Breaking a Lease or Ending a Rental Agreement Early

A lease or rental agreement is a binding legal contract that obligates the tenant to pay the rent and abide by the other terms of the agreement. How you end your tenancy depends on whether you have a lease or a rental agreement.

How to End a Month-to-Month Tenancy

To end a month-to-month rental agreement, you must simply provide the required amount of notice (typically 30 days); this is usually spelled out in the agreement itself. If you move out without providing the required amount of notice, you are still required to pay rent through the end of the required notice period. Follow the advice for ending a fixed-term lease, below, on limiting your losses when you don't provide required.

State laws usually require the landlord to provide the same amount of notice as tenants, although this may vary. Also, state laws typically have very detailed rules and procedures on how landlords may terminate a month-to-month tenancy. In most states, landlords do not have to give a reason to end a month-to-month tenancy, although in some states (such as New Hampshire and New Jersey) and in cities with rent control, landlords must have a valid reason (also known as just cause) to end a tenancy. You'll need to do a little legal research, checking your state landlord-tenant laws, to find the rules in your state.

How to End a Fixed-Term Lease

A lease typically lasts for a fixed period of time, such as one year. The landlord can not unilaterally end the tenancy unless you have violated the terms of the lease. As a general rule, you owe rent for the entire lease term, regardless of whether or not you've moved out. This penalty for early termination is typically spelled out in the lease. Leaving early without paying the remaining rent is called breaking the lease.

There may be times that you need to break a lease—for example, because you've lost your job and can't afford the rent; you've got a new job out of the area; you've bought a house; or you need a bigger (or smaller) place because of marriage or divorce. Depending on your situation (and state law) breaking the lease may be justified, or you may be able to work out an arrangement with your landlord.

Learn Key Terms in Lease Agreements.

When Tenants May Legally Break a Lease

Here are some situations when you may be able to move out before the lease term ends (and without liability for rent). The specifics vary from state to state, so check your laws carefully. Also, be sure you have documentation to back up your reason for breaking the lease (for example, copies of your correspondence with your landlord and photos regarding a safety problem in your apartment, if you are moving out for this reason). You will need these materials if the landlord ends up suing you in court for unpaid rent.

  • Your landlord has failed to maintain the premises, and your rental unit violates health or safety codes (is uninhabitable). Be sure you know state laws on what constitutes habitable or livable conditions and that you comply with the rules for notifying your landlord of repair or maintenance problems.
  • Your rental unit or is damaged or destroyed for reasons beyond your control (such as a tornado or other natural disaster).
  • The law in your state specifically allows tenants to leave before the lease ends in particular circumstances, such as a new job or health problem.
  • You've entered active military duty after signing a lease (this is federal law and it requires certain notice requirements).
  • Your landlord violates your privacy rights.

Learn more on Understanding Residential Leases.

How to Minimize the Costs of Breaking a Lease

There are steps you can take to minimize the amount of rent you owe the landlord for leaving before the lease ends. The most effective step is to give your landlord as much notice as possible of your intent to vacate the premises early. Make sure to give the notice in the exact manner outlined in your lease. If you're lucky, your landlord may be willing to let you out of the lease without paying additional rent.

But even if the landlord doesn't agree with your request, you may be off the hook for rent due through the end of the lease term if the landlord signs a new lease with a new tenant quickly. This is because most states require landlords to keep losses to a minimum by trying to rerent the property reasonably quickly. In legal jargon, this is known as the landlord's duty to "mitigate damages." Once the landlord finds a new tenant, you will only be responsible for his loss of rental income during the time period the property is vacant.

If you are not sure of your rights and obligations under your lease or rental agreement and you must terminate early, you should seek advice from an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in your state if you cannot work out a reasonable solution with your landlord.

Learn more on How to Handle Disputes with Your Landlord.

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