Whether you’re renting an apartment, house or duplex, your home should feel like a safe place—one that’s comfortable and secure. But what if something happens that makes your apartment unsafe? Or what if you can’t make your rent?
Maybe you need to break your lease, and don’t know what to do. If you’re wondering where to start, don’t worry. We’ve got a few things to consider while exploring options about getting out of a lease.
What Happens If You Break a Lease?
Leases are legal contracts, so this is a pretty loaded question. A lot depends on the wording of your lease, where you live, legal factors and other information.
Before we delve into the details, a quick note—we aren’t providing legal advice. Consider our information as a jumping off point for this topic. If you’re considering breaking your lease but need help with the finer legal points, consult an attorney.
Common Reasons Tenants Break a Lease
If you want to break your lease, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon for people to break their lease, and for good reasons. Here are just a few:
- The rental unit is uninhabitable. Most landlords are obligated to perform general property maintenance and ensure the property adheres to health and safety codes. Circumstances that could make a property uninhabitable include black mold, a lack of running water or a lack of proper waste disposal, for example. If you feel your space is impacting your ability to live healthily, you might need to break your lease.
- The landlord illegally entered your rental space. Landlords must provide legitimate reasons for entering your home, and in many states, they must provide written notice before they do so. If your landlord is invading your space or allowing others to do so, you might not feel safe or like you have appropriate privacy.
- You are on active military duty. If you get deployed, you may need to get out of your lease earlier than planned.
- You are a victim of domestic violence. You might have someone living with you or someone who simply knows where you live and has access. Either way, if you’re dealing with domestic abuse, you might need to move to protect yourself. If this is the case, please seek help to protect yourself.
- You’re struggling to cover your rent each month. You might still love your home, but you simply can’t afford it anymore. Whether you’re struggling with income loss due to an emergency such as COVID-19, medical bills or a change in job status, getting out of your lease might feel like a necessary financial move. Look at your options to see if breaking your lease is something you need to do for your financial wellbeing.
How Do You Get Out of a Lease Early?
First, there’s no guarantee that you can get out of a lease early without paying penalties. Those penalties are typically defined by your lease and can include one or more months of your lease or other monetary compensation to the landlord. But if you have a real need to get out of your lease, it’s always worth looking into your options. Here are seven typical steps to take while considering whether breaking a lease you’re in is the right choice for you:
1. Read Your Lease and Document Everything
Before you take action, be sure to look over your lease. “Read it three times!” says Joel S. Winston, a litigation lawyer at Winston Law Firm, LLC.
Your lease should spell out the procedures and penalties for canceling early. Look for details that cover what happens if you terminate the lease early, including whether you will be held responsible for the entire remaining term of the lease or a lesser amount.
In many states, landlords can’t use the fact that you left early as a windfall, seeking full rent from you while also leasing to someone else. However, if they can only rent the unit at a lower rate than you were paying for the remainder of your lease, you might be required to make up the difference in cost. You might also have to pay for the advertising costs to find a replacement tenant.
You should also look for information in the lease that details the landlord’s responsibility. If he or she isn’t meeting those, you might have a way out of the lease. Just don’t make up problems with the property that don’t exist to get out of your current lease. “Try to be open and honest, and approach your landlord in a nice and friendly manner,” Winston recommends.
If there are problems the landlord isn’t adequately fixing, put the complaints and problems in writing. Keep a copy of the document for your records in case you need to break the lease, which could embroil you in legal action with the landlord.
2. Communicate Thoroughly
Let your landlord know what you want to do and why you want to terminate the lease. Some may be more flexible than others. As difficult as it may be, try to think of the circumstances from a landlord’s perspective.
Terminating a lease early might put an owner-landlord into a financial bind, especially if they have to spend time and money securing a new tenant. It’s not out of the question to assist your landlord in finding an adequate replacement if they’re willing to work with you and allow you to terminate your lease earlier in exchange.
3. Get Confirmations in Writing
Make sure you get written confirmation of any changes to the lease. If your landlord says you can move out early with a small penalty or no penalty, get that in writing. Never rely on a verbal agreement—it’ll be your word against theirs. Should you end up in collections or in court, the written terms in the lease will likely prevail unless you have written, signed documentation of agreed-upon changes.
If the landlord won’t budge, won’t put anything in writing or won’t compromise, you can still create your own paper trail by communicating in writing and keeping a record of the letters you sent. Send those letters via certified mail to ensure you can prove the landlord received them.
4. Don’t Forget the Walk-Through
No matter how anxious or excited you are to move out, protect yourself from unexpected charges by doing a walk-through with your landlord and getting a written record of the results. This could prevent your landlord from trying to keep a security deposit for property damage or seeking compensation from you later for surprise expenses. Should your landlord refuse to do a walk-through, take detailed pictures or videos of the property’s status the day you leave.
5. Don’t Make Assumptions
When it comes to breaking your lease, avoid assumptions. Specifically, don’t assume your security deposit will take care of any remaining balance or fees you owe.
“When you are breaching the contract, it doesn’t always entitle the landlord to scoop up your security deposit. For example, in New York, the landlord has to go to the housing court to file a complaint in order to take that,” Winston says.
6. Know That There Are Exceptions to the Rules
You may have legitimate reasons for breaking a lease that aren’t spelled out in the actual lease, such as a safety or health reason directly connected to the property. “Essentially, the ‘warranty of habitability’ is a landlord-tenant legal doctrine requiring landlords to maintain rental real estate in reasonable conditions that are fit for tenants to live safely,” explains Winston.
Winston goes on to say, “The warranty of habitability is accepted law in most every jurisdiction in America. In some states, the warranty has been established by decades of case law. But in other states, the warranty has been expressly established by legislation.”
There may be state-specific laws that let you break a lease early. Do your research and consult an attorney if you believe you’re in one of these situations.
In some cases, exceptions are also made due to unusual circumstances. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government passed the CARES Act, which contained some rental relief. Specifically, people renting in federally funded housing locations could not be evicted for a certain amount of time for the inability to pay their rent during the COVID-19 crisis.
7. Get Help
Landlord-tenant laws are state-specific. So, it’s a good idea to research your rights as a tenant before signing your name on the dotted line. If you believe a landlord’s actions are illegal, you might be able to get help from legal aid programs, a local housing agency or a consumer protection attorney in your state.
What Happens to Your Credit If You Get Out of a Lease Early?
If you’re in the middle of a financial or personal crisis, your credit score might not be the first concern on your list. But keep it at the back of your mind—if you tank your score, you might struggle to find the housing you need later.
Luckily, whether or not you get out of a lease early probably won’t directly impact your score. However, if your landlord takes collections actions against you for any money you owe for rent or lease penalties, that candrive down your score. When you come to an agreement with your landlord or get out of your lease legally without paying, keep an eye on your credit report to ensure that all information is accurate. If you do have inaccurate information on your credit report, you probably have documentation that lets you related to your lease issue.