Life is unpredictable. You sign a year’s lease on an apartment with every intention of honoring it and then the unexpected happens. Maybe you lose your job and the new one you find is in another state. Or you fall in love and want to move in with your significant other. Sometimes the perfectly normal friend you decided to live with turns into a crazy, mean roommate overnight and you need to get out.
Whatever the reason, there’s the moment you realize you need to break your lease, followed by the days or weeks of hassle as you try to get out of it in a way that will keep both you and your landlord happy. Read on to find everything you need (except a replacement tenant) to get out of your lease early.
Read your lease first
Did you read the entirety of your lease before signing it? If you’re the kind of renter I was, you probably just made sure the rent figure was correct and the landlord’s promise that cats were okay turned up in writing. Even if you did read it all the way through, that was months ago and you may not remember anymore. So go back and see if the lease includes any language about leaving early or subletting.
For example, the lease for my rental property states that subletting is not allowed without “prior written consent” from the landlord. Also, “if tenant terminates the lease earlier than 60 days before the expiration of the lease and termination is not amenable to both parties, the security deposit may be forfeited.”
Did you notice that these terms are flexible? Subletting may be allowed if the landlord approves it. The security deposit will only be used as compensation if a better deal can’t be worked out. If your lease contains similarly open-ended language, consider yourself in a good position to negotiate.
Another possibility is that there’s no mention of subletting or breaking the lease at all, in which case you still have a good chance of working out a solution with your landlord that makes sense for you both. The worst-case scenario is that your lease specifies exactly what will happen if you try to break it and it’s not good. For example, you may have to pay the rest of the rent you owe under the lease period. But even in this situation it doesn’t hurt to ask if something else can be worked out.
Check local laws
In addition to the lease, your city and state have their own guidelines on the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. For example, your landlord may be required by law to make a reasonable effort to re-rent the apartment (known as the “duty to mitigate damages”) but you may be expected to cover the cost of advertising. Also, most states don’t consider your landlord entitled to your security deposit just because you left early.
There are also legal reasons for breaking a lease including an uninhabitable property, domestic violence, bankruptcy, and other situations. Check local laws to see if your reason for leaving is legally justified.
Who do you rent from?
In my experience, individual landlords are usually the most flexible, though that doesn’t mean they’ll make it easy for you. When I was in college and trying to get out of a lease in order to move to a better neighborhood, I had to show the house for my landlord until the lease expired or it was rented. A new tenant didn’t appear overnight, so even after I’d moved out I had to find time in between classes and a part-time job to ride my bike back to my old neighborhood and assume the role of rental agent.
To make things harder for me, the landlord did most of his advertising to college students whose universities were nowhere near the house. Those who did schedule showings would say that the house was too far away and then ask for advice on finding a place in the more centrally located neighborhood I’d moved to.
After moving out in June, I dutifully showed the house through the summer until the lease expired in September. I didn’t get my security deposit back, but I also didn’t have to pay rent on the months I wasn’t living there. So in this instance breaking the lease was inconvenient but not financially ruinous.
Years later my husband and I were about six months into a year’s lease when we bought a house. We told our landlord and he agreed to let us go without any obligation beyond giving up our security deposit.
Think about your relationship with your landlord
Have you been an excellent tenant, always paying on time and taking good care of the place? Has your landlord been less than awesome, perhaps ignoring some of your requests for repairs? Both of these facts could be used as leverage to negotiate a favorable lease termination. Even if you were an imperfect tenant, your landlord may make it easy for you to leave so he can find a better renter.
A property management company may be less flexible and more immune to the pathos of your personal situation. Talk to them anyway, but if you have to pay up to get out, it’s in your best interest to do so. A management company may also be more likely than an individual landlord to report your delinquency to the credit bureaus, affecting your credit score and future ability to rent an apartment.
Think about the desirability of your apartment
The state of the rental market where you live will also affect your landlord’s willingness (or not) to let you go. If you’re in a market like New York City where demand is higher than supply, your landlord will have an easy time finding a new tenant and can raise the rent as well. In a slower market, your landlord will be more likely to require you to keep paying rent until your replacement is found.
Soften the blow by offering to help them find a new tenant
When you talk to your landlord, you may want to offer to help before she even asks you to. If it’s something you can do and won’t cost you much or any money, why not offer to help with advertising and showing the place or giving the walls a fresh coat of paint? Doing so could make your landlord feel less stressed about your imminent departure and more willing to strike a deal.
Some landlords are wealthy, but others are just trying to get by in the hopes that their investment property will pay off down the line as retirement income. If your landlord is in the second category, it may be a hardship for him to let you leave before he’s found another tenant.
Get it in writing
Whatever the two of you agree on, make sure you get it in writing. And ask your landlord to do a final walk-through with you (or take pictures if she won’t) so you’re both on the same page about what, if any, damages you’ll be expected to pay for.
Even if you’ve agreed to forfeit your security deposit, you shouldn’t assume that will be enough. Talk to your landlord and make sure you both understand what the expectations are on both sides.
Our editor, Lauren, learned this first hand in her most recent move. Her landlord let her out of her lease—provided a new tenant could be found—but then didn’t tell her that she expected Lauren to move out of the apartment a week earlier than Lauren had planned—i.e the end of the month. Since there was no way for Lauren to get out by her requested date, she had to pay an extra week of rent, to allow them time to get the place ready for the new tenant. Lauren had made a reasonable assumption, but in these circumstances, the landlords usually have the upper hand. It’s important to understand what expectations are on both sides.
Taking these precautions will eliminate nasty surprises later on such as a lowered credit score, calls from debt collectors, or an even more unpleasant moving experience.
Breaking your lease is always stressful, but with enough preparation and flexibility, it doesn’t have to be traumatic. Most landlords just want their rental properties to be occupied with rent-paying tenants, and understand that life sometimes throw a wrench into your best laid plans.