Signing a lease on a rental property can be a lot of pressure—especially if you’re new to a particular city and don’t know the people you’ll be living with.
Regardless, this is a standard lease agreement for renters who are going to be new tenants.
Getting an apartment requires putting your name on a contract, surrendering a down payment, and forming an obligation to make good on monthly payments until the lease expires.
Depending on the terms of your lease, this might be three months, six months, a year, or even multiple years.
Unfortunately, rental agreements don’t always go the way we plan. That being the case, it’s important to know what to do if you need to leave the lease agreement early.
Keep reading to learn when and how you should get out of a lease.
When to Break a Lease on a Rental Property
Here are some common reasons to break a lease on a rental property.
Getting a new job in another city
You may live in Massachusetts, get a job in California, and need to relocate immediately. When this happens, you may not have time to ride out a lease or even go through the hassle of finding someone else to take over.
Talk to your landlord and explain the situation. Getting a new job elsewhere is a legitimate reason to break a lease, and a reasonable individual should be able to work with you to resolve the situation amicably.
There are countless horror stories of people who sign leases with strangers they meet on Craigslist who turn out to be monsters.
The first rule when living with strangers is to research them… thoroughly. Do a background check if possible or ask for references for security purposes. You should also trust your gut. If you get the sense you may clash with an individual or if you feel unsafe around them, walk away before signing the lease.
Sometimes, it takes a few weeks or months for someone to show their true colors. When this happens, don’t hesitate—get out!
One option could be to approach the landlord and explain the situation. The landlord may be able to arrange a meeting with your roommate to resolve the conflict.
You may also suggest a roommate clause in your contract. Run the contract by an attorney and ask to add a stipulation allowing you to exit early if your roommate doesn’t meet certain conditions like cleanliness, safety, or behavior.
The place isn’t habitable
There are some things that can go awry after signing a lease that can make a place unlivable.
The heat might break, and the landlord may ask the tenant to fix it. Or, a pipe or toilet might burst, flooding the house or creating a toxic situation. Pests like rats or rodents can also become a problem.
If something happens to make a place unlivable, ask the landlord to intervene and document your conversation. If the landlord refuses to intervene, you can contact your local board of health to get involved to inspect the place for safety code violations.
When that happens, the board of health will come and inspect the property. It’s possible they may condemn the property if it’s uninhabitable.
Loss of income
If you lose your job, you may not be able to make rent anymore.
Your first step should be to talk to your landlord and inform them of the situation. The sooner you talk to them, the better.
After all, you don’t want to lose your job and wait until rent is due before reaching out. That’s problematic, to say the least.
The landlord may have a plan in place to help tenants like you. You might be able to defer rent or pay partial rent until you find new work or unemployment kicks in. Another option is to use your security deposit to cover yourself, buying time to get back on your feet.
If you get to a point where you can’t find new work and can’t afford rent, then you may have to break the lease. Inquire about subleasing to avoid facing any penalties.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, get out first and ask questions later.
Consult an attorney and try to reach an understanding with the landlord. You might also reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for assistance. Under no circumstances should someone stay in an abusive situation out of fear of breaking a lease. Period, end of argument.
How to Get Out of a Lease
If you’re a tenant looking to move out before the end of your lease because someone in the neighborhood harasses you, there are health and safety issues, or you’re activated for military service (among other legal reasons), here’s what you have to keep in mind to get out of a lease.
- Read the terms and conditions
- Be prepared to pay
- Try to find a subletter
- Talk with the landlord
- Get legal advice if necessary
- Do a walkthrough before leaving
1. Read the terms and conditions
The first thing to do when breaking a lease is to scour the original paperwork you signed. The lease should outline exactly what you’re responsible for paying… and what you can expect to get back from your initial deposit. Look for an early termination clause.
It’s also a good idea to check state laws and local landlord-tenant laws so you’re informed of your rights before approaching your landlord.
2. Be prepared to pay
The bad news is that—unless you can find a replacement tenant—you’ll most likely have to compensate the landlord if you try to get out of a lease early.
The landlord could demand some sort of financial compensation for breaking the lease. Depending on how nice your landlord is, you could either end up having to pay a fee or perhaps even be on the hook for rent for the duration of the lease contract.
3. Try to find a subletter
In most cases, the easiest way out of a lease is to find someone to take over midway through: a subletter. Most landlords are okay with subleasing, as they’re mostly concerned about collecting rent, not who’s signing the check.
So check your lease contract to see if it allows for subleasing.
Try to line up a few prospects by asking your network. You may have a trusted friend or family member who can step in and start paying rent immediately, sparing the landlord from having to find someone on their own.
4. Talk with the landlord
Don’t approach the landlord about leaving until you’ve done your research and possibly have a few potential tenants ready to take over.
If possible, notify the landlord of your intentions in writing so you have a paper trail. This can also protect you if the landlord gives you a hard time. If your landlord becomes threatening or demonstrates aggressive behavior, you’ll want to document it.
For best results, explain your situation, including why you’re leaving, how you intend to cover the difference (either by subletting or other means), and when you plan to leave.
The general rule is to give the landlord at least 30 days’ notice before you break the lease. Keep in mind that you have to provide both written and verbal notice.
5. Get legal advice if necessary
Not all landlords are honest or respectful of privacy.
If you’re concerned that a landlord has violated your space by entering your apartment without consent, damaged your property, or threatened you, consult with an attorney and get out as soon as possible.
Getting an attorney can be scary if you haven’t done it before, but the right attorney will walk you through the legal process and help you escape without harm.
6. Do a walkthrough before leaving
If you’ve gotten to this point, your paperwork should be in order and everything should be out of the apartment. The next step is to walk through the apartment and take photos or videos documenting the condition of the place.
You should also do a walkthrough when first signing a lease in order to protect yourself. Compare your exit photos with your original documentation and make sure they match! Otherwise, you could lose your security deposit.
Whatever you do, don’t give the landlord any reason to claim you damaged the property or did something that potentially violated the lease—like unauthorized construction or repairs.
When the walkthrough is complete, turn off the lights, lock the door, and drop the key off at the leasing company’s office or meet the landlord for an exchange.
The last step is to settle your remaining balance with the landlord. If you owe any money, write the landlord a check.
If someone is subletting your space, you may be able to get your security deposit back. Check with the landlord and the subletter to arrange this transaction. Usually, this is an agreement between the original tenant and the new subletter.
What Happens When You Break a Lease?
A lease is a legally binding agreement to make lease payments for a specific period of time. The period of time a lease runs is called a term. So when you break a lease, you’re essentially breaking a legally binding contract.
Think of this from the landlord’s perspective. They own a rental property. They may have a mortgage, as well as property taxes, utilities, and insurance to pay.
By breaking the lease, you could put them in the tough spot of having to come up with the money on their own or find a new tenant. This creates a huge liability and therefore, it can be difficult to go against a landlord when trying to break a lease. This is why landlords go to great lengths to vet prospective tenants.
Yet some landlords can be understanding about leases and may work with you on a lease break. Every landlord is different.
It’s a good idea to vet your landlord before you sign a contract and get a sense of whether they’re reasonable and chill… or a hothead. Once you establish a relationship, it’s also a good idea to be as friendly as possible.
Who knows? Maybe your landlord could even turn into a mentor or friend! Either way, they’ll be much more likely to be lenient on you leaving early.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act?
This is a federal law that protects active-duty sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, reservists, National Guard members, and Public Health Service department workers. In short, this act enables individuals to terminate leases under certain circumstances.
What happens if you break a lease?
Breaking a lease requires severing a legal agreement and there could be legal ramifications for doing so (e.g., being required to pay the landlord).
In some cases, the tenant is allowed to walk away if the landlord is okay with terminating the agreement or if someone else steps in to pay. Every situation is different, and you won’t really know how things will pan out until you get to that moment.
Can a broken lease damage your credit score?
The only way a broken lease can damage your credit score is if you skip the remaining rent payments and violate the terms of the current lease.
You should be able to buy out the lease and avoid any legal complications without negative information showing up on your credit score. You can always check your credit score afterward if you are uncertain.
Is eviction easy?
States have varying laws governing existing tenants’ rights regarding apartment leases. Make sure to check with your specific state. Some tend to be very protective of renters. This issue was compounded further during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bottom Line
A lot can happen after signing a new lease agreement. In some cases, early termination is the only acceptable outcome, regardless of the consequences.
Breaking tenancy may require going to small claims court or consulting with an attorney. It may not be easy, but if you find yourself in a bad situation, you might not have much choice.
Know your rights as a tenant and document your process along the way. By working with a landlord, you may be able to solve the situation amicably and be on your way with minimal damage.