When you sign a rental lease, you are entering into a legal contract with your landlord.
In this contract, you agree to pay an already set rent each month for a defined length of time, and the landlord guarantees you the right of entry for that time.
If you move out before the lease is up, your landlord has every right to take action to protect his interests.
And you can bet that these actions won’t be in your bests interests.
What Happens in the Normal Course of a Lease?
If you are leasing or renting an apartment, your landlord will most likely send you a notice one or two months beforehand.
At that time you can go in one of two directions.
You can renew your lease before the current one ends, or you can look for a new apartment to move into if you haven’t already done that.
In the latter case, you must vacate the premises by or before the date the lease ends.
But what if, forever reason, you want to move before the end of the lease.
Are you stuck with paying the remaining rent, or can you get out of the lease in an honorable way that is agreeable to both you and the landlord?
It all depends on the landlord and the lease That’s why it’s critical that you read it carefully before signing.
It’s also important to determine whether the legal document you signed prior to moving in was a lease or a rental agreement.
It will make a big difference in what will happen if you move out prematurely.
Leases versus Rental Agreements
Before I get into what happens when you break a lease, let me quickly explain the difference between a lease and a rental agreement
A lease defines the obligations of both the tenant and the landlord.
It clearly states a set length of time during which both parties are bound to honor the stipulations contained in it.
This is generally between one and three years.
By signing the lease, the tenant agrees to pay the stated amount of rent by the first of each month, or during a grace period, the landlord may set.
In return, the landlord agrees to grant him possession of the apartment as well as an outdoor space that comes with it.
Most leases also lay out who is responsible for paying utility bills — the landlord or the tenant.
In addition, it may outline what activities will be frowned upon i.e. noise after 10 PM or keeping a pet.
As long as the tenant pays his rent on time and follows all the rules, he is guaranteed the right of entry as long as the lease is in effect.
The landlord, in turn, agrees not to raise the rent or change any other terms of the lease as long as it is in effect.
Neither can he ask the tenant to move or otherwise force him out as long as the tenant is a good tenant, i.e, he pays the rent on time and honors all other stipulations of the lease.
Rental agreements are similar to leases in many ways.
Like a lease, a rental agreement is a legal document that states the obligations of landlord and tenant and the consequences of not keeping them.
The biggest difference is the length of time the contract is in effect.
Unlike leases which are generally long term lasting from one to three years, rental agreements bind landlord and tenant for shorter periods of time, often as little as a month.
For this reason, many people refer to rental agreements as “month-to-month” rentals.
Under rental agreements, both the landlord the tenant are free to alter the initial terms before the start of the next month.
This means the tenant is free to move at any time as long as he lets the landlord know the previous month.
It also allows the landlord to raise the rent any given month as long as he gives written notice
Breaking a Lease vs Breaking a Rental Agreement
The consequence of leaving an apartment anytime before a lease expires is known as breaking the lease.
And doing so does not release the tenant from the obligation of paying the rent.
What this means is that if you decide to move out, you are still liable under law for the remainder of the rent you would have had to pay the landlord had you stayed until the lease’s end.
In the case of a rental agreement which is actually is a month-to-month lease, both parties are only under obligation to follow the terms of the agreement one month at a time.
Therefore, as long as you pay the current month’s rent and let the landlord know within 30 days, that you will be moving you are not breaking the agreement.
The upshot is that if you foresee any possible circumstances that may require you to move in a year or so, you are better off with a rental agreement.
However, if instead, you signed a lease and now find you must move out before it is up, your best move is to pursue every possible option to end the lease.
But as you do, cross your fingers and hope for the best, but at the same time steel yourself for the worst.
The Consequences of Breaking a Lease
As you should suspect, the landlord will use your security deposit to cover some of the money you owe in rent.
But if many months remain in your lease, it will only eat up a small portion.
In such cases, your landlord almost certainly cases, you can expect the landlord to take action to recoup the rest of the rent you owe him.
Can your Landlord Sue You for Breaking the Lease?
In most states, the answer is yes.
Furthermore, if he wins the case, the judge may very well order you to not only pay him the remaining rent but also to reimburse him for court costs, lawyer fees, late fees, and in some cases interest on the owed rent you owe him.
However, if you have valid reasons for having to move, do not hesitate to make them known since they may prove to be justification for your breaking the lease.
Can You Break a Lease Without Consequences?
Depending on the state where you rented the apartment you may be forgiven your lease obligations if you can prove that certain circumstances give you no option but to move.
These include cases where
- You are fleeing domestic violence.
- You are at least 62 years old and a physician certifies that you are no longer capable of caring for yourself and so must either move in with family or relocate to an assisted living facility or a nursing home.
- The landlord has “breached the warrant of livability”. In layman’s terms this means if due to no fault of yours, the apartment has become unfit or unhealthy to live in, and the landlord has failed to remedy the situation. This may include failure to provide heat over a long period of time; leaks that go unrepaired, resulting in the growth of mold and mildew; rat or roach infestations due to no fault of yours
- The landlord has harassed you by repeatedly entering your apartment without prior notice
In this last example, if the landlord has taken such liberties as removing windows or locks, or having your utilities turned off, he has “constructively evicted you.”
In plain English, this means you may be justified if you break your lease.
In any of the above cases, you should consult a lawyer to make sure the state where you live considers them legal reasons to move.
However, there is one right to move that is covered by Federal Law, and it applies to you if after signing the lease you enter active military duty.
If none of these applies to you and your landlord takes you to court, it doesn’t mean he should be sitting back and just awaiting judgment.
He is obligated in certain states, to migrate his risk of losing the money. In other words, he has to make a conscientious effort to find a replacement tenant as soon as possible.
And if he does, he must use the rent to mitigate his loss of the rent you owe him
Steps You Can Take to Mitigate Your Risk of Being Sued for Breaking Your Lease
If you foresee that you will have to move before your lease is up, there are steps you can take toward mitigating your risk of being taken to court.
- Send your landlord a letter at least 60 days in advance letting him know that circumstances dictate that you must vacate the apartment before the lease expires. In most rental markets. This should be a reasonable amount of time for him to rent your apartment.
- Send it by registered mail or by any other carrier that provides proof of receipt. You may need it as evidence of your responsible intention.
- Agree to make the apartment available for showing to possible tenants and make sure it is in broom-swept orderly condition.
- Offer to make any needed repairs or even repaint in order to improve his chances of re-renting as soon as possible.
- Help the landlord find a new tenant by spreading the word among your creditworthy acquaintances and if any show interest, let him know.
You might try being upfront with your landlord if the circumstances are beyond your control such as:
- You are getting a divorce,
- Your job requires you to move
- You’ve been accepted to graduate school
Impress upon him that you have no choice but to move, and see if you can arrive at a friendly agreement.
If your finances allow, you can offer to pay an early termination fee in exchange for his letting you out of the lease early.
You might also offer to pay for any advertising he does to find a new tenant
Should you succeed in persuading your landlord to let you our of the lease you may have to sign an early termination agreement.
If you do, make sure you move by the specified date, leave the apartment in turnkey condition, and return all your keys.
Staying on his good side will increase your chances of using him as a reference,
Mitigate Your Future Risks
Do yourself a favor.
If your occupation or other life circumstances make it difficult to guarantee you’ll be living in any area for a predictable period of time, protect yourself by limiting your future apartment searches to landlords offering month-to-month rental agreements.
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