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Breaking a Lease: Everything to Know

No one plans on breaking a lease early, but life surprises us sometimes. Whether you’re moving cross country with your significant other, just landed your dream job in another state, or are dealing with a family emergency, there are times when breaking your lease is necessary.

Since breaking a lease can be both time-consuming and expensive, we’ve compiled all the information you should know before starting the process. Though everyone’s housing situation is unique, here are some standard tips on how to prepare for (and execute) breaking your lease.

We hope you gain a better understanding of how to prepare for and execute breaking a lease. Still, we highly suggest contacting a lawyer if you have specific questions about your situation, as laws vary from state to state.

How to Prepare for Breaking a Lease

1. Read Your Lease Agreement

Before making an impulsive decision, take a look at your lease. Since leases often contain complex legal jargon, make sure you know how to read a lease and what every single word means, paying close attention to the lease termination policy and subletting protocol. The lease should specify how much advance notice you are required to give your landlord or property management company when not renewing or breaking your lease, as well as any consequences you may face in terms of monetary penalties.

Depending on the terms of your lease, you may have to pay an early termination fee if you back out early. In other cases, you might be able to avoid fees if you’re able to find a new tenant to take your place. Understanding the terms of your lease will help you communicate more effectively with your landlord or property manager and, hopefully, end your rental agreement on good terms.

2. Understand Your Situation

While medical issues and job relocations generally do not constitute as legal grounds to break a lease, there are a handful of situations in which a resident can break a lease legally. Residents are often legally allowed to break their lease without penalty due to:

  • Condition of Rental Property
    Though different towns and cities have ranging regulations, landlords and property managers have a duty to keep up with property maintenance. This means that they must supply running water and electricity, keep up with building codes, and perform any necessary repairs within the building. Your landlord or property manager should also maintain common areas and provide trash receptacles. If they fail to comply with any of these expectations, you have the right to legally break your lease. For more information, we recommend investigating the landlord responsibilities directly related to your state.

  • Call to Active Military Duty
    The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) offers military members a number of protections and benefits not available to most citizens, including the ability to end a housing lease without penalty. If you deploy for 90 days or more, you are legally allowed to break your lease and won’t face any consequences under protection of the SCRA. The act also allows a resident to legally break a lease if their spouse dies on active duty.

  • Acts of Domestic Violence
    Many states allow residents who have been victims of domestic abuse, harassment, stalking, or sexual assault to terminate their lease by sending a written notice of termination to their landlord or property management company. Refer to your state’s housing laws to determine if victims of domestic violence can terminate a lease early without penalty.
    To make the process of writing a notice of termination more manageable, you can use a sample letter to terminate a lease due to domestic violence. If you or a loved one find yourselves in this situation, there are a number of national hotlines and resources available to support you as well.

  • Illegal Status of Apartment
    If you suddenly learn that the apartment you’ve been renting is not a legal rental unit, you have the right to terminate your lease immediately without repercussions. Though state laws differ, residents are typically entitled to a portion of the rent that they’ve paid throughout the lease period. In some cases, your landlord may be required to pay you additional money in order to help you find a new rental space.

  • Landlord or Property Manager Trespasses on Property or Harasses Resident
    While your landlord or property manager does have the right to enter your property, they must adhere to the requirements for entry. If their cause for entering your property is unwarranted, it’s considered trespassing. You should first attempt to communicate with your landlord or property manager directly if they trespass onto your premises. Should it continue to occur, you may have to bring a claim for trespass or harassment in small claims court. Trespassing or harassment from your landlord or property manager is considered a legal reason to break your lease.
    Read more about these common ways to legally break a lease to see if any of the circumstances above are applicable to your situation. With adequate proof, you will be able to terminate your lease as soon as possible.

3. Weigh Your Options

If the reason you want to break your lease is not protected by law, you may want to consider waiting until your lease is over. If you do choose to cut ties early, you could be forced to pay your landlord or management company a predetermined amount of money. Other consequences of breaking a lease include civil cases and long-term damage to your credit score.

By no means are we trying to scare you, but we do want you to realize the potential outcomes of breaking a lease. If you adhere to the terms within your original lease agreement, the process of breaking a lease should be fairly simple, if not a bit costly.

4. Consider Subletting

A common alternative to terminating a lease early is to sublet your apartment to someone else — with the consent of your landlord or property management company, of course. Subletting your apartment is far easier than breaking a lease, allowing you to move out early while ensuring that your landlord or property manager still gets paid. Check out the terms of your lease to see if your landlord or management company will allow you to sublet to another person.

If you determine that subletting your apartment is a feasible and appropriate decision for you, make sure you create a written agreement to sublease/sublet that applies specifically to your state. When looking for a renter, you should always complete a background check and income verification before solidifying the agreement. Even though you are renting the space to a new resident, you still remain legally responsible for paying the rent (so you should find someone who you trust).

5. Consider Assigning the Lease

If you don’t want to sublet your lease, you can look into assigning your lease. In this case, you can transfer your lease agreement over to a new resident who then pays rent directly to your landlord or property management company. Unfortunately, you aren’t always fully released from liability under the lease. This means that if the new assignee fails to pay rent on time, your landlord or property manager could still come looking for you — which is why it’s important to verify the trustworthiness of a prospective resident.

If you do decide that assigning your lease is a good choice for you, there are plenty of templates to create a lease assignment agreement online. Like subletting, you will also need the consent of your landlord or property management company when completing a lease assignment.

Steps to Breaking Your Lease

After reading your lease agreement and evaluating the consequences, if you’re still convinced that breaking your lease is in your best interest, the following steps will help you navigate the process.

6. Contact Your Landlord or Property Management Company

Out of courtesy, you may want to reach out to your landlord or property manager via phone to give them a heads up about your plans to break your lease. You should inform them of the reason you want to break the lease, as well as the date that you intend to vacate the apartment. Be sure to reach out to your landlord or property manager as soon as you are confident that you will be breaking your lease. This will help your landlord or property management company start thinking about a possible replacement resident.

While contacting your landlord or rental company informally isn’t a vital step to breaking a lease, it is suggested if you want to maintain an amicable relationship with them. It’s also the considerate thing to do. If they’re not getting back to you, we’ve included some tips to manage an unresponsive landlord or property manager. It may be time to resort to official mail or external help if your landlord or property manager continues to ignore you.

7. Give Official Notice

After speaking to your landlord or property manager informally, or at least attempting to do so, it’s time to write an official notice to vacate letter. This letter should be simple, yet specific, containing the reason you want to break your lease and the exact date you intend to leave. In order to write an effective notice to vacate letter, you should be very familiar with the terms of your lease. This way you can confidently state how you plan to proceed and note any relevant expectations you may have, such as the anticipation of the return of your security deposit (if applicable). For more details on how to get started, download a notice of intent to vacate template.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to send the notice via certified mail so that you’re certain your landlord or property manager has seen it. If any legal issues arise in the future, concrete evidence of your communication efforts will be helpful to have on hand.

8. List Your Place Online

If your landlord or property management company gives you the go-ahead to sublet the space, there are plenty of online resources that you can use. You can always go the old fashioned route of reaching out to friends and family, but listing your apartment online will greatly widen your pool of potential renters. Here are a few useful sites to safely find a new resident for your apartment.

    ABODO is a great platform to list your apartment online, offering an easy-to-use subletting function. The company makes the process of listing your place incredibly simple, allowing you to target the renters you’re looking for. Once you sign up for free, you’ll be able to list within minutes!

  • Airbnb
    While many solely think of Airbnb as a site to use when traveling, it also offers extended rental options. Airbnb sublets allow users to stay for a long period of time without committing to a long-term lease. Like any other subletting option, you will need your landlord or management company’s permission before you create your free listing. It’s also important for you to understand the laws and Airbnb policies within your city, as subletting regulations vary.

  • Flip
    Self-proclaimed as the easiest way to sublet or get out of your lease, Flip allows you to list your place for free online. The beauty of Flip is that it does a lot of the work for you, meaning the company will vet applicants, prepare a full rental application, and get approval from your landlord or property manager. If you’re feeling busy or overwhelmed when breaking a lease, Flip could be a great option for you.

  • Roomi
    Roomi is a free mobile platform that allows users to safely sublet and rent rooms, providing secure payments and in-app messaging. This platform is ideal if you are looking to sublet a room in a shared apartment, as it focuses on co-living situations.

  • Trulia
    Users on Trulia can choose to list a room, apartment, or full home for free on the site. Committed to fostering community within neighborhoods, the company sources insights from locals and offers in-depth neighborhood maps. For a reminder on the regulations of subletting, check out Trulia’s subletting guide before submitting a rental listing.

There are a number of other popular platforms to rent an apartment on as well, such as VRBO, HomeAway, and even Facebook Groups. Just remember to adequately vet your new resident before finalizing anything.

9. Get Everything in Writing

A tenant surrender agreement is a professional way to break a lease early and surrender the property to your landlord or property management company. Some typical components of a tenant surrender agreement include the following:

  • Date and Time Property Will Return to Landlord or Rental Company
    It’s crucial that you complete a detailed and accurate tenant surrender agreement, as it will help prevent future disputes or misunderstanding. The agreement should include the date and time that the property will return to your landlord or property management company, specifying when all of the lease liabilities will formally end.

  • Condition Property Will be Returned In
    Although it may seem intuitive, the tenant surrender agreement should explicitly state that you’re required to return the property to your landlord or management company, also holding you responsible for the condition of that property.

  • Security Deposit Distribution
    Your tenant surrender agreement should discuss how your security deposit will be distributed. Depending upon your agreement, the paperwork could indicate that the deposit will be returned in full, or that it will be subtracted from a termination fee.

  • Mutual Release of Liability
    The mutual release of liability is a key section of your tenant surrender agreement, as it dismisses all liabilities from the original lease. In other words, you and your landlord or property manager can no longer sue one another for any fee or unfinished obligation once you sign a tenant surrender agreement.

  • Covenant Not To Sue
    A covenant not to sue promises that neither you nor your landlord/property manager will bring a lawsuit against one another based on claims specifically released by the termination of lease agreement. Unlike a mutual release of liability, a covenant not to sue is not a surrender of previous rights. Instead, it simply places restrictions on both parties’ right to file a lawsuit.

Though format varies, take a look at this termination of lease agreement and guide to gain further understanding of the components of the paperwork. If the lease or conditions of your termination are particularly complicated, you may want to consider contacting an attorney. This way you will have a document that pertains specifically to your situation. Once you and your landlord or property manager complete and sign a mutual agreement to end your tenancy, the process is officially over.

10. Seek Legal Help

Sometimes the act of breaking a lease isn’t as simple as signing an agreement and handing over your keys to your landlord or property manager. If your landlord or property management company is being particularly difficult, it might be time to reach out to a lawyer. If you aren’t sure how to begin seeking professional help, here are some tips on finding a skilled lawyer. Many sites offer directories to help you find a lawyer based on your location and specific needs.

What to Expect When Breaking Your Lease

11. Know Your Rights

During the process of breaking a lease, it’s key that you understand your tenant rights. Since different states have different tenant rights, laws and protections, be sure to read up on what pertains to you.

Though we listed the most common ways to legally break a lease, your state may have additional exceptions that expand beyond these situations. We encourage you to investigate expectations for your specific state. The more informed you are about your own situation, the better equipped you’ll be to break your lease agreement.

12. Prepare Yourself for Additional Costs

Depending on your situation, you may have to forfeit your security deposit or even pay court fees if the situation escalates. Though there’s no standard amount that a resident usually pays, the cost to break a lease can be substantial. Potential scenarios in which you’ll have to pay include the following:

  • Early Termination Fee
    Depending on the terms of your lease, you may have to pay an early termination fee. These fees should be stated in the original lease and tend to range from one to three months of rent, but can also run higher or lower.

  • Security Deposit
    Sadly, you may have to say goodbye to some (or all) of your security deposit if you break your lease early. This depends on the terms of your lease, as well as the landlord-tenant laws in your state. Check your original lease to see if there is an early termination clause. Sometimes, landlords or rental companies will deduct your early termination fee from your security deposit. If the security deposit doesn’t cover the amount owed, you will be responsible for paying any additional money directly to your landlord or property manager.

  • Rent for Remaining Months of Lease
    If you don’t find someone to sublet or assign your lease to, you might be obligated to pay the rest of the rent owed on your original lease agreement. Whether this is one or five months of rent, we highly urge you to pay up. Neglecting to pay these remaining charges could cost you significantly more in the long run.

  • Rent Until Your Landlord or Property Manager Finds a New Renter
    In some cases, rather than paying for the entire remainder of your lease, you may be required to pay rent until your landlord or property manager finds a new resident. In many states, it is a landlord or property manager’s duty to re-rent when a resident breaks a lease, so they should be actively searching for a new tenant. If your landlord or property manager doesn’t find a new renter, you may have to pay rent for the remainder of your lease.

  • Court Fees
    We hope you don’t find yourself in this situation, but your landlord or property management company could take you to court if you terminate your lease early. If your landlord or management company wins, you may be forced to relinquish your security deposit and pay rent for the remaining months of your lease, on top of court and attorney fees. When breaking a lease, we suggest making a genuine effort to help your landlord or property manager find a new renter. This could prevent your landlord or management company from taking you to court and potentially save you a lot of money.

13. Get Ready for Your Next Move

Amidst the chaos of breaking a lease, you’re also probably preparing for your next move. Don’t freak out! From creating a moving checklist to finding a moving company, we’ve got you covered. It’s particularly important to create a moving budget if you’re dealing with the additional costs of breaking your lease. Take a look at our free moving coupons to make your life less stressful!

While there are a lot of factors that go into breaking a lease, the best thing you can do is fully understand the terms of your lease and communicate effectively with your landlord or property manager. Knowing the ins and outs of your lease should help you navigate this process with courtesy and ease. Should matters become complicated, don’t worry. Lease disputes are quite common and often easily negotiable.

Whether you choose to wait it out, sublet your space, or officially break your lease, we wish you the best of luck!

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