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Breaking a Lease: Everything You Need to Know

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No matter how much we plan our lives, unexpected events can happen. This includes moving out of a leased home or apartment before the lease expires. In an ideal scenario, you would provide a proper notice to vacate to your landlord. However, if breaking a lease must occur, here is how to successfully navigate this potentially costly process.

Are there consequences for breaking a lease?

A lease is a legal, binding contract between a landlord and a tenant. A lease gives you the right to reside in your dwelling for a specific period. Breaking a lease can cause several consequences, including:

  • Being sued by your landlord: Breaking your lease leaves your landlord with a vacant property. Your landlord can sue you for rent due until the end of the lease. The possibility of being sued is highly likely if a landlord cannot immediately fill the property with a new tenant.
  • Losing your security deposit: Your landlord may not return your security deposit due to your breach in contract. While several states enforce a 30-day security deposit, security deposit amounts vary based on state legislation, so be sure to understand the total funds you will potentially lose.
  • Having your wages garnished: Your landlord, or a debt collection agency working on your landlord’s behalf, can sue you for rental payment due. If the ruling is in their favor, your wages can be garnished to pay the outstanding debt.
  • Negatively impacting your credit score: If your landlord uses a debt collection agency to obtain rent due, collection data can remain on your credit report for up to seven years. This negatively affects your credit score and, in turn, the potential to secure a new lease, credit card, or loan.

How to properly break your rental agreement, step by step

Step 1: Read your lease carefully so you know the consequences

It is vital to read (and reread) your lease agreement’s terms and conditions. If your lease has an early termination clause, review the requirements which may include paying a specific fee or forfeiting your security deposit.

Step 2: Educate yourself on your landlord-tenant laws

Your rights as a tenant can vary significantly from state to state. Determine what laws are applicable for your state and county. The American Apartment Owners Association is an excellent resource for state-specific information.

Step 3: Have an open conversation with your landlord about your options

Set up a time to speak with your landlord. Be prepared with an action plan including the official date you need to vacate the property, whether you have a potential person to sublet your space, and what actions you will take to ensure the landlord does not suffer hardship.

Step 4: Negotiate a mutual lease termination

If your landlord is willing, work together to agree to mutually terminate the lease. Negotiate the termination date, the amount of outstanding rent due, and if the security deposit will be held or returned.

Step 5: Seek legal counsel

Unfortunately, not all relationships between a landlord and tenant are amicable. If you are unable to come to a mutual agreement outside of court with your landlord when breaking your lease, seek aid from a lawyer or legal aid organization.

Step 6: Obtain and retain proper documentation

Your lease is a binding contract that should not be taken lightly. Be sure to maintain copies of all correspondence regarding your breach of the lease. When mailing documents to your landlord or (if necessary) attorney, send documents via certified mail to ensure confirmation of receipt.

When can you legally break a lease without consequences?

There are several ways to legally break a lease. As every state differs in landlord-tenant legislation, confirm applicable laws in your state that will work for or, unfortunately, against you.

Here are some common exceptions:

  • Your landlord fails to fulfill a lease obligation: Breaking a lease is possible if your landlord is not maintaining the property and/or common area, does not complete promised repairs, or fails to perform obligations within the lease.
  • You have been called to active-duty military: If you have been called to serve your country, the need to break a lease is protected under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Active duty, activated reservists, and the national guard can use this act to terminate property contracts early.
  • Your landlord illegally enters your property: Except for an emergency — broken water pipes, for example — your landlord must provide adequate notice before entering your property. Under the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment, if your landlord enters your home without proper notice, breaches your privacy, or enters your home in an aggressive manner, you may be able to break your lease.
  • Your rental unit suffers damage beyond repair deeming the property uninhabitable: Many states across the U.S. follow the Uniform Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA) if your property is damaged or destroyed by fire, flood, or a natural disaster. URLTA voids the lease, which provides you with the ability to break your lease without consequence.
  • You are a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, or stalking: States across the U.S. provide protection and assistance for victims of these horrific crimes. The landlord may request that a copy of the written law enforcement report or restraining order be provided.

The bottom line

Breaking a lease is not a decision to be made in haste. If you must break your current lease, it’s essential to research your legal options, educate yourself on the potential consequences, and understand how this action may impact you long-term.

Frequently asked questions

How do you get out of a lease early? 

You can legally get out of a lease early if your contract has an early termination clause or you fall under one of the common exceptions, such as a landlord’s failure to maintain the residence. Breaking a lease for other reasons is possible but can come with serious legal ramifications.

How bad is breaking a lease? 

Unnecessarily breaking a lease can be a bad choice. The impacts of breaking a lease can affect you for years to come, including your credit, wages, and ability to obtain new housing.

What is the typical penalty for breaking an apartment lease? 

There is not a set penalty for breaking an apartment lease. Incurred fees can include unpaid rent, loss of security deposit, and legal fees. It is important to assess all fees you may incur if you choose to break your lease.


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