laws permit subleasing, your landlord has the final say. While you might be able to take them to court by claiming they’re withholding this option unfairly, it can be difficult to prove this, and most rejections are found to be reasonable. If they do decide to let you sublet, make sure to get this agreement in writing.
Then, create an official sublet agreement before allowing the new renter to move in. Even if you’re close friends or family members, you still need to outline the terms of the situation and make sure everyone is clear on their individual duties and responsibilities. You can find sublet agreement templates online and customize them to fit your needs.
Subletting and Renter’s Insurance
If you currently have renter’s insurance, check with your insurance company to see if your coverage applies to subtenants. This type of insurance covers your belongings in the event of a theft and also limits your liability if someone is injured on the property. Some plans will also help you pay for your living expenses if you’re unable to occupy the space for any reason.
Remember that any damage that occurs to the property will ultimately come back on you. Your landlord could choose to withhold your security deposit if they find issues, even if your subtenant caused them and you didn’t.
Stop Renting and Stressing Over Your Lease
As we’ve shown, you have multiple courses of action when trying to decide how to break your lease. If you can prove that your landlord acted negligently or you have a valid case for lease termination, these options can help you move out in confidence. While you may still have to pay a penalty for doing so, there are also ways to mitigate those costs, such as subletting.
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