Although you sign a rental agreement with the full intention of bringing it to term, there may come a time when you need to break a lease. Whether you have a job or lifestyle change or some other unforeseen circumstance arises, sometimes you need to move out before the end of the lease. While this usually results in penalties, there are specific situations in which you can legally break your lease. There are also other ways to get out of a lease without incurring penalties.
What is a lease?
A lease is a contractual obligation between a landlord and a tenant for a fixed period. Apartment leases are often one-year agreements. During the term of the lease, the landlord cannot change the terms of the agreement, increase the rent, or force the tenant to move out unless they violate the terms of the contract. The tenant’s obligation is to pay the rent for the duration of the lease and to maintain the property according to the specifications of the contract.
What is the penalty for breach of lease?
Breaking a lease can cost thousands of dollars in penalties, which depend on the specific terms of the contract. Before you decide to break your lease, read it carefully to understand what the penalties are for your particular agreement.
Here are some of the penalties and potential repercussions in the event of a breach of a lease:
- Some leases provide for a fixed early termination fee. You could be responsible for the maximum amount of the total rent for the remainder of your lease, unless you have moved and left damage to the property
- You may be required to pay the full amount of the rent until a new tenant moves in, even if you have vacated the premises
- You can lose your security deposit, which the landlord can keep to collect the unpaid rent
- The landlord can turn your lease over to a collection agency or even take you to Small Claims Court for unpaid rent.
- If the landlord reports to the credit bureaus, this may show up as a derogatory mark on your credit report
- If this is shown on your credit report, it might be difficult for you to get a lease later.
The conditions for breaking your lease depend on the leniency of your landlord. If the circumstances of the lease termination are legitimate and you communicate and cooperate with your landlord, they may be willing to negotiate terms that allow you to move out sooner.
Situations where you can break a lease without penalty
There are several situations where a tenant can legally break a lease without being subject to penalties:
- Violation of privacy rights: Landlords must provide tenants with notice of intention to enter the apartment prior to coming, have a reason to enter (e.g. to perform maintenance or an inspection) and cannot harass tenants. If these rights are violated, a tenant can legally break a lease
- Military deployment: Entering active military service allows you to break a lease under federal law
- Domestic violence: Depending on state laws, victims of domestic violence may be able to terminate a lease sooner
- Nuisance: The owner is responsible for stopping excessive noise or extremely disruptive behavior from neighbors
- Dangerous or uninhabitable living space: If the landlord does not keep the property in habitable condition, such as the plumbing not working or the roof leaking, a tenant can break the lease.
Be aware that if you encounter any of these circumstances, the courts may ask you to submit documents and evidence to legally justify breaking the lease.
How to avoid breaking a lease
You may be able to get out of a lease by paying an early termination fee. For example, a termination fee of one to three months’ rent may allow you to terminate the lease earlier. You can check your lease to see if it has an early termination fee.
If the terms of your lease allow for a lease transfer or sublet, you may also be able to find a replacement tenant to take over your lease or sublet your apartment. With a lease transfer, it is transferred to the new tenant and you are no longer on the lease. The sublet keeps your name on the lease while the new tenant moves in. It must always abide by the terms of the rental agreement and you will be responsible for the condition of the unit at the end of the term of the lease.
If you choose to sublet, let your landlord know the circumstances.
How to break a lease without incurring a penalty
When you realize that you may need to break your lease, your first step is to review it and understand the penalties for breaching the contract. Then talk to your landlord to discuss your options. They can understand your situation, especially if you’ve been a good tenant and have a legitimate reason to move early. Being polite, honest and respectful with your landlord is very important at this time.
Most leases require tenants to give 30 days written notice before leaving. It is important to follow the lease guidelines as closely as possible. You are still responsible for the rent until the end of your contractual agreement, unless your landlord agrees to cancel the contract. Helping your landlord find a replacement tenant may be an acceptable solution.
When you realize that you may need to break your lease, it’s important to be proactive and act immediately. Carefully review your lease and carefully follow all the requirements for the move, such as a thorough cleaning of the apartment. Contact your landlord as soon as possible and take all possible steps to break your lease without incurring a penalty.