Breaking a lease is a minor inconvenience in the best case scenario and a drawn-out process in the worst-case scenario. There are several strategies you can use to break your lease with the smallest possible loss, while retaining a positive relationship with your landlord. After all, you’ll want to have them on your side if you need a recommendation when securing a new lease on your next apartment rental.
Successfully breaking a lease is all about creating a win-win opportunity between you and your landlord. There are many ways to get to an agreement that both sides are happy with, and some situations require more creativity than others.
What to consider when breaking a lease
You might be thinking that there’s no way to get out of your lease without paying hefty fees or an early termination fee. But with some upfront work, you may be able to avoid some of the costs. It all starts with getting a clear picture of your obstacles and options.
Your obstacles: What’s between you and breaking your lease early? Do you suddenly need to move for job-related reasons? Is the landlord failing to make the rental unit a safe place to reside?
Your options: What types of strategies are available to you? What scenario is the best case for your landlord?
With that understanding in mind, you can present your situation to your landlord. There’s a chance your landlord will be understanding and willing to work with you. Let’s take a closer look at the process involved in breaking a lease.
Read through your lease terms
Understanding the terms of your rent or lease agreement, especially those that refer to breaking your lease, is the key to designing your strategy. Your lease may have very clear instructions on how to break it, including proper notice requirements, fees, and other consequences.
Make note of anything that your lease requires you to do. It’s also a good idea to review your lease with an attorney or tenant’s rights advocate. Both will have information on how to make the stipulations of your lease work for your situation.
Talk to your landlord before breaking your lease
It’s always a good idea to communicate with your landlord as early as possible. You want your landlord’s input on how you can make this a win-win situation. You wouldn’t want to find a subletter without speaking with your landlord first, for example. In this scenario, your landlord might want to increase rent with a subletter and a price change could scare off your potential replacement. Or your landlord might already have someone in mind to take over the lease, saving you a lot of work.
When speaking with your landlord, explain your situation while letting them know that you’re willing to make all reasonable efforts to ensure they’re happy. Take the time to understand and address their concerns. If they’re confident that you care about their interests, you can be confident that you’ll be on the right path to ending your lease amicably.
Understand the potential consequences
Your lease is a legal agreement. That means that the consequences of breaking a lease are legally binding. You can face financial burdens, like the loss of your security deposit, or face larger burdens, like having to pay for the entire lease term.
Be sure to show your landlord that you’re taking the situation seriously. Approaching the problem with knowledge and professionalism can go a long way.
Help find a new tenant
The reason most landlords or property managers place hurdles in your lease is to dissuade you from breaking it. They don’t want to deal with the hassle of finding and signing a new tenant. It’s expensive to run due diligence on a tenant. Plus, they lose income for any days the unit is vacant.
Use this to your advantage. Offer to find them a suitable tenant— someone with adequate income, savings, and reputation— to move in. Bonus points if they also have plans to stay for a long time. If you find them a great tenant, they may not ask you to pay extra fees to break your lease.
If your landlord agrees to let you find a subtenant, you can find potential tenants by reaching out to your network, including coworkers, classmates, friends, relatives, or neighbors. If your landlord approves, share your listing through social media and public forums to widen your network.
Take some well-lit photos and videos of your apartment to add to your listing to make things easier. Be upfront about cost, income requirements, credit report requirements, and any other factor that may affect their ability to take over your apartment.
Do your best to find a few candidates for your landlord. Allowing your landlord to choose between a few prospective tenants may help keep a positive relationship with them.
Consider subletting if possible
In the best-case scenario, a new tenant would get a brand new lease - often called re-renting. But your landlord may want you to take a little more responsibility in finding your replacement. In that case, they may allow you to sublet the rental.
Subletting is when another tenant takes over your remaining rent payments, but the lease remains in your name. That means you’re likely responsible for unpaid rent and damages of the subletting tenant. The benefit of a sublet is that it creates a buffer, or an additional safety net, between the new tenant and the landlord.
While it may not sound ideal, it may be the only situation your landlord agrees to. If you’re nearing the end of the lease or rental agreement anyway, this option may not be as big of a deal. Just be sure that you’re working with your landlord and agree on the terms of the tenant subletting the space.
Get everything in writing when breaking your lease
Not only is this a crucial step, but getting things in writing protects you now and in the future. First, it ensures you have a record of everything, which means you can move forward with confidence that you’re working toward a solution. Second, it prevents your landlord from being able to go back on their word when you’re breaking your lease.
Take this example into consideration. You discuss your options with your landlord over the phone. Your landlord says that they just want a tenant who makes three times the rent in income. You go out and find someone with the right income and hand them off to your landlord. Your landlord claims that they now want to lease the apartment for $100 more than what you were paying and the person you were recommending falls shy of that income requirement. Now you’re back to square one.
You might be able to mitigate this issue by following up your phone conversation with an email that gives a recap of the discussion while asking the landlord to verify that the recap is correct. This also gives your landlord the opportunity to share anything important they may have missed, like a rent increase or additional expectations from a subletter.
Legal reasons to break a lease
There are some cases where you can legally break a lease. But, just because you have some legal protections doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your landlord and make it a positive win-win situation. Being communicative, helpful, and professional can go a long way in even the stickiest situations.
1. You’re active duty in the military
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects active duty military members, which gives them the ability to break their lease early in the event they receive a change of station orders. To qualify, they must relocate for a period of 90 days or longer, and they should give at least 30 days notice. Your landlord has the right to ask you to show your official orders, so be prepared to show them.
2. You’re a victim of domestic violence
If you have been the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault in the last three to six months, depending on your state laws, you might have the right to break your lease early. You still have to provide written notice at least 30 days in advance. Be prepared that your landlord may ask to see a police report or restraining order, depending on local laws.
3. Your original lease was illegal
What legally constitutes as an apartment differs from state to state. But if your apartment is considered illegal where you live, you can probably break a lease more easily.
Sometimes this may also include a lease that violates your rights, such as your right to privacy, or certain demands that made you waive your rights, like a non-refundable security deposit or requiring you to make repairs to the property. Each state has different stipulations for what can and cannot be included in a lease, so you may want to consult with a lawyer who is familiar with real estate laws.
4. The landlord has not sufficiently maintained the property
Things can get tricky with this one, so proceed with caution. There are some things that landlords are legally required to do to keep your home habitable. For example, provide you with running water (even hot water in some places). Be sure to document any and all maintenance problems.
If your apartment has become dangerous and your landlord fails to make your unit livable, you have a right to file a complaint and maybe break the lease. Speak with an attorney before you approach your landlord. It’s also a good idea to reach out to your local tenant’s advocacy group(s). Either can help you understand your rights, safety codes, termination clauses, and other important pieces of information.
5. The landlord has broken the terms of the lease
This is another scenario where you’ll want to have documentation of what has occurred in your living situation. If your landlord violates the terms of your lease, do your best to get proof. You should also speak with an attorney and local tenant’s rights advocacy group(s).
What are the penalties for breaking a lease?
People break leases every day - and many times things work out just fine. But when it comes to breaking any kind of contract, including a lease, there may be penalties or consequences. While some landlords or property managers may be difficult to work with, most will care much less about the hassle when they’re provided with a solution that works for both parties. Here are some typical penalties you might expect to see:
Additional fees for breaking a lease, often referred to as early termination fees, could be a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. The fees may cover the costs of finding a replacement tenant, plus any days the apartment is vacant. Your rental agreement likely outlines any early termination fees, so review your apartment lease carefully.
Some landlords don’t want to deal with small claims court. Others are happy to battle things out before a judge. If your landlord threatens to sue, you should know that it may be easier to lose a couple of months' rent. If the condition of your apartment is what’s at issue, consider moving in with a family member or close friend while you make your final rent payments.
Don’t skip your payments and risk an eviction, as it can have worse consequences than breaking a lease agreement. At the very least, follow up with your landlord about any ways you can avoid a lawsuit and end your lease early.
Lower credit score
If you are sued and the court rules against you, that judgment may end up in your credit report. That can drive your score down for years to come, making it more challenging to rent in the future in addition to limiting your access to credit and financial products.
Difficulties renting in the future
A court ruling or an eviction notice can make it significantly harder to find a rentable space. But even without legal action, breaking an apartment lease early the wrong way can deprive you of a good reference. If you live or are moving to an area with a competitive renters market, that can mean facing a lot of rejections when pitted against people who have a glowing reputation.
Final thoughts on breaking a lease early
Breaking a lease early may come with a lot of consequences, such as losing your security deposit, or difficulties renting in the future. However, you may have a legal reason to break your lease early. Even if you don't, you can speak with your landlord or property manager to make the best of your situation and mitigate penalties and costs.
Redfin does not provide legal, tax, or financial advice. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice from a licensed attorney, tax professional, or financial advisor.