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How to Break a Lease

Your Chances of Paying a Penalty Depend on the Situation

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Man moving out of apartment

You may have a good excuse for wanting to get out of your lease.

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Your lease is a binding contract between you and your landlord, which means that breaking your lease is a breach of contract. People often have valid reasons for breaching a contract, and you may have a good excuse for wanting to get out of your lease. For example, you may need to move to another city to pursue a job, you may be getting married or divorced, or you may have decided to buy a home.

Why You Might Face a Penalty

As with any contract, you could face a penalty if you break your lease. If your lease is for a fixed term (such as a year), as leases typically are, it means you've agreed to pay rent for the entire term. The fact that you only pay your rent month by month doesn't mean you're automatically off the hook for the remaining payments if you decide to move out early.

If you must break your lease, the key is to avoid -- or at least limit -- a penalty from your landlord. The chances that you'll have to pay a penalty depend on the situation. Here's what you should keep in mind:

Lowest Chances of a Penalty

Under certain circumstances, you may confidently break your lease knowing you won't have to pay a penalty. If you find yourself in one of the following situations, make sure you give notice to your landlord to avoid any problems:

  • Your apartment is seriously damaged. If your apartment becomes damaged to the point where it's uninhabitable, you may break your lease without a penalty. However, the damage must have been caused through no fault of your own, such as by a natural disaster or a crime.
     
  • You're called to active military duty. If you're in the military and you signed your lease before you were called to active duty, the federal Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act lets you break your lease without a penalty. Several states have their own laws that also let you break your lease if you need to relocate because of a military order.
     
  • You've suffered a serious blow to your health. In some states, you can get out of your lease if you become very sick or injured, or if you need to move to an assisted living facility. Check the law in your state for more information.

Moderate Chances of a Penalty

You should be able to break your lease without a penalty if:

  • Your landlord doesn't live up to his obligations. For example, your landlord fails to maintain or repair your apartment, even despite your requests.
     
  • Your landlord invades your privacy or otherwise interferes with your "quiet enjoyment" of your apartment. For example, your landlord refuses to intervene when neighbors constantly disturb you.

However, you can't always expect your landlord to agree with you, and there's no guarantee a judge will take your side, either. So, if your lease-breaking falls into this category, keep good records of what you believe has justified your actions, just in case you need to fight a penalty in court.

Highest Chances of a Penalty

Most of the time, tenants who want to break their lease find themselves in this category. They have what they believe is a valid reason for breaking their lease (such as a marriage or a job transfer), but it's just not one that the law recognizes as an excuse for avoiding a penalty.

Fortunately, there's hope to avoid a penalty even in this situation. Most states require landlords to "mitigate damages" by making reasonable attempts to re-rent your apartment once you give notice. So, consider doing the following:

  • Give as much notice as possible
  • Offer to help by looking for a replacement tenant yourself

Most of the time, if you've been a good tenant and the landlord believes she can re-rent your apartment, you should be OK. However, if your landlord has trouble finding a tenant to take over immediately, or if your landlord loses any rent during the remainder of your lease term, you may be responsible for paying the difference.

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