How to break a lease: Pros and cons of breaking your rental contract — and tenants’ legal rights

How to break a lease: Pros and cons of breaking your rental contract — and tenants’ legal rights
Apartment Lease
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com
Apartment Lease
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Are you thinking about breaking your lease because you’re ready to move to cheaper digs or a more creative city? Whatever your motivations, you need to be aware that breaking a lease can have some pretty serious consequences.

“There is no really safe way to break a lease,” David Conrad Beyer, a landlord/tenant lawyer at The Beyer Law Firm said in a phone interview. “According to the law, there are ways. However, most landlords simply ignore that and try to send people to collections anyway, hoping often correctly that the tenant will simply pay up.”

While state laws vary on the types of financial consequences you can face for breaking a lease, it will likely cost you money and possibly hurt your credit if you don’t do it the right way. Here are a few key things you should know about what can happen if you break a lease and how to avoid any undesirable consequences.

1. Breaking a lease can cost you big time

“If you break a lease without establishing legitimate reasons for termination, your landlord can sue you for the remainder of the lease rent,” Beyer said. In other words: You could be sued for the cost of the rent from the time you leave until the time that a new tenant moves in, or through the end of the lease’s term.

Most landlords try to re-rent to a new tenant, and the laws in some states require your landlord make these efforts. However, even in states where re-renting is required, landlords only have to take “reasonable” steps to re-rent, and don’t have to rent to unqualified applicants, as Nolo, a publisher of do-it-yourself legal information explained. And, if your landlord has to pay costs associated with re-renting, like advertising expenditures, you can be responsible for covering those expenses.

“The landlord can use your security deposit to cover some of these damages,” Beyer said. Breaking a lease will “screw you over badly, especially if you live in a very landlord-friendly area,” he noted.

And good luck trying to get your deposit back. Depending on state law, the landlord may need to send you an accounting of how your deposit was used if they keep your security deposit. This accounting could simply show your money went toward unpaid rent or fees associated with re-renting the unit, according to the Tenants Union.

2. Your credit score will take a hit

Your lease is a legally binding contract in which you agree to pay rent for the duration of the lease. If you fail to fulfill your end of the bargain, your landlord could hurt your credit.

Your landlord could report that you’re delinquent on rent to the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Breaking the lease could also trigger a lawsuit against you or could prompt the landlord to hire a collector to come after you for unpaid rent and other costs. Judgments against you and debt collection efforts could show up on your credit report and stay there for seven years, according to The Balance.

Your credit score could sink by as much as 50 points, according to Bankrate. And that, in turn, could affect your ability to do things like buy a house in the future. So it’s in your best interests to avoid the damage by making a deal that placates your landlord and doesn’t result in collections efforts or lawsuits against you.

3. Here’s when you can legally break your lease agreement

While you can’t just leave your apartment without facing problems, you could legally break a lease because of “constructive eviction,” which makes it possible for you to unilaterally break a lease without legal or financial consequences.

“Constructive eviction occurs when a landlord has taken actions or has failed to take action that essentially exclude the tenant from the residence,” Beyer said. “Really dangerous conditions do this.” If, for example, your heater is broken in the middle of winter, you can’t live in your house safely and you may need to leave. Your landlord may not have formally evicted you, but failure to fix the property has the same effect by forcing you to leave your home.

If the heat in your rental does not work, you may be able to break your lease without financial consequences.
Source: DutchScenery/Shutterstock.com

The problem is, your landlord could try to take you to court anyway and say you broke your lease, even if you leave because the property is unsafe. And there are often specific rules like giving your landlord a certain amount of time to fix the problem — that you have to follow to be justified in breaking your lease because of a safety issue or because of other bad behavior on the part of your landlord, like harassment.

4. Talking to your landlord could be the answer

If you know you have to break your lease, your best option may involve tackling the problem head-on.

“The first thing to do is talk to your landlord,” Beyer said. “Most landlords work with their tenants. They don’t like dealing with tenants breaking leases any more than the tenants do.”

If you talk to your landlord, you can often come up with an amicable resolution that makes everyone happy. Your landlord may have a waiting list for renters, for example, and may be happy to have the unit free.

Your lease may also allow you to sublet the lease or find someone to take it over, though this isn’t always the case. Find out what your particular lease allows for and what it would take to make your landlord happy with your departure so you don’t put your credit at risk or lose your deposit.

5. If there’s a problem, you have legal options

If you need to break a lease because the landlord won’t fix problems or is otherwise making it impossible to live in your apartment, you have options to make sure your landlord can’t sue you for breaking the lease and even to potentially obtain compensation. “If all else fails, seek a judicial determination of termination of your lease by filing a small claims suit,” Beyer suggested. This involves going to court and asking a judge to end your lease.

As the People’s Law Library of Maryland explains, “if a tenant vacates a property because of the severity of the conditions, the tenant may be able to sue the landlord for constructive eviction and have the court void the lease and give the tenant money damages.”

A judge can end your lease if you can prove that the apartment is unlivable. You may also get monetary damages.
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

“Speak to an attorney and seek legal counsel about what to do,” Beyer advised. This is important even if you’re already involved in a legal conflict with your landlord. “Often times, attorneys know each other and can communicate much easier to reach satisfactory conclusions.” Given the potential hit to your credit and the risk of owing thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, talking to a lawyer may be your best option if your landlord won’t cooperate.

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