How to Break a Lease

aptsherpa · Nov 7, 2005

Your apartment at “Buena Vista Village” looks out on a junkyard, is infested with roaches, your next-door neighbors are running a meth lab, your upstairs neighbor is a professional tap-dancer, your carpeting still smells like the urine of the previous tenant’s cats (which she definitely wasn’t allowed to have), your car has been broken into three times in the past month, and there are bullet holes in one wall of the complex that haven’t been covered up in the whole time you’ve been there.

With a living situation like that, you really want to break your lease now, and you now wonder why you ever signed it in the first place. Or maybe your apartment isn’t all that bad, but you recently got transferred to a different state for your job, and you’ve got to get out of Dodge right away in order to keep up your obligations with your company. Whatever your reason, you want to break your lease—even though you may have only a vague idea of what the terms of the lease actually were. In order to get out of your lease in the least painful way possible, you’ll probably need to do a lot of research and documentation and even more persuading. This article will help you with both.

First and foremost, you need to get some legal advice tailored to your individual situation and lease contract. If you don’t have or can’t afford your own lawyer, get in touch with your local legal aid office and contact tenants’ rights organizations. Attorneys can be expensive, but being sued by your landlord for breaking your lease could be much more costly. If you don’t want to pay the rest of the rent that you’ve committed to shell out by signing the lease, you’d better get some sound advice so you don’t end up paying more than you had to in assorted late fees or other conditions stated in obscure parts of your lease. Tenants’ rights organizations are experienced in representing tenants who want to break their lease, and they’ve likely seen almost every situation imaginable—as well as a good number of pretty unimaginable situations.

The legal aid you acquire may tell you there’s not much to be done. You entered into a legal agreement of your own accord, after all, and you knew—or should have taken pains to investigate—the physical condition of the apartment and grounds and the nature of the available amenities before signing the lease. For this reason, claims about noise problems or facilities shortcomings are generally unlikely to work well unless you can thoroughly document the existence and severity of the problems, your attempts to have them resolved, and your landlord’s failure to do so. The vague complaint of “too much noise” is probably useless; you knew (or should have known) the noise level of the apartment complex when you moved in. For example, why move in to a rowdy complex that caters to hard-partying college students if you start work at 5 in the morning? Your landlord is only responsible for providing basic amenities and ensuring your “reasonable enjoyment” of your rental unit. The definition of reasonable varies wildly from person to person, and even if your demands seem reasonable to you, they might not seem so to your landlord—or to a judge in court.

1. Find an easy out

Once you line up some legal resources, investigate the terms your lease to see if there’s any clause that provides you with an opportunity to break lease early. Perhaps you can get out by giving two months’ notice or by finding someone else to rent the place in your stead. These are viable options that you should carefully consider. If your lease itself doesn’t point to any easy outs, the best approach is probably to find something wrong with the apartment that’s impeding your own personal well-being and hasn’t been fixed by your landlord despite repeated and well-documented requests. You’ll need significant documentation of such an issue, of course, so don’t just claim the chipped paint is chipping away at your psyche and head out the door. You might feel saner in another apartment, but you’ll still be paying rent for your old one. Requirements vary by state, but in many situations you’ll need to prove that you repeatedly notified the owner of the apartment (not necessarily the management—be sure you know who to get in touch with) via certified mail with return receipt requested and provided ample time for him or her to fix the situation cited. For this reason, repair issues may not be the best way to get out of your lease fast—you may just end up successfully getting the repairs done instead of successfully getting out of your apartment.

2. Find something wrong

Likewise, if particular amenities were promised to you upon move-in but have never surfaced (or do not work), their absence is only a factor if you can document your landlord’s claims to provide. Your landlord is legally obligated to provide only what’s in the lease; unless the lease promised specific amenities, you’re not likely to get far by complaining about the absence of such features. Landlords are allowed to change their minds; tenants, sadly, are not (not about keeping the lease, at least). Even if you were promised a swimming pool by next summer and they haven’t cleared the ground for one by mid-June, the lack of the pool is only significant if you can prove its presence was guaranteed in a legally binding way. Don’t expect casual conversations to hold up in court—focus instead on obtaining and understanding written agreements from the beginning, rather than after the fact.

Turn on the waterworks—because yours have been turned off

Living without water or heat is a tear-jerking situation for sure. If your apartment complex has been so negligent (perhaps in part due to your sketchy neighbors failing to pay their bills) that the utilities are shut off, you’re home free. Once the lease is broken by one party—the landlord, by failure to provide utilities—it’s breakable by the other party. (Likewise, if you fail to pay rent, the landlord’s obligations to provide safe housing and utilities and respond to your complaints are also out the window—so know what you’re doing when trying to break your lease.) As always, it’s advisable to consult with your legal aid and landlord in this situation so everyone knows that you’re leaving and why.

Beyond finding something wrong with your apartment, you do have other options for breaking lease:

3. Don some fatigues

The easiest way to break lease is may be by signing up for a stint in the military, as landlords are legally required to let you out of your contract early if you’re going into the service. Be aware, though, that you’ll still need to notify your landlord of the situation in advance and possibly pay a month or two of rent before you’re in the clear. If you’re not yet ready to shoulder a rifle, don’t fret; there are still other options to explore.

4. Pay out the nose

While not a desirable way to break your lease, you can probably get out of it by just paying the months of rent left according to your contract. If you’re getting out only a month or two early and aren’t too short on funds (perhaps you’re moving due to a promotion accompanied by a sweet salary increase), your easiest option might just be to suck it up and pay rent even if you’re not living in the apartment anymore. Many rental agreements will force the tenant to pay at least two months’ rent (or give at least two months’ notice) before breaking lease anyway, so if you’re that close to the end of your contract there may not be a significantly better (or cheaper) option. Don’t vacate the apartment without giving notice, though; honesty is always the best policy and keeping your landlord informed is important. If your landlord knows you’re ducking out early, he or she may be able to show the apartment to potential tenants earlier and possibly find new renters for you—potentially saving you a month of rent. Communicating your plans to your landlord is also crucial to avoid being accused of breaking your lease—something it might seem you’ve done if you’re leaving. If you don’t tell your landlord you plan to continue paying rent despite your absence, how will he or she know you haven’t just broken your contract? Avoid messy misunderstandings by being clear about your plans and needs.

5. Stay just a little bit longer

Likewise, if your contract has a clause allowing you to break lease with two months’ notice, toughing it out for a bit longer may not be a terrible option. Even if the conditions in your apartment are pretty awful, you can use the time to investigate your new place to make sure it’ll be better than the current one, or to gather up a group of tenants interested in taking legal action against the poorly managed apartment complex. However, waiting out your lease may be…

6. Living on the edge

…in more ways than one. Some lease contracts may have “automatic renewal” clauses that require tenants to give notice before moving out—even if their planned move-out date is the date the lease “ends.” This type of lease is assumed to be renewed—in turn renewing your responsibility for paying rent—at the “end” of the lease term unless the tenant gives notice by the time specified in the lease. Tricky situations like these are why it’s important to read and understand legal documents thoroughly before signing. You should also beware of any “ break-lease” documents. If your landlord happily agrees to you breaking your lease but asks you to sign a “break-lease” document, be careful. Read the document thoroughly and consult with an attorney. This document may confirm that you’re breaking your lease, but it will likely also require you to pay out the balance of your lease agreement—not necessarily a successful resolution from your point of view.

7. Sweet-talk a friend, or a dependable stranger

Subletting your apartment is a viable option, if you can find someone trustworthy to do so. Subletting is generally legal unless specifically prohibited in your apartment contract, but it’s probably a good idea to notify your landlord of your subletting plans regardless. Don’t try to stealthily sublet unless you’re sure you’ll succeed. Your landlord is unlikely to appreciate the duty of housing a new, unknown (and unapproved) tenant on his or her property. The main issue with subletting is that your name remains on the lease and you are still responsible for paying rent and for any damages that occur in the apartment—so it’s not really “breaking” lease per se, more like finding a cheap way to skedaddle. If you can create a subletting agreement with an upstanding member of society that you think will actually come through and pay you, great. Your subletter pays you, you pay the landlord; everyone’s happy. Be careful, though—because you’re still responsible for the condition of the apartment at the end of your lease term, you’ll need to cautiously consider your choice of subletters. You probably don’t want to pick your friend’s cousin’s brother’s buddy Thrash as a subletter, no matter what a nice guy he seems to be on your first meeting.

We’re seeing that getting out of your lease can be rough. The main lesson to take away from this article is that you should consider provisions for getting out before you get in. Investigate the apartment thoroughly, ask questions, and above all get it in writing. Your promised swimming pool is just a pipe dream unless you have a signed agreement proving your landlord agreed to provide you with chlorinated bliss. Know your apartment and your lease agreement before you sign, and things will work out better for everyone involved.

Disclaimer: This does not constitute legal advice. Specific rules may vary in different state and local jurisdictions. For definitive answers, please consult an attorney or your local tenants’ council.

You might also like:

On ApartmentRatings, real renters have the ability to rate and review their apartment communities based on their experience touring and or living in the communities. ApartmentRatings offers renters the ability to see what life is like at a community through a report card grade style format called epIQ. Every month we highlight apartment communities whose […]

Jessica Lee

 · Apr 3, 2024


Moving into a new apartment or rental property can be both exciting and stressful. From packing up your belongings to coordinating logistics, there’s a lot to manage. However, one aspect that is often overlooked is what to expect on move-in day regarding the condition of your new unit. Surprisingly, according to recent surveys, a significant […]

Jessica Lee

 · Mar 12, 2024


On ApartmentRatings, real renters have the ability to rate and review their apartment communities based on their experience touring and or living in the communities. ApartmentRatings offers renters the ability to see what life is like at a community through a report card grade style format called epIQ. Every month we highlight apartment communities whose […]

Jessica Lee

 · Feb 28, 2024