Lease agreements are legal contracts for both tenant and landlord. Tenants are usually obligated to pay rent throughout the term of a lease even if family problems or a new job force them to move. State laws sometimes give tenants the right to break a lease if a landlord does not maintain the rental home properly, if the tenant must move because of military service, or if the tenant is a victim of domestic violence.
Landlords and tenants can mutually agree to end a lease, although it is important that both parties put this agreement in writing. Leaving without an agreement leaves the tenant vulnerable to a lawsuit. If the landlord does file a lawsuit against the tenant, and wins, the judgment will appear on the tenant's credit report and seriously damage the tenant's credit score.
Most state landlord-tenant laws include a habitability clause that requires landlords to provide tenants with a safe and sanitary home. Standards vary, but typically rental properties must meet local building codes, provide adequate heat and reasonable amounts of hot water. If the landlord doesn't make necessary repairs in a timely manner, some states allow tenants to break the lease. Tenants should be aware, however, that not all states allow tenants to take this action. A tenant should talk to a lawyer or tenant union representative before moving out to avoid a possible lawsuit.
Some leases include a termination clause that allows a tenant to terminate a lease early. Termination clauses vary and may require the tenant to pay a termination fee or to give a specific amount of notice before move-out.
Federal, state and local laws sometimes give certain classes of tenants the right to break a lease. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act gives a member of the military the right to terminate her lease if she is deployed or transferred. Some states allow victims of domestic violence to break a lease after providing the landlord with notice and proof of the domestic violence.
Some lease agreements give tenants the permission to find a subletter who will move into the rental unit and take over rent payments for the rest of the lease. The landlord may reserve the right to approve any subletters, so tenants should understand the landlord's requirements before advertising for a new renter.
New Tenant Search
State laws often require landlords to make a good faith effort to find replacement tenants, although the current tenant may be required to contribute to the costs of advertising the unit. This means that while a landlord can require that a tenant pay rent until the lease term is up, the landlord is also obligated to advertise for a new tenant. Once the landlord finds a new tenant, the previous tenant is no longer obligated to pay rent.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: SCRA QuickSeries® Booklet
- Nolo: Sample Agreement Regarding Cancellation of Lease
- Nolo: Breaking a Lease and Leaving Early
- Nolo: Terminating a Lease or Rental Agreement FAQ
- MSN: Breaking a Long-Term Lease
- Nolo: Legal Protections for Tenants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence
- BankRate: How to Break a Lease and Stay Creditworthy
Lainie Petersen writes about business, real estate and personal finance, drawing on 25 years experience in publishing and education. Petersen's work appears in Money Crashers, Selling to the Masses, and in Walmart News Now, a blog for Walmart suppliers. She holds a master's degree in library science from Dominican University.