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What Are a Tenant's Rights to Abandon a Lease?

Things happen. Maybe that new rental property isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe a new job or relationship requires relocation. Maybe your business is expanding, and you need more retail or production space out of your rental unit. Or, maybe your tolerance for noisy neighbors isn't what it used to be.

Whatever the reason, you might be wondering if, as a renter, you can somehow get out of your lease early. In landlord-tenant law, when a tenant leaves this is called abandonment of a lease, or lease agreement, and if you are moving out and don't do it properly you could be on the hook for non-payment of rent, part of your security deposit or repairs. But there are laws and legal principles that can protect a tenant's right to abandon a lease.

The Right of Quiet Enjoyment

A tenant leases a rental property or commercial space with the intention of using that space for a certain purpose. For example, people often rent apartments as places to live and commercial space for their office or store. The rental agreement will usually specify the purpose of the rental, and the law provides tenants with the right to occupy the rented space for the intended purpose without undue interference from the landlord. This is known as the tenant's right to quiet enjoyment of the property. The rental agreement will also contain the amount of rent at a minimum and may also state things such as whether you can sublet, whether you can have a pet, the proper notice requirements and other agreed upon rental terms.

The definition of quiet enjoyment is significantly different from state to state and from situation to situation, but it usually has little to do with noise or enjoyment. Generally, a tenant's right to quiet enjoyment, in exchange for their rent payment, allows a tenant to use and enjoy the premises without substantial disturbances or interference. The rights of quiet enjoyment include:

  • The right to exclude others from the premises, for example, the landlord can't rent the space to two competing tenants simultaneously
  • The right to peace and quiet on the premises
  • The right to clean working and living spaces
  • The right to basic services like hot water, heat, or elevators in a high-rise building

If a property owner so substantially interferes with any of these rights that makes the premises unsafe or otherwise uninhabitable — like ignoring problems in the heating system during the winter months — it could result in what's known as a "constructive eviction" before the lease ends.

More About Moving Out and Constructive Eviction

If a landlord has denied a tenant the right of quiet enjoyment to the extent of constructive eviction, the tenant may have a legally valid reason move out of the leased premises before the lease ends. However, it is usually beneficial, and in some places legally required. to inform the landlord in writing of the specific problems and allow the landlord a reasonable time to fix the situation or make the necessary repairs if the issue involved property damage.

If the landlord fails to take the necessary action then, in some states, the tenant has the right to move out. If the landlord sues the tenant for breaking the lease, a court may find that the tenant was a victim of a constructive eviction and require the landlord to pay the tenant's moving expenses and attorney's fees. However, if the court finds that property owner was not at fault for interfering with the tenant's right to quiet enjoyment, the tenant may owe the landlord rent from the time of the move until the end of the lease period.

Remember, when state courts consider constructive eviction in eviction proceedings, the final decision is not based so much on the noise level or whether the tenant was having a good time on the leased property. Instead, the court is considering whether the premises were habitable and appropriate for the purposes of the lease.

Breaching the Lease

Even if the landlord did not breach covenant of quiet enjoyment, it is still possible to breach the lease in other ways. In those cases, the tenant may collect damages or leave before the lease ends. Therefore, it is important to be familiar with your lease terms and to communicate with your landlord and a local attorney if you're having problems with your leased property. There may be additional statutory protections, for example, laws that allow military personnel to break a lease early if they are deployed, that could apply to your case.