Need to move? Read this before breaking your lease.
Many renters find themselves in situations where they need to break a lease, whether it’s to leave a roommate, relocate for work, find more affordable rent, purchase a home, or locate a more responsive property manager.
While it’s risky to break a legally binding contract, a savvy renter with the proper approach can avoid a lot of the headaches and financial strain that can occur.
Here’s how to break a rental property lease with little consequence.
Read the Lease and Local Laws
Before trying to break a lease, carefully read through the documents, including the fine print, to be prepared for any fees or hassles associated with terminating the contract. Most leases spell out what happens if a renter breaks the lease.
The contract typically requires a tenant to give at least a month and sometimes two months’ notice. Even then, tenants may face financial penalties. Some landlords require renters to find a suitable replacement tenant or pay rent until the landlord is able locate a new tenant.
Fees for breaking a lease might cost the tenant two months’ rent or more. Some leases even state that renters who break the lease must pay back any rental concessions — these are things such as discounted rent that the landlord used as incentives to fill the vacancy.
If tenants sign leases agreeing to such fees and terms, they must pay them when breaking the leases.
That said, renters may be able to break their leases without penalty if the landlord is not living up to his responsibilities. If a landlord refuses to fix major issues or safety concerns in the apartment, then a renter may be able to escape termination fees.
Renters should read their leases to clarify landlord obligations and review local laws — most cities and towns have laws about landlord responsibilities — to determine whether they might have recourse against an inadequate landlord.
Negotiate with Landlord, Then Put Requests and Agreements in Writing
No matter what the reason for leaving, it’s important to first discuss it with the landlord before taking any action. Some landlords may let a renter out of the lease without penalty based on the renter’s circumstances, such as job relocation or needing more space after marriage.
Renters should communicate with their landlords and ask about their options. These options are sometimes negotiable, so offer up alternatives if the terms aren’t acceptable.
Even in the case of a landlord letting a renter out of the lease with no penalty, the tenant should make sure to get the agreement in writing.
In the case of a renter breaking the lease due to a bad landlord, it’s important to discuss the issues with the landlord, laying out a reasonable timetable for the landlord to resolve the issues; be even-tempered but firm with demands.
Follow up all verbal conversations with written correspondence, sent via certified mail, laying out the demands, timetables and consequences. If nothing gets resolved after that, the renter can file a formal complaint against the landlord via the Rental Protection Agency.
Renters may have to take their landlords to court to settle disputes. At every step along the way, keep records of all correspondence.
If the financial penalties or hassles resulting from breaking a lease seem too great, then subletting may be a viable option. If the lease allows it, the renter can find another trusted tenant(s) to live in the apartment, paying the original renter, who then pays the landlord, each month or sometimes paying the landlord directly.
To find subletters, advertise the place online, distribute fliers in the neighborhood, interview prospective tenants and have them fill out an application online. Look for renters with steady incomes and check their credit scores.
Make them sign a lease found online or have a real estate lawyer draw one up, making sure that the lease states the monthly rent, its due date, penalties for late payments, language about liability, the renters’ responsibilities for damages and any other fees.
Do a walk-through of the apartment with the new tenant and take photos documenting the condition of the place before turning it over to the new tenants.
Pay the Fees and Leave
If subletting is inconvenient for the renter or unacceptable to the landlord, and the landlord won’t budge on the penalties to break the lease, then the renter must pay as dictated by the lease agreement. Do not vacate without paying, as the landlord can sue, which can end up costing the renter much more than the initial termination charges.
Before moving out, pay the fees required and request written confirmation from the landlord that all monies are received. Renters should leave the unit in the same condition it was upon moving in to not risk their security deposits.
Overall, it’s best to carefully read lease agreements before signing them to make sure all the terms are fair and acceptable to both parties. On the off chance tenants should need to break their leases, they’ll be aware of the consequences and able to weigh their options.
Avoid emptying the bank account through proper research, negotiation, subletting or finalizing the lease termination. Maintaining an amiable, communicative relationship with a landlord can be beneficial if a tenant faces a sudden life change such as relocation, loss of employment or a family emergency.
Have you ever broken a lease? How did you deal with the situation? Are you a landlord? How do you handle tenants that break their lease?
This was written by Jay Robert, a trusted Zillow writer and an associate with Kassoff, Robert & Lerner, LLP, focusing in the areas of elder law, real estate, special needs law and estates.
Image by CJ Sorg