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The Renter's Guide to How to Get out of a Lease

September 5th, 2013 - 10:17 AM

How to Break Up With Your Landlord

When an unforeseen circumstance (like moving long-distance for a job transfer) comes your way and you need to end your lease early, it’s important to handle it the right way to avoid undesirable repercussions. A lease is a legal, binding contract, and that means you’re required to pay rent until the agreement is up. But, don’t start worrying just yet. In some cases you can get out of your lease with no – or very little – penalty. You’ll just need to follow the right course of action before packing up and moving out.


Getting out of an apartment lease.

Paper shredding by Munir Hamdan, CC BY 4.0

What Does the Law in Your State Say About Getting Out of a Lease?

The actions you need to take to get out of your lease (if you’re able to) depend on the Landlord-Tenant Laws in your state – and they vary state to state. That means your first step is research. The easiest place start is with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website. Just click on your state, then the “Get Rental Help” link, and from there the “Local tenant rights, laws and protections” link.

When you begin reading through these documents, the legalese may be overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. If that’s the case, it’s wise to contact an attorney, tenants’ union, or legal aid office in your area to make sure you fully understand your rights and responsibilities as a tenant. If you need help getting legal aid, you can check with the government’s Legal Services Corporation.

How to Get Out of a Lease Without Being Penalized

As I mentioned earlier, when you signed your lease, it became a legal, binding contract between you and your landlord. Check your lease to see if there’s an early termination clause. If there’s no easy out, breaking the lease puts both you and your landlord in a tough spot. However, in some cases, you can break your lease without penalty, but those are rare. Here are some special cases, depending on your state’s law, where you may be able to get of a lease without penalty.

  • If your apartment becomes uninhabitable and your landlord refuses to repair the problems. In California, a tenant can abandon (move out of) a defective rental unit if certain requirements are met. If this is your situation, be prepared to have proof of your living conditions, attempts notify your landlord, and the actions the landlord took or did not take regarding the matter.
  • If you’re in the military and have been called to active duty. Check the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act [section 535] for more detail, or click here to find a military legal office near you if you have questions.
  • If you become seriously ill or injured. In New Jersey, you can end your lease early if you or your spouse becomes disabled due to an illness or accident.

The consequences for breaking your lease could be serious. You could be sued, your credit score could be ruined, or you could find yourself in financial hardship. To protect yourself:

  • Review your lease to see if it has an early termination clause. This clause provides an “out” for renters if they encounter hardships like job loss, illness, divorce, or job transfer. The clause may ask you to give advance notice, pay a lease break fee, forfeit your deposit, sublease, or help find another renter.
  • Look over your lease to see if there are any loopholes you can use to break your lease. You may want to contact an attorney to review your lease if you cannot find any loopholes yourself.
  • Talk to your landlord and be honest about your situation. If your landlord is understanding, then you may be able to work out a deal that allows you to break your lease early without being sued or damaging your credit score. Just remember to get any agreement in writing and give plenty of notice. 
  • Review the law in your state one more time. In many states, the landlord has the responsibility to “mitigate damages,” meaning they have to take reasonable steps to find another tenant and lessen the amount still owed for the remaining months in the lease. Check with the law in your state to see if your landlord is required to mitigate damages.

Who Should I Contact About Getting Out of My Lease?

Getting out of your lease can be a complicated matter. If you have questions or concerns, your best strategy is to talk with an attorney, tenants’ rights organization, or legal aid office that is familiar with the laws in your state.

More Resources Related to How to Get Out of a Lease

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