When you moved into your apartment, you probably had plans to stay a while. After all, that's why you signed a 12-month lease and bought that new couch, right? Heck, you even got a cool welcome mat for the front door.
But life moves fast. Maybe you got a new job in a great city, or are moving in with your best friend — or back with your parents. Whatever the reason, now you have a problem: Your lease commits you to stay and you want to go.
While rules vary by state and you should be sure to check local laws where you live, here's what you need to know before you cut and run:
Understand your lease
If you need to move, the first thing to do is check your lease agreement to find out if you're still under contract to stay. As long as your lease term is in effect — one-year contracts are standard — you're generally obligated to continue paying rent for the entire term.
If your lease runs out, and you haven't signed a new lease, or if you have no lease at all, you're considered a month-to-month tenant. You still can't just up and leave on the last day.
Talk to your landlord
Before packing up your boxes, talk to your landlord to find out if they are okay with you leaving early. You may be pleasantly surprised by their answer.
They may have a waiting list for the apartment or want to make some renovations and be happy to have you go before the lease period is up. They may also be willing to let you leave early if you have been paying below market, and your moving out enables them to charge more to the next tenant.
If you are able to find a new renter to take your place, the landlord may also be more willing to let you off the hook early. However, in some states, like New York, the landlord could "opt out" of filling the apartment with a new tenant and keep your deposit if you leave early, even if you found a perfectly qualified replacement. So be sure to check your state laws on this point.
If you do work out an agreement with your landlord, be sure to get it in writing.
Why you are leaving matters
If talking to your landlord doesn't work, it's time to weigh your legal options. While you can't just ditch your apartment, there are some situations where breaking a lease is justified.
Specific rules for when you can break a lease vary somewhat by state. In general, if your landlord has refused to maintain the apartment, if the landlord isn't following the lease or if other tenants are endangering you, you have a right to get out of there.
So if your creepy neighbor is committing crimes or your electricity doesn't work, pack your bags. Be aware though that a landlord may still try to impose penalties or take you to court. You'll be forced to prove to a judge that you had justification for leaving.
Document everything wrong and your attempts to solve the situation so you can prove your departure was justified. Check for a local tenant rights' organization to help, in case your landlord tries to penalize you for leaving.
Understanding the consequences
If your reasons for leaving don't give you legal justification for breaking your lease, there could be consequences for leaving early.
"If a tenant breaks a lease, the landlord can mitigate their damages [avoid their own financial loss] by continuing to charge the tenant rent until they’re able to re-rent the unit," according to the Tenants Union.
It's not just rent, either. Specific rules again vary by state, but extra costs can usually be tacked on to what you owe. "If a landlord has to re-rent the unit at a lower amount than what is stated in the lease, the tenant can be charged the difference for the remainder of the lease period. The landlord can also charge for actual advertising costs," the Tenants Union explains.
Your landlord may keep your security deposit to pay for financial damages and could sue you if the security deposit doesn't cover everything. Breaking a lease can also hurt your credit. "If you’ve broken a lease and were sued by your landlord, it will appear on your credit reports," according to Credit.com.
If you can't stay for the entire lease, you may be able to get a subletter to take your place. Before you go this route, however, you need to know two things: First, whether subletting allowed in your lease, and second, if the subletter doesn't pay the rent or damages the apartment, you're the one who's liable.
If you decide to sublet, be sure to collect a security deposit to cover the cost of any damage they might cause. You should also have a written sublet agreement in the unlikely event you need to take them to court one day.
"As the lease signer, you will inevitably be responsible for the full rent, regardless of what the subtenant pays. If the subtenant breaks the contract, you will be responsible for anteing up the remaining rent to your landlord, so be sure to have some money stowed away just in case," according to US News & World Report. So be extra careful who you give the keys to.
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