Signing a lease is a big commitment. While you might have every intention of staying in one location for the next year or two, you never know what might come up.
Sometimes an amazing job opportunity takes you across the country unexpectedly, or you have to head back to your hometown to take care of an ailing relative. Or, maybe you’ll feel a calling to quit the rat race and move to Bali.
Whatever your reason is, the day might come when you have get out of your lease before the term is up — and that can have serious financial repercussions.
A lease is a legal contract, so be sure to consult a lawyer or legal aid office to find out your rights in your specific situation and location, as well as potential negative impacts on your credit.
While the tips below are not legal advice, they offer some ways to work with your landlord and hopefully find a mutually agreeable solution to get out of your lease early without spending a ton of money.
Before You Sign a Lease: Know What You’re Signing
Before you sign any lease, make sure you read it carefully and understand all the terms and conditions. Ask questions and find out exactly what you’re committing to before you sign anything.
Find out what the penalty for breaking your lease is, and if you’re allowed to sublet (including the procedures, fees, approval process, etc.).
You may even be able to negotiate more favorable terms, especially if you’re dealing with a private party. Corporations and property management companies often refuse to budge on their boilerplate contracts, but private parties can be open to more negotiation.
Once You Know You Have to Break Your Lease
Once you make the decision to break your lease, try to make the process go as smoothly as possible.
While it’s never ideal, most reasonable landlords know that things come up and sometimes people have to leave early. Take these steps to hopefully increase your chances of finding a mutually beneficial outcome.
Read Your Contract Thoroughly
Once you realize you’re going to have to go, the first thing you need to do is carefully read through your lease.
Refresh your memory about all the fine print that you carefully read when you originally signed the lease. Look for clauses that outline the terms and procedures for leaving early.
Communicate and Be Honest
If a great job opportunity or a family tragedy causes your plans change to change with little notice, be honest and upfront about what’s going on.
Property rental companies and landlords understand that life happens, but they’re also in the business of running their business. Tell them what’s going on as soon as you can; the more notice you can provide, the better.
Do everything possible to not break your landlord’s income stream. If they’re reasonable, they’ll be a lot less likely to charge you extra fees if you help them seamlessly find a new tenant to replace you.
Re-renting a place is a lot of work and most landlords will not be pleased to hear they need to do it sooner than planned. Anything you can do to make life easier for your landlord is a step in the right direction.
If you have a friend who might like to take over your lease, be sure to mention it. If you don’t mind taking some photos and putting the apartment up on Craigslist, why not ask if that would be helpful? If you’re happy to show the property to prospective tenants, offer to do so.
By offering solutions and working with your landlord to solve the empty apartment problem, you’ll have a better chance of helping with a smooth transition.
Find a New Tenant or Sublet
Many states require you and your landlord to both search for a new tenant if you need to break your lease early. This is often called “mitigating damages” and refers to reducing the financial loss that either you or your landlord would face from an empty apartment.
Be sure to check with a lawyer or legal aid office to know your rights in your state and the steps you need to take to do your part.
Know Your Legal Rights
While your lease is a contract and you owe your landlord the sum of it even if you pay monthly rent, your landlord can’t simply sit around after you leave in most states; they must try and re-rent the place and do their part to “mitigate damages.”
Typically, your landlord must only take reasonable steps to re-rent it, which doesn’t mean re-renting it must be their top priority. If you’re in a market with a lot of available properties, it might take a while before someone can move in. While the landlord must take steps to rent the home, they aren’t required to make this their top priority or accept the first person who is interested.
When You May Be Able to Break a Lease for Free
Regardless of the conditions of your lease, it may be possible to break your lease without penalty in a few special circumstances.
Nothing is guaranteed, but if your apartment is unlivable, you receive a military order to move or are called to active duty, or you have a serious medical issue, you may be able to get out of your lease.
To see if these rules apply to you, consult a renters’ rights group or call your legal aid office or lawyer to explain your situation and ask about special exemptions.
If It Gets Ugly
While ideally you’ll come to a solution that works well for everyone, it doesn’t always happen.
To protect yourself, get everything in writing. Keep a log of all communications (including verbal ones), save all your emails and keep all the paperwork and any notices you may receive.
Know that you may be legally liable for the full amount of your lease or a substantial portion of that amount plus other fees, such as the costs to advertise it. However, many landlords will be happy to work with you to mitigate damages and hopefully you won’t end up in court.
For more information on your rights, select your state from this list put together by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under each state, the site lists resources to help you obtain more information on your rights and how to obtain low-cost assistance.
Your Turn: Have you ever had to break a lease early? If you’re a landlord, what would make life easiest for you if a tenant needed to leave early?
Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.