How to Break a Lease on an Apartment

Breaking a lease isn’t usually the ideal way to end a rental agreement, but sometimes you have no choice.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to soften the impact on both yourself and your landlord, easing the process for everyone.

Here’s how to break lease on an apartment.

Step 1: Read Your Lease Agreement

Reading your agreement is the first step in breaking a lease because it often defines how and when you’re able to do so. 

Remember that a lease agreement cannot overwrite local, state, or federal law, so anything contradicting those is functionally irrelevant.

Read the entire lease agreement, paying close attention to any use of the words “relet,” “sublet,” or “early release. These often refer to relevant topics, and they’ll help guide your reading.

Most lease agreements have sections on early release.

For example, they may require you to give a month or two of notice before you leave, insist that you help find a replacement, or impose certain fees.

Many will stipulate that you’ll lose your security deposit, which is functionally an extra fee.

Unless you meet certain circumstances, which we’ll discuss below, try to break your lease in line with what’s in your agreement.

That means you’re not breaking it, just ending it early, and that’s better for everyone involved.

What’s The Difference Between Breaking And Ending Early?

While some people use these terms interchangeably, breaking a lease is outright violating the contract, while ending early involves following the contract’s terms.

You might be legally obligated to continue paying your landlord if you try breaking the lease, and this is usually more expensive than any early termination clause.

This is why it’s better to terminate the contract early if you can.

Step 2: Talk To Your Landlord

Talk to your landlord as early as possible when you want to break your lease. More advance notice is always better. 

If possible, try to give them at least three months of notice before you intend to move out.

This isn’t always possible, but giving them more time to find a new tenant significantly eases their financial burden and raises the odds they’ll cooperate with you.

Be sure to explain the situation if you can.

For example, if you’re moving for work, landlords will typically understand that you’re not going to stay no matter what and won’t push you too hard.

Step 3: Help Find A New Renter

Many states legally require this. A new renter may start subletting from you or take over the lease entirely.

In most cases, this is known as “mitigating the damages” in your lease agreement.

Getting a new renter is one of the main concerns that landlords have when you plan to move out. If possible, try to have an interested renter lined up before you even talk to your landlord.

If they don’t expect to have any vacant days, or at least no more than necessary for moving, they’re far less likely to be worried about the whole thing.

Finding a new renter is important for you, too. You might be required to pay rent for any days the unit is open.

Landlords may be in no rush to re-rent the unit if they expect you’ll still be paying them for the open days, so finding a new renter can save you a lot of money.

Remember that landlords can reject anyone you propose.

Details like rental history, credit score, and available funds could stop them from lending out to the first person you bring, so vet everyone you’re considering to help ensure they’re the best possible candidate.

Step 4: Consider A Lease Termination Offer

Lease termination offers are usually written into contracts and serve as a good option if you can’t find another renter.

These end the contract entirely, so once you pay up, you’re good to go.

Typically, lease termination offers cost a few months of rent, plus your security deposit.

These fees may be lower if you’re close to the end of your lease, such as only having one month to go. 

Landlords can reduce how much they charge for this, so staying on their good side can save you a lot of money if you need to break things off this way.

If you’re dealing with an individual landlord who only rents one or two properties, they may rely on your lease as a significant part of their income.

Reducing the financial burden on them usually helps improve their willingness to cooperate.

Larger landlords like corporations may see your rent payments as a much smaller part of their income, but they’re also less flexible with most renters and can be harder to negotiate with.

It can be hard to save up several extra month’s worth of rent payments, so try to plan ahead if you need to go this route.

What If You Can’t Pay The Fees?

If you can’t pay a termination fee, chances are you’ll remain responsible for your rent payments regardless of whether you’re living in the apartment.

This is especially true if your landlord is making an effort to find a new renter, but you aren’t.

You may need to keep paying rent until your lease is up, which is usually the most expensive route and not viable for many people.

Even if your landlord finds someone, you may be responsible for the difference if the new tenant isn’t paying as much as you used to.

In short, this is essentially the worst-case scenario. Try to avoid it if at all possible.

Step 5: Check With Tenants’ Unions

Urban areas often have tenants’ unions, which are collectives that can provide help and information across all aspects of renting.

That includes disputes with landlords and aiming to break a lease outright.

Tenants’ unions can help provide information on relevant legislation and information and suggest options you may not have considered yet.

Many are familiar with local attorneys, too, which can be helpful if you have a dispute.

Unfortunately, tenants’ unions aren’t universal, so you can’t always rely on them.

This is especially true if you’re living in some suburban areas, especially if you’re renting in a rural region.

Step 6: Document Everything

Make sure to get as many of your discussions in writing as possible.

The best way to do this is communicating mainly through email, rather than calling your landlord or talking to them directly.

If you can’t talk over email, send them a written summary of your discussion, including any commitments either of you made, and ask them to confirm that it’s correct.

Alternatively, you may be able to record your conversations. This is legal without their permission in most areas, although a few states require consent from everyone involved.

Being on the record can also inhibit aggressive landlords from trying to break the law.

Step 7: Get Legal Advice

This isn’t always necessary, especially if your landlord is cooperative and understands your situation.

However, if you have an actual legal case, you might be able to get out of your lease without paying extra fees.

Qualified attorneys can help you determine whether you have a valid case, but six common situations usually let you break a lease early.

Reason 1: The Landlord Isn’t Maintaining The Property

Most areas require that landlords ensure you have a generally livable property.

This means:

  • Ensuring you have running water outside of minor exceptions (i.e., temporary shutoffs for repairs or installing new appliances)
  • Performing necessary repairs to the property
  • Following all safety and health codes
  • Keeping any common areas reasonably clean
  • Providing bins for trash disposal

You may have a case for terminating your lease early if the unit is not adequately maintained, and especially if it’s become an active hazard because of the landlord’s failure.

(Do not try to make it unlivable yourself; that will backfire on you)

If the unit is unsafe, the best option is to contact the local health department and file a complaint.

They’ll usually send someone out to verify the claim and, if it holds up, they’ll send a notice to the landlord requiring them to fix the problem.

You can also complain to the landlord directly. If they don’t fix a genuine health or safety issue in the allotted time, you usually have a case for breaking the lease.

Some states require you to wait a certain amount of time after giving notice that you intend to break the lease, but they’ll waive that if the violation is actively dangerous.

Reason 2: The Unit Is Illegal

Most landlords won’t want to admit they’re doing this, but illegal units can exist.

This can include properties that aren’t adequately registered with the state and some types of apartments in certain areas.

For example, there may be tight regulations on basement apartments that landlords must follow.

In most cases, you can break a lease without further penalty if you can demonstrate that the unit itself is illegal. Talk to a qualified attorney if you suspect this is the case in your area.

They can help you determine whether the unit is truly illegal, and if so, the threat of legal action is usually enough to get landlords to comply.

Reason 3: You Are Active-Duty Military

Active-duty military members benefit from the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a 1957 law that addresses topics like rental arrangements, insurance, civil judicial proceedings, and related matters.

Generally, this law is meant to be read in favor of servicemembers.

If you’re breaking a lease because you need to relocate for at least 90 days as part of your military service, you can simply do it without paying any further penalties.

However, you usually need to give at least 30 days of warning, which may overlap with sudden deployments.

That means you may still have some small fees but won’t be responsible for major payments.

Note that you’ll need some proof of your official orders.

Appropriate documents are usually available on request from an appropriate military facility and should typically specify your name and the expected duration of your deployment.

You do not need to show any parts of your orders that are classified.

Reason 4: The Landlord Is Entering Your Unit Illegally

Landlords may own the property they’re renting, but they can’t enter it whenever they want, for any reason.

Broadly, there are only three reasons a landlord can enter your apartment without permission: making repairs to the property, inspecting the property, and showing the property to potential tenants.

Landlords may need to give at least 24 hours of notice before entering the property, although this might be waived for particularly urgent repairs.

If landlords enter without adequate notice, harass you, or try to enter for any reason not legally allowed, you could have sufficient grounds to break your lease.

This isn’t as reliable as some other methods of breaking a lease, though.

Notably, local regulations may require that you get a court order demanding your landlord stop violating the property.

If they continue to do so, you can generally break the lease without further problems.

Reason 5: You Are A Victim Of Domestic Violence

Most tenants can break lease agreements after falling victim to domestic violence.

There are often deadlines on this, such as the incident occurring within the last six months, and you’ll probably have to provide 30 days of notice and written notice to the landlord.

In some cases, landlords will ask for proof of the incident. This can include things like police reports, orders of protection, and any other legal documents.

You’ll probably have to keep paying until the day you vacate, but if you’re leaving because of domestic violence, you likely won’t need to pay past that.

Reason 6: Other Circumstances

Some other circumstances can let you break a lease early. For example, serious illnesses or injuries that require extended hospital stays can let you break a lease quickly.

This is another area where a qualified attorney can help you determine whether you fit the local criteria for breaking a lease without penalty, so talk to one of those as soon as possible.

Other articles you may also like: