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Landlord/Tenant Law

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How to End a Residential Lease Early

Most written residential leases are in effect for a set amount of time, such as one year. After the end of the rental term, the parties can end the rental agreement, negotiate another lease, or have a month-to-month lease. When signing a rental agreement, the tenant may intend to remain in the dwelling for the duration of the lease. However, if circumstances change, the tenant may have to move out early. When a tenant breaks a lease, they may be responsible for the rent for the remainder of the lease.

Landlord-tenant laws are different in every state and can even vary by county or city. If you need more information about how to terminate a lease for your rental unit, contact a landlord-tenant lawyer where you live for legal advice.

What Happens When You Break a Lease?

A lease for a house, room, or apartment is contract called a rental agreement. This contract is an agreement between the parties, generally the tenant and landlord. The rental agreement spells out the terms of the lease, including rental amount, payment deadlines, security deposits, and the responsibilities of both parties. Even if you do not have a written or signed agreement, even an oral lease or spoken understanding is effective for a binding contract. If you break the lease by failing to pay rent according to the terms of the agreement, you may be in breach of the contract.

In most cases, breaking the lease will leave you responsible for the remainder of the rent under the terms of the lease. However, there are ways to legally break your lease without breaching the contract, and thereby avoiding paying the remainder of the rent or at least reducing your losses. The first thing that you should do if you have a written lease that you want to end is to carefully review the lease. Your responsibilities to the property owners for ending the lease term early will be detailed in the written lease.

Some leases have provisions for early terminations that allow the tenant to end the lease early but require the tenant to pay a fee for leaving prior to the end of the lease term. Some leases will allow early termination for any reason as long as the tenant pays the required fees. Other leases only allow early termination in certain situations, such as being called to active duty military service or if the tenant needs medical treatment in a different location.

What Are the Penalties for Breaking a Lease?

Depending on the terms of the lease, the renter may be liable for the continuing rental amounts each month, until the lease is up. For example, if a renter has a 12-month lease at $1,500 per month and leaves after 10 months, they may have to pay the landlord $3,000 for the remainder of the 2 month’s rent even if they were no longer living there. Other renters may have to pay a fine or lose their security deposit. Review your lease to see what it says about terminating the lease.

There may be valid reasons for leaving the rental that would not make you liable for the remaining rent payments. Legal reasons to break the lease may include:

Landlord Enters the Property Without Notice

If the landlord breaches the terms of the lease first, this may relieve you of your legal obligations under the agreement. For example, most states have laws that require a landlord to give notice before they enter the rental without the tenant’s consent. Under most state laws, the landlord must give at least 24 hours’ notice before entering to make repairs or inspect the property. If the landlord comes in without proper notice, you may have grounds to break the lease.

Breach of Habitability

Rental properties must be considered habitable. Property law recognizes an implied warranty of habitability, where a landlord must keep the rental in a livable condition. Habitability depends on state and local laws but in general requires the property to:

  • Be weatherproof
  • Have doors and windows with working locks
  • Have hot and cold running water
  • Have a working sewage system
  • Have a heating system in working order
  • Be safe from fire hazards and have a working smoke detector

Check the habitability laws in your state to make sure your property is considered habitable or whether your landlord may be breaching the rental agreement. For example, in Californiahabitability laws require the building, grounds, and areas under the landlord’s control to be clean, sanitary, and free from debris, filth, garbage, rodents, and vermin.

Relocate for Military Service

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) allows military service members to terminate their lease agreements if they have to relocate for military service. This includes relocating for a permanent change of station, orders for a deployment of at least 90 days, and separation or retirement orders. In most cases, a service member needs to provide the landlord with 30 days’ notice that they are terminating the lease.

On the other hand, having to move for a new job that is not related to military service is usually not considered legally sufficient excuses to get out of your lease.

Finding a New Renter for the Apartment

The lease might allow the tenant to sublet the apartment to a replacement tenant. With a sublet agreement, it is the tenant’s responsibility to find someone else to sublet the apartment, and may be the tenant’s responsibility to make sure that the rent is paid and the property is not damaged. Re-renting involves the new tenant signing a new lease agreement and paying the security deposit, without the prior renter having any responsibility.

Talk to Your Landlord About Ending the Lease Early

You may be able to talk to your landlord to come to an agreement about early lease termination. Your landlord may let you out of the lease with a certain amount of advanced written notice. Even if your rental agreement has fees for breaking the lease, your landlord may consider reducing early termination fees or returning your security deposit.

If you think that your landlord is unlikely to agree to an early termination of your lease or to a subletting arrangement then it might be useful to speak with an attorney.

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