There are many reasons people want or need to get out of a residential lease: A job relocation, a change in your health or an uncooperative landlord are just some of the possible reasons.
But you may be concerned about the legal and financial ramifications of breaking a lease. And you may be wondering whether you can get out of a lease early without penalty.
How to Break the Lease for an Apartment or Home Legally
In this article, we’re going to cover some ways you can break the lease to your apartment or home without it hitting you in the wallet.
Depending on where you live, there are laws that protect you — in certain circumstances — if you need to get out of your lease before it expires:
- Active member of the U.S. military under orders: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) allows service members the right to break a lease early free of charge due to military orders.
- If the landlord illegally enters the premises: In many states, a landlord must give 24 to 48 hours’ notice before entering your apartment or home. If the landlord violates this, the tenant may be able to terminate a lease early. But sometimes taking legal action is necessary to get this law enforced.
- Victim of domestic violence, sex abuse or stalking: In many states, including Arizona and Georgia, abuse victims can break their leases without penalty. The victim typically must provide the landlord with a copy of a protective order/police report and up to 90 days’ notice. In most cases, the tenant will still be liable for routine charges.
- If the dwelling meets the ‘uninhabitable’ definition: If a storm, natural disaster, violence or other damage beyond your control, renders an apartment or home uninhabitable, you may be able to break the lease. Your local housing authority should have details that pertain to your area.
- If the rental doesn’t meet disability accessibility requirements: Most states don’t let you break a lease for medical reasons unless you can prove that the reason for the malady is the dwelling itself. But under the Fair Housing Act, landlords should accommodate a tenant who becomes disabled.
Regardless of your reason, breaking a lease takes careful planning so that you don’t incur any unnecessary penalties.
Among the most common consequences for breaking a lease:
- Civil lawsuit by the landlord
- Demands of immediate payment
- Forfeiture of your deposit
- Negative marks on your credit report
Here are five things that should help you break a residential lease with as little impact as possible:
1. Talk to the Landlord
It is usually best that you communicate your desire to move out as soon as you make the decision. The more time you give a landlord, the more likely you’ll get cooperation.
You should encourage an open dialog: Rather than delivering your request to break your lease as a threat, it’s better to keep calm and keep your wits about you.
If the conversation goes well, it’s possible your landlord will waive or reduce fees and maybe even return your full security deposit.
2. Know Your State’s Rental Laws
Every state (and some counties and cities) has its own laws governing rental properties (here is Georgia’s). So you’ll need to search online to find the information specific to where you live.
3. Read Your Rental Agreement
In many cases, when you read your rental agreement, you will see language spelling out what happens if you don’t pay the rent.
One benefit of reading the rental agreement is that you may be able to find some language describing any conditions that would let you break the lease without consequence.
“Some states permit you to withhold rent when certain conditions aren’t met. Some allow you to break the lease,” Lori says.
4. Ask if You Can Sublet the Apartment or Home
You may be allowed to sublet your apartment or home.
Subletting is a temporary arrangement in which the landlord agrees to let the tenant lease the unit to a subtenant. But the landlord may have other considerations including the potential subletter’s employment status, credit history and rental history.
5. Seek Legal Advice
If things seem to be getting too complicated or communication with your landlord breaks down, you may need to seek legal advice.
In addition to contacting a lawyer, here are some tenant resources that may help:
In most states, landlords have an obligation to provide a safe and livable home at all times. If that standard is not met, the tenant usually has some recourse to try to break the lease without penalty.
Here’s the thing: It’s going to take time, possibly months. It’s up to the tenant to take meticulous notes and document the problem to prove the reason for wanting to break the lease.
That said, here are three steps you should always take when dealing with a landlord:
- If you haven’t signed the lease yet: Make sure there’s an “access clause” in the rental agreement that stipulates when the landlord can enter your place. It should only be with your permission, advanced written notice or in the case of an emergency. This clause can protect you later.
- Put it in writing and send it via Certified Mail: Assume any communication between the landlord and you may end up in court. To make sure your landlord receives your correspondence, always communicate with a certified letter.
- Be peaceful: As the old saying goes, you’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Try to compromise with the landlord, even if it means accepting a partial penalty of some kind.