How to Break a Lease

By PropertyClub Team
Nov 12th 2021
When you sign a rental agreement you're not usually going to think about what happens if you need to get out of it before the lease ends. But life is unpredictable, and anything from a new job to unforeseen financial hardship can lead to the need to get out of a lease early. If you find yourself needing to break a lease, there are several ways you can, but unless you have a legal justification to do so, you should expect there to either be some costs involved as your landlord will need to find a new tenant.

hash-markHow can you get out of a lease?

There are a handful of ways to get out of a lease, but breaking a lease is generally the simplest and most straightforward option. Some other options include subletting or assigning your lease.

Legally breaking a lease is almost always the best option as you will no longer be liable for the lease or apartment. When you break a lease, your contract is terminated, and you're no longer responsible towards the landlord. This is different from when you sublet or assign a lease, as in both cases, you may be liable for missed rent payments, property damage, or various other things. 

hash-markWhat happens if you break a lease?

When you break a lease, you can expect to sign an early termination agreement or early termination clause with your landlord. This agreement will cancel the lease and detail any remaining terms and obligations, such as cancellation or early termination penalties. 

It's important to remember that a lease is a legal contract and you cannot break it just because you want to. You'll need to have a valid reason to break your lease legally. Otherwise, you will still be liable to honor the terms of the lease, and your landlord may be able to take legal action against you.

hash-markHow can you break your lease without penalty?

There are several valid reasons to break a lease legally without having to pay any fees or penalties. It's also possible that you can reach a mutual understanding with your landlord to end the lease early without any penalty, especially if you're able to find a replacement tenant.

Your lease may also have an early termination clause built-in, which could allow you to end your lease early, assuming you give the landlord proper notice. That being said, most early termination clauses include an early termination fee which can be equivalent to a couple of months' rent. 

hash-markLegal reasons to break a lease early

If you have a legal reason for doing so, you can terminate your lease agreement early. The most common reasons to break a lease are the following:

Military Service

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act gives members of the military the right to get out of apartment lease obligations. This federal law lets you active duty service members break their lease as long as they give the landlord one month's notice. One thing to note is that you generally cannot terminate mid-month, so if your contract started on the 1st and you give notice on the 2nd, you'll still be responsible for making payments until the end of the following month. 

Illegal rental unit

Many towns and cities have laws and ordinances and requirements in place for legal rental residences. If you're renting an apartment in a basement or converted garage, that may very well be an illegal rental. In cases like these, you're not only entitled to terminate the tenancy immediately, but you may even be able to get a significant portion of your paid rent back. 

Uninhabitable residence

Virtually every state has laws in place requiring that rental property be safe and inhabitable. Many also have warranty of habitability laws, which ensure you should be able to enjoy your home in peace and harmony. If the apartment is not safe, does not have electricity, heat, or hot water, or is infested by vermin, you can break your lease due to the property being uninhabitable. In cases like these, it's also best to consult with a real estate attorney as some states give your landlord a chance to remedy the problems before you can formally terminate the contract. 

Violation of tenants' privacy rights or harassment by the landlord- You can break your lease if your landlord has been harassing you or invading your privacy. When it comes to invasion of privacy, most states require landlords to give tenants notice before entering the apartment to show it or perform inspections. Some other forms of harassment include changing the locks without notice, sexual harassment, and turning off utilities. If your landlord has violated your privacy rights or harassed you, you should contact a real estate attorney. 

Domestic Violence

Victims of domestic violence have early termination rights in most states. That being said, certain conditions usually need to be met to break a lease for domestic violence, such as obtaining a court order of protection. 

Moving to a senior care facility

In some states, you may also be able to break a lease early if you're moving into an elderly care facility, such as a nursing home, for seniors. 

hash-markOther ways to get out of a lease

If you are unable to break your lease for one of the above reasons and your existing contract doesn't have an early termination clause, your best bet is to talk to your landlord. Explain your situation and see if they're amenable to the idea of you ending your tenancy early. In most cases, it will be difficult to avoid paying a fee or penalty, which is typically around one month of rent. If you don't have the money to cover this fee, you might suggest letting your landlord keep your security deposit. Two things to keep in mind are that any penalty is negotiable and that you should get everything in writing. 

If your landlord is absolutely against you breaking the lease, your only remaining option may be to sublease or assign your lease to a new renter. Assigning your lease is usually a better option, but it's possible that your landlord will also be against that. You might even find that your contract might prohibit subletting, but rental laws in most states give tenants a right to sublet. That means that you will always have a legal right to sublet, as long as you follow the proper legal protocol. 

hash-markWhat happens if I break my lease and don't pay?

First things first, you want to make sure you're actually legally breaking your lease. You can't just get out of a lease by vacating an apartment and not paying. And if you've agreed to pay a penalty to legally terminate the contract and you don't pay, that agreement might become void, and you'll be back on the hook for the lease. Either way, the consequences of not meeting your contractual obligations are severe. Here's what might happen:

You'll lose your security deposit- Your landlord will almost certainly withhold your security deposit for damaged caused by you not fulfilling your contractual obligations.  

Your landlord can sue you- Your landlord can take legal action and sue you for damages including loss of rent. If the landlord wins the lawsuit, you'll be held accountable and liable to pay damages.

Your credit score might take a hit- If your landlord reports your nonpayment to debt collectors or the credit bureaus or if you receive a legal judgment against you, your credit score can take a severe hit. 

You'll have a harder time renting- If you have legal judgments for unpaid rent or have been taken to housing court, you will have a much harder time qualifying for another rental apartment. Your lower credit score will also make signing a new lease harder. 

The last thing you should do is to vacate your apartment thinking you're breaking your lease without notifying your landlord. The consequences are severe, and you're better off trying to work things out with your landlord or looking into other options such as rental assistance programs.