Whether you’re renting an apartment, house, or duplex, your home ought to feel like a safe place—one that’s comfortable and secure. But what happens if something alters that safe space? Can you break your lease? And what happens if you do—is your credit doomed?
To help you navigate these troubling waters, we’ll cover common reasons tenants want to break their lease and what you should do if you’re ready to break yours.
Common Reasons Tenants Break a Lease
There are a variety of reasons people want to terminate their lease early—but here are just a few that could apply to you.
- The rental unit is uninhabitable. A landlord is obligated to perform general property maintenance and ensure the property adheres to health and safety codes. Circumstances that could make a property uninhabitable include the presence of black mold, a lack of running water, or a lack of proper waste disposal.
- The landlord illegally entered your rental space. Landlords must provide legitimate reasoning as to why they are entering your home.
- You are on active military duty.
- You are a victim of domestic violence.
- The rental space falls into foreclosure or is illegally rented to you.
What to Do If You Need to Break Your Lease
If you need to get out of your lease, here are seven essential steps.
1. Read Your Lease and Document Everything
Before you take action, be sure to look over your lease. “Read it three times!” says Joel S. Winston, a litigation lawyer at Winston Law Firm, LLC. Your lease should spell out the procedures and penalties for canceling early.
“The lease that you signed and that no one reads—that’s going to control how difficult and expensive it will be to break a lease,” Winston says.
Just don’t make up problems with the property that don’t exist to get out of your current lease. “Try to be open and honest and approach your landlord in a nice and friendly manner,” Winston recommends.
However, if there are problems and you feel the landlord isn’t adequately fixing them, put the complaints and problems in writing. Just make sure you keep a copy of the document for your records. And if push comes to shove, carefully look over your lease for details that cover what happens if you terminate the lease early, including whether you will be held responsible for the entire remaining term of the lease or a lesser amount.
In many states, landlords can’t use the fact that you left early as a windfall. However, if they can only rent the unit at a lower rate than you were paying for the remainder of your lease, you may be required to make up the cost difference. You may also have to pay for the advertising costs to find a replacement tenant.
2. Communicate Thoroughly
Let your landlord know what you want to do and why you want to terminate the lease. Some may be more flexible than others. A large property management company might be unsympathetic to your financial woes, but an individual owner might be more compassionate.
Also, as difficult as it may be, try to think of the circumstances from a landlord’s perspective.
Terminating a lease early may put an owner-landlord into a financial bind, especially if they have to spend time and money securing a new tenant. It’s not out of the question to assist your landlord in finding an adequate replacement, but it’s ultimately their decision.
3. Get Confirmations in Writing
Make sure you get written confirmation of any changes to the lease. If your landlord says you can move out early with a small penalty or no penalty, get that in writing. Never rely on a verbal agreement—otherwise it will be your word against theirs. You may be tempted to keep things cordial and light, but a handshake isn’t going to help you pay off a creditor or debt collector.
Store these written confirmations in a safe place you’ll remember. It won’t do you any good if you can’t find that information when a collection agency contacts you. And should you end up in collections or in court, the written terms in the lease will likely prevail.
If the landlord won’t budge, won’t put anything in writing, or won’t compromise, you can still create your own paper trail by communicating in writing and keeping a record of the letters you sent.
4. Don’t Forget the Walk-Through
No matter how anxious or excited you are to move out, protect yourself from unexpected charges by doing a walk-through with your landlord and getting a written record of the results. We wouldn’t recommend leaving your rental until you’re able to do this. Should your landlord refuse to do a walk-through, take detailed pictures—or better yet, video—of the property’s status the day you leave.
5. Don’t Make Assumptions
When it comes to breaking your lease, avoid assumptions. Specifically, don’t assume your security deposit will take care of any remaining balance or fees you owe.
“When you are breaching the contract, it doesn’t always entitle the landlord to scoop up your security deposit. For example, in New York, the landlord has to go to the housing court to file a complaint in order to take that.” Winston says.
Similarly, if you live with a roommate and you pay your portion of the rent but your roommate does not, this missing payment has financial repercussions. If you both signed the lease, you are both fully responsible for the entire rent check, regardless of what the two of you have worked out between yourselves. But if your name is the only one on the lease, you may be the one stuck holding the bag.
6. Know That There Are Exceptions to the Rules
You may have legitimate reasons for breaking a lease that aren’t spelled out in the actual lease, like a safety or health reason directly connected to the property.
“Essentially, the ‘warranty of habitability’ is a landlord-tenant legal doctrine requiring landlords to maintain rental real estate in reasonable conditions that are fit for tenants to live safely,” explains Winston.
Winston goes on to say, “The warranty of habitability is accepted law in most every jurisdiction in America. In some states, the warranty has been established by decades of case law (i.e., Implied Warranty). But in other states, the warranty has been expressly established by legislation.”
There may be state-specific laws that allow you to break a lease early. For example, in Washington, one legitimate reason for terminating a lease is the landlord failing to make certain types of repairs within a specific period of time—as long as mold isn’t part of the problem.
7. Get Help
Landlord-tenant laws are state-specific. So it’s a good idea to research your rights as a tenant before signing your name on the dotted line. If you believe a landlord’s actions are illegal, you may be able to get help from legal aid programs, a local housing agency, or a consumer protection attorney in your state.
Understand that even if you do everything right, problems can come up. For example, an unknown balance can wind up in collections and you may not hear about it until the damage to your credit score is done. Or if you terminated your lease early, the leftover balance may be reported to specialty credit reporting agencies used by landlords—and these reports could catch you by surprise the next time you try to rent.
Whatever the reason, keep detailed and legible records of what transpired long after you think you’ll need them—seven years is usually safe. Also, frequently review your credit report and credit scores to make sure you’re aware of any significant changes. You can get two free credit scores updated every 14 days at Credit.com.