How to get out of a lease in Virginia

How to get out of a lease in Virginia
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Many tenants who are looking to get out of their lease agreement are caught in a bind. Maybe they're moving in with their partner, or they've lost their job and need to rent somewhere more affordable. Whatever the reason, breaking a lease without permission can get expensive very quickly. However, there may be some things you can do to get out of the lease early and minimize the financial pain.

Signing a Lease in VA – Tenant Responsibilities

When you sign a lease, you usually do so for a fixed period of, say, one year. This period is called the lease term. Under a typical lease, the landlord cannot raise the rent during the lease term and he cannot force you to move out unless you fail to pay the rent or violate one of the other major clauses in the lease agreement.

In return, you agree to pay the rent and comply with the lease conditions for the entire lease term, regardless of whether you live in the property. In other words, you are on the hook for the rent until the lease term comes to an end. Even if you move out after a couple of months, or your financial circumstances change, you still have to honor the lease agreement.

Leaving Early Means Breaking a Lease in VA

Leaving before the end of the lease term without paying the rest of the rent is called breaking the lease. Fundamentally, this is a breach of contract. The landlord can take you to court and claim for all the rent you should have paid for the rest of the lease term, as well as other losses such as court costs and the cost of fixing up any damage you caused to the rental unit.

However, there are some important exceptions. In some cases, you may be able to move out of the premises early, before the lease term ends, and not have to comply with the blanket obligation to pay rent for the entire lease term.

Early Termination Clause

If you're lucky, the lease agreement will have an early termination clause that allows you to break the lease before the end of the term. Often a termination clause will specify a list of hardship situations that allow you to break the lease, such as a job loss, job relocation, divorce or family health crisis.

Early termination rights are notoriously tricky to exercise, and you have to follow the termination procedures to the letter. If you miss something, then your termination may not be valid and the lease will carry on as usual. For example, are there conditions that need to be satisfied before you can end the lease? If the lease lets you terminate for a job relocation out of state, for example, and your job is relocating to the other side of the same state, then you wouldn't be in compliance with the lease requirements.

Usually, you will have to serve some type of termination notice to the landlord. The lease will specify how many days' or weeks' notice should be served (for instance, 30 days' notice) and how you must serve it (for instance, by mail or personal delivery). Check these provisions carefully as you must strictly comply with the requirements. If everything goes to plan, the lease will terminate at the end of the notice period.

Starting Active Military Duty

Anyone who starts active military service has the right to break their lease under federal law. All you have to do is tell the landlord in writing that you're terminating the tenancy for military reasons. The lease automatically will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due.

For example, if you pay rent on the first day of every month and you serve notice on Feb. 15, the lease will come to an end on March 30, even if there are several months left to run on the lease.

Victim of Domestic Violence

Virginia landlord and tenant law allows early termination of the lease for victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse or criminal assault, provided that certain conditions are met. Generally, you'll need to obtain an order of protection from the court or show that the perpetrator has been convicted of the crime. You'll also need to give written notice of termination to the landlord. The lease will come to an end 30 days later, or on whatever later date you specify in the notice.

The Property Violates Safety Codes

Virginia landlords are legally required to provide habitable housing that meets all state and local health and safety codes. If your housing is uninhabitable, for example, the sewage is backing up or the building is a fire hazard, then the courts may decide that you have been "constructively evicted." In other words, by providing uninhabitable housing, the landlord has for all intents and purposes evicted you (va. code ann. § § 54-248.25, 54-248.25.1, 54-248-27).

You can't just serve a notice to terminate the lease or walk out of the property, however. Rather, you'll need to file a claim in the district court where the rental unit is located, asking the judge to terminate the lease agreement because the property is unsafe. Before you do that, you need to write to the landlord, informing him of the safety violation and giving him a reasonable time to fix the problem. In Virginia, a period up to 30 days is considered a reasonable period for the landlord to fix any issues.

If a Landlord Harasses You

Virginia has strict laws protecting your right to privacy as a tenant. Your landlord can only enter the rental unit for permitted purposes, such as inspecting the unit or carrying out repairs, and he must give you at least 24 hours' notice before he does so.

If your landlord repeatedly enters the rental unit, or harasses you by changing the locks or disconnecting your utilities, you generally can break the lease and move out. Again, this is not a self-help remedy. You should apply to a judge for an order authorizing the lease to be terminated early.

If You Don't Have Legal Justification

If you try to break the lease in any other situation, the bad news is, the termination will not be legally justified. That means you're responsible for paying the rent for the months that remain on the lease, even if you decide to move out. If you don't pay up, the landlord can sue you and you'll end up with a money judgment on your credit report. This can make it hard to get another rental, or a loan, in the future. The landlord will also seize your security deposit, most likely in its entirety.

That said, even if your lease-breaking is not covered by Virginia landlord and tenant laws, there may be some other things you can do to minimize the financial impact of quitting the property early.

Landlord's Duty to Mitigate Damages

In Virginia, the landlord must make reasonable efforts to rent the property after you've moved out. He cannot sit idle and wait for your lease to run out while continuing to collect rent from you. This is known as "mitigating damages."

Suppose, for example, that you sign a 12-month lease, which runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019. Only you get sick and decide to move in with your parents. You vacate the rental unit on April 30. Assuming you tell the landlord what's happening, he now must make reasonable efforts to re-rent your unit instead of charging you the remaining eight months worth of rent. If the landlord re-rents the apartment on June 1, he can only charge you for period the apartment was vacant, which is exactly one month's rent.

Bear in mind that the landlord doesn't have to pull out all the stops to re-rent the unit, for instance by relaxing his credit requirements. But he does have to advertise and show the place. As the tenant, it's up to you monitor your landlord's efforts to re-rent the property you've vacated. If you don't think the landlord is making reasonable efforts to find a new tenant – or doubt he's making any effort at all – then you should write to the landlord advising him of his duty to mitigate. You can show this letter to the court if the landlord tries to charge you for the rest of the rent.

Minimizing Financial Responsibility When Breaking a Lease

If all else fails, try the following solutions for minimizing your financial liability when breaking a lease:

Transfer or sublease the unit

Many residential leases expressly forbid transferring the lease to a new tenant or subleasing the property, but if yours does not, start advertising for prospective renters in the area. Find a match through or place an ad on Craigslist.

If a transfer or sublease is prohibited, talk to your landlord. Remember, the landlord has a duty to re-rent the unit after you've moved out. Finding a potential new tenant does most of the landlord's job for him, and the landlord may be happy to give the potential new tenant a lease if his financials check out.

Negotiate a shorter-term lease

Life happens, and if you know something's coming up on the horizon (like a job switch) that could impact your ability to stay in this unit, talk to the landlord. Many landlords are willing to negotiate something that will help you out. The alternative is skipping out of the unit and the landlord chasing you for the unpaid rent. This is a lot more hassle than you might think, and most landlords are keen to avoid it.

If you know you're going to need to leave the unit in six months' time, for example, ask the landlord for a shorter lease. Or you might ask for a month-to-month lease where either you or the landlord can end the tenancy with a simple 30-day notice to quit. You may have to offer something in return like a higher rent, but it could be worth it to get the flexibility you need.

Appeal to the landlord's softer side

Landlords are generally not money-grabbing ogres who care about nothing other than squeezing every last cent out of you. If you are suffering genuine hardship, then yours may be willing to cut you a break. Can you agree on an early move out in return for, say, the landlord keeping your security deposit? Could you work out a payment plan where you pay off the rent in installments over the next 12 to 18 months?

Ultimately, your landlord would probably prefer some kind of payment arrangement to a tenant who skips town – and he'll be much more likely to write you a positive reference the next time you're looking for a rental home.