What you need to know before you break your lease
Breaking a lease agreement to move out of a space you’re paying for is a common concern. While you cannot always break a lease without financial consequences, you can take certain steps to mitigate the difficulties it can cause.
When you can break a lease
You can technically break a lease at any time. However, potential consequences under your lease or under the law depend on how you handle the situation.
Consequences can include owing rent for part or all of the remaining lease term or not getting a good reference from the landlord. Expect to lose at least one month’s rent when breaking a lease, even under the best conditions.
When you can break a lease without long-term consequences
Legal protections exist for tenants breaking a lease agreement under certain conditions. If you become an active duty member of the military, you can break a lease with written notice under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law valid in all states.
Depending on state and local law, and applicable waiting periods, you can break a lease if the landlord fails to fix serious issues, like a broken fridge, a leaky ceiling, or infestations you didn’t cause. For example, New Hampshire allows tenants to break a lease for bedbug infestation under some circumstances.
Personal safety issues can also be a way to get out of a lease. In Washington State, for example, if you are threatened or assaulted with a weapon by another tenant or the landlord, and the person responsible is arrested as a result, you may break the lease without financial consequences immediately upon submitting written notice
What to do when one roommate wants to move
If a roommate wants to move, contact your landlord. Moving early is technically breaking the lease and can be grounds for eviction, even if remaining roommates can pay the full rent. In practice, however, landlords will often amend the lease to reflect the change or allow you to find a replacement.
If the roommate moves out without making arrangements for a replacement, you and other roommates have the option of suing your former roommate in small claims court for any rent owed until someone new moves in or the lease ends. Consult a lawyer if you are thinking of suing.
What do if you want to kick out a roommate
You have little recourse against roommates who are on the lease and refuse to leave. Exceptions include if they are violent or harassing—in which case you could get a restraining order—or if they have violated the lease and the landlord is willing to work with you to evict them.
A roommate who isn’t on the lease may have fewer legal protections. But if the landlord knew about the roommate and essentially consented by failing to act against that roommate, it could be argued that a verbal lease agreement is in place.
In a situation where you are the only person on the lease and the roommate is a subletter, you may be able to start eviction proceedings if they have refused to abide by a written sublease agreement.
Landlord’s responsibilities if you break your lease
In some states, landlords are required to mitigate the financial burden on tenants who break a lease by searching for new tenants. If your landlord finds a suitable tenant, you’re only liable for rent between when you moved out and when the new lease begins. Otherwise, you’re liable for the rest of the lease term’s rent.
This law, also called "duty to re-rent," does not exist everywhere. For example, the state of Georgia has no duty to re-rent. If the landlord chooses not to get a new tenant, you must pay rent until the end of the lease.
What to do when breaking a lease
Upon deciding to break your lease, send a hard-copy letter by certified mail to your landlord. (Certified mail gives you proof of mailing and proof the landlord received it. Make a copy of the letter too.)
Your letter should include your reasons for breaking the lease, when you are moving out, and future contact information for you, if known at this time. Be proactive and helpful, and let the landlord know if you are willing to help find a new tenant.
Get everything in writing from the landlord during move-out, especially information about the condition in which you left the unit. Inform the landlord of your new address for future correspondence related to the lease.
Find information about your state’s laws
It’s important to get advice specific to your state and local situation when considering whether to break a lease. Consult a local tenant-rights group or go to a lawyer with experience in landlord-tenant law.