When and How to Break a Lease

No one signs a lease with the intention of breaking it a few months later. But sometimes life happens. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel you need to break your lease, remember that it can be an expensive and difficult process. That said, sometimes it’s worth it. Here are the two main scenarios and how to deal with them.

Job (or other) relocation

If you have to leave town because you just accepted your dream job across the country, you’re in good shape. Or, for example, if the out-of-state grad school program that you thought was a reach accepted you, and you want to enroll in the fall, you’re in good shape. Basically, if you have an obvious, straightforward reason why you need to skip town, your landlord is likely to be fairly understanding, particularly if you’ve been a good tenant.

As with any of these situations, the first thing to do is dig out your lease and see what it says. Most leases have provisions for renters who want to break the lease, often in the form of a two-month penalty or a nominal fee if you give more than two months’ notice. Or, some leases will insist that you pay rent until the landlord is able to find your replacement. Whatever the language in your lease is, it’s good to know before you speak with your landlord.

After you’ve done your research, tell your landlord that you need to move, explain why and ask what your options are. In this situation, most likely, you’ll figure out something that’s mutually agreeable, and you’ll not lose much money in the transaction.

A bad landlord

However, not everyone has a cheery, friendly landlord. In fact, for many people who want to break their lease, the landlord is the reason why. Maybe the landlord won’t fix your heat, or your management company ignores your repeated complaints about a broken toilet. In cases such as these, you have legitimate complaints — and you also have rights.

Take out your lease and see exactly what it says. Most likely, the landlord’s obligations are clearly spelled out. If your landlord is not fulfilling them, he or she is in violation of the lease. (Also, landlords may have many other requirements that they have to fulfill, regardless of whether they’re enumerated in the lease. Check your local laws to see exactly what they are.)

That said, even if you landlord is in flagrant violation of your lease, don’t just leave. You first need to research the laws in your city and state about how to file a formal complaint against your landlord. Yes, that’s right — you may need to take your landlord to court before you can legally break your lease. If this sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is.

Another option, as above, is to read the fine print in your lease and see what the rules are for breaking it. If the financial penalty is not too steep, it may just be easier to notify your landlord that you’re moving as per the contract, pay the penalty and be done with it. Yes, your bad landlord “wins,” but you keep your sanity, and you can move out sooner.

Whichever route you choose, make sure you get everything in writing. This means every letter is sent certified mail (with a return receipt), all correspondence is documented and all payments are made with checks. When a landlord is negligent or malicious, you need to have proof of everything.

Another option: Subletting

Subletting is simply the process of having someone else pay you to live in an apartment on which you have signed the lease. In some cases, you don’t end up subletting, even after you’ve found subletters: If you have a good, conscientious landlord, he or she likely would prefer you not sublet if you’re leaving permanently. Instead, a good landlord will offer up a lease transfer to your subletters or tear up your lease and offer your subletters a fresh one. You may have to pay a nominal move-out fee, but that’s likely it — after all, you’ve done the work of finding a new renter for the landlord.

If your landlord is less involved or interested, then you may have to actually sublet. It involves some hassle and liability, but it can be worth it. First, after you’ve found potential subletters, check their credit worthiness (remember that they are going to be responsible for paying you every month until the expiration of your lease). You want to make sure they do that. Second, draw up a contract, so that both parties know what is expected of them. Make sure you include language that reflects that the subletters are now responsible for any damage that takes place at your old apartment, and that they will pay any damage fees assessed when your lease is up. Third, do a walk-through before you formally sublet the place, so that both parties know the condition it was in before the subletters took over – and document this in writing and with photos.

Breaking a lease can be difficult. It requires that you research your lease, your local laws and negotiate with your landlord. But, depending on your situation, it could be worth it.

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MyFirstApartment.com helps novice renters successfully navigate the first year of living on their own. The blog shares proven tips and tricks for everything from finding the perfect rental or roommate, to furnishing on a small budget or no budget, to dealing with landlords or roommate’s girlfriends.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.