Breaking a lease can have significant legal repercussions, as a lease agreement is binding. Yet sometimes, staying in the current rental property any longer is not feasible, and an early lease termination is the only logical solution.
There are ways to get out of an apartment lease or other rental contract.
Understanding what happens if you break a lease will help you minimize costly ramifications that may occur if you need to get out of a lease early.
What Is an Apartment Lease?
An apartment lease is an agreement between a tenant and landlord that outlines your rights to the rented property (an apartment, in this case).
In an apartment lease, the landlord agrees to rent you an apartment unit and sometimes provides certain utilities in exchange for a monthly rent payment.
The lease may also include rules by which the tenant should abide, such as terms for care of the apartment, noise, and utility usage.
Your apartment lease comes with a set amount of time, typically a year, in which the renter and landlord stay bound by the agreement. As long as the renter and landlord abide by the agreed terms in that lease, the lease lasts for the length of the term.
However, sometimes life happens, and you may find that you have to move before your lease is up. In these cases, certain situations may allow you to break your lease early and legally.
How to Break a Lease Early
These five steps will help you avoid legal consequences if you break your lease contract before the lease term is up.
1. Review Your Rental Lease Agreement
One of the first actions you should take when ending a lease early is carefully reading through your rental agreement.
Be on the lookout for answers to these critical questions:
- Does your rental agreement have an early termination clause?
- Has your landlord or property manager breached a contract that would justify breaking the lease? (Examples: Entering the unit without prior written notice, lack of maintenance, health and safety code violations even in common areas)
- Will you lose your security deposit?
- Are you required to find your replacement tenant?
- Can you sublet (look to your rental agreement for words like “sublet,” “sublease,” “early release,” or “reset”)?
- Will you need to pay the remaining rent for the entire lease period?
The answers to these questions will determine whether or not it’s possible to break your lease with minimal hassle and provide you with a stronger exit strategy.
If you have a month-to-month lease, you have likely pre-paid your monthly rent, so getting out of this type of lease early poses a different set of challenges than breaking a standard lease.
2. Talk to Your Landlord or Property Manager
Communication is critical when discussing an early lease termination with a landlord. Take the following advice to heart when preparing to make your request to your landlord:
Be Open and Honest
When speaking to your landlord, state that breaking your lease is unplanned and a last resort. The best scenario is that your landlord will let you break the lease early if finding a tenant to replace you is easy.
Despite your rent payments making up a portion of their livelihood, if you honestly explain your situation to your landlord, they may sympathize and let you out of the lease early, even if the terms of the lease are strict.
Remember that in many states, domestic violence victims can terminate a lease early without penalty (renters may have to provide the landlord with a police report to prove domestic violence).
Give Plenty of Advance Notice
Once you decide to move out, let your landlord know with a notice of intent to vacate. Giving your landlord as much notice as possible will make their life easier because it gives them more time to find your replacement after you move out.
Providing enough notice could influence whether or not you and your landlord arrive at an agreeable resolution.
3. Consider Reletting or Subletting
If you’re having trouble negotiating a clean break with your landlord, consider finding a new renter to either relet or sublet the property.
Finding a replacement on your own is a great way to alleviate your landlord’s fears about losing money when you move out.
Here are the differences between the two options:
- Reletting: Reletting is when you or your landlord find a new renter. The new renter will sign an entirely new rental agreement with your landlord, voiding your original rental agreement and releasing you from legal obligations.
- Subletting or Subleasing: Similar to reletting, subletting is when you find a new renter, but there is no new rental agreement between the new renter and landlord. The new renter signs a sublease agreement with you and pays rent to you directly. Your name remains on the original rental agreement. This makes you legally responsible for anything that happens to the property, including if the new renter is late paying rent. Because your original lease is still active, you aren’t technically terminating a lease if you sublet, and you won’t get your security deposit back until the end of your lease term. Not all landlords allow subletting. Check your rental agreement or ask your landlord before you consider subletting.
Additionally, consider renting the rooms in your rental unit to cover any rent you cannot make. Instead of breaking a lease because you can’t afford the monthly rent, use our Room Rental Agreement to rent the rooms in your dwelling (with your landlord’s permission).
It’s still your landlord’s property, so making sure they approve of the new tenant is extremely important.
4. Use a Lease Termination Letter
You’re legally allowed to vacate the premises without incurring any penalties if your landlord does anything that violates the terms of the lease agreement.
Only use this strategy as a last resort if your landlord is legally culpable and unreasonable.
Verify if any of these claims are true:
- Landlord illegally enters the property: Has your landlord failed to give you advance notice before entering the property? (Note that most state laws require landlords to give tenants 1 to 2 days prior notice before entering under non-emergency situations.)
- Landlord fails to uphold provisions in the agreement: Has your landlord failed to repair broken fixtures or provide agreed-upon utilities?
- Landlord fails to provide a suitable living environment: Has your landlord allowed the property to fall into disrepair (no heat or running water)? Is the property so uninhabitable that it’s dangerous for you to continue living on the premises? This is legally known as a “constructive eviction.”
- The property is an illegal structure: Does your living situation violate regulations in your state? For example, in some states, basement apartments are illegal, so your dwelling unit might cause your lease to be null and void.
- The lease agreement has illegal terms: Are there terms in your lease agreement that are unenforceable or illegal? This requires more research into your state’s landlord-tenant laws regarding leasing real property.
If any of these situations have occurred, you have grounds to terminate your lease and may be able to file a lawsuit in small claims court.
Also, keep in mind that when a landlord or property manager doesn’t maintain a rental unit and the original tenant can’t use and enjoy the space, constructive eviction laws govern the situation.
As a tenant, you still have rights that are legally protected. Consult an attorney to discuss landlord-tenant laws and your rights.
Additionally, if you have to break a lease due to military service, you may be able to get out of your lease early without penalty (the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects you if you are an active duty service member).
To prove any wrongdoing on a landlord’s part in early lease termination, ensure you have a written record of all questionable interactions.
5. Pay the Remaining Rent
Once you’ve exhausted all your options, the last recourse is to pay off the rent for the remainder of your lease period.
It isn’t always financially feasible for most people. Still, it’s the only guaranteed way to avoid paying the penalty for terminating a lease and the possibility of adverse reporting on your credit report.
If you’re worried about paying everything off at once, discuss with your landlord the possibility of paying off the balance in installments.
For an option that’s less of a drain on your finances, try negotiating with your landlord about paying rent until one of you has found a new renter.
However, stay prepared to hand over the agreed-upon amount of cash to move out because it’s best to always plan for the worst.
Legal Reasons To Break a Lease Without a Penalty
The lease usually lasts for one year and may include stipulations under which one or both parties can break the lease early. The reasons to break a lease early will vary from state to state but typically include the following:
- Early termination clauses within the lease
- Active military duty
- Escaping domestic abuse
- The unit is uninhabitable
- Harassment or a violation of privacy on the part of the landlord
- The landlord has broken the lease
How To Break a Lease Without Paying
If you need to break a lease without paying, you must first draft an early or termination letter or a lease termination letter.
You are allowed to vacate the premises if the landlord has failed to provide a habitable living unit, illegally enters the property, includes illegal terms in the lease, or otherwise violates the lease terms.
Your landlord may contest your right to break the lease early without paying. Their goal is, after all, to get paid. In these cases, you may file a lawsuit against them to be compensated for certain damages and to prove your legal right to vacate the property.
If the landlord has not violated the lease and you do not have active military duty or a need to escape domestic abuse, look at your lease for any early termination clauses.
You may be able to get out of the lease without paying by helping the landlord find a new tenant for the unit. In this case, the landlord will transfer the lease to the new tenant, and you can vacate as they move in.
Consequences of Breaking a Lease
It’s essential to be aware of the potential consequences of breaking a lease early.
While you may not have any other option but to break your lease, you may find yourself:
- Facing a lawsuit by your landlord – A lease is a legal contract, which means your landlord is within their legal right to pursue you in court for remaining rental payments, as well as damages for loss of income and the cost of finding a new tenant. You should avoid this worst-case scenario because it could subject you to hefty fines and fees and adverse reporting to the credit bureaus.
- Paying out-of-pocket – Lease agreements often include penalties and fees for breaking a lease. Most commonly, an early termination fee is two months’ rent. Various state laws limit the maximum amount a landlord can charge, so check your state’s laws and regulations.
- Losing your security deposit – In addition to possible early termination fees, you’ll likely have to forfeit the security deposit you paid when you first moved in. Be prepared for this loss of money, as it’ll impact your new apartment hunt.
- Damaging your credit score – Besides all monetary consequences, most renters don’t realize that breaking a lease can negatively affect their credit score. Landlords and property management groups often report your rental history to credit reporting agencies, and breaking a lease is considered a significant black mark. A poor credit score will make it more difficult to rent an apartment in the future.
Resources for Renters
Tenant unions – Tenant unions are great resources for tenants to determine the specific state laws or laws that govern lease terminations, evictions, and lease agreements.
It’s worth contacting a tenant union when you suspect you might have to terminate your lease early. These organizations can explain your rights and suggest additional consumer services that might help your situation.
Your city or state may be able to provide resources for renters. There are also some national resources for renters, such as:
- The National Low-Income Housing Coalition
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rent Relief Resources Directory
In addition, LegalTemplates has free templates for lease termination letters and other resources that may be helpful if you need to break your lease early.
Breaking a lease is a delicate matter. Knowing your state’s landlord-tenant laws (what you can and can’t do as a tenant) will help you to settle issues in your favor.
When you want to terminate a lease early, take the following five steps before doing anything that may subject you to legal action.
- Review your lease agreement
- Talk to your landlord
- Consider reletting or subletting
- Use a lease termination letter
- Pay the remaining rent