How can I break my apartment lease without a penalty?
Breaking my apartment lease wasn’t the worst financial decision I ever made, but it was one of the scariest. Legally speaking, I didn’t have a compelling reason to break my lease. I was voluntarily leaving my current job and relocating to a new city to be closer to my then-partner without a formal offer of employment.
Nothing prevented me from staying another couple of months to see out my lease. My landlord would have been within his rights to seek full payment of rent due through the end of the lease term.
Fortunately for me, he chose not to. The total out-of-pocket cost of my broken lease added up to about a month’s rent. I moved out mid-month without a prorated return of rent paid and agreed to forfeit a portion of my security deposit equal to half a month’s rent.
Potential Consequences of a Broken Apartment Lease
I’m lucky the process went as smoothly as it did. Things could have turned out far worse. And they do for countless other tenants who break leases, whether out of necessity, such as due to financial hardship, or by choice.
The potential consequences of a broken apartment lease include a civil lawsuit by the property owner to recover outstanding rent, harassment by debt collectors, long-term credit damage, and difficulty finding new housing.
But under certain circumstances, it’s possible to avoid some or all these outcomes, even when the property owner isn’t willing to come to an informal agreement. For example, if you break a lease and it affects your credit, you can sign up for Experian Boost — a free service that factors recurring noncredit bills (like electricity and cable) into your Experian credit report, potentially lessening the impact of a other negatives.
You could face multiple consequences after breaking your lease agreement. And they’re not mutually exclusive, meaning you could experience several simultaneously.
1. The Property Owner May Sue You
When your justification for breaking your lease is not protected by state laws or regulations governing tenant-property owner relationships, the property owner may sue you for unpaid rent. It’s more likely to happen if:
- You move out early in your tenancy when the outstanding rent balance far exceeds the potential court costs of a suit.
- The owner knows your whereabouts.
- The owner learns you have the resources to pay the rent due if ordered.
- The rental unit has been vacant for some time, and efforts to re-lease it have been unsuccessful.
If the property owner has experience dealing with bad tenants, they won’t hesitate to take you to court if it’s worth their while.
You can mount a defense even if applicable law doesn’t cover your lease-breaking decision. For instance, in many states, property owners must demonstrate good-faith efforts to re-lease units vacated early. They can’t simply leave a unit empty until the lease expires and sue the lease-breaking tenant for back rent.
But if you lack a credible defense for breaking your lease, the judge is almost certain to rule in the property owner’s favor. If you’ve already left town, it may not be worth the time and expense to return and appear in person. Many lease-breaking tenants don’t.
2. You May Face a Money Judgment
If a court rules you’re legally obligated to pay the balance of your rent due, you’ll face a money judgment, also known as a credit judgment. You may be able to avoid long-term credit damage by:
- Working out a mutually agreeable payment plan in court, which you can’t do unless you show up to defend your case
- Paying the judgment in full on the spot if you can
Judgments and tax liens no longer appear on consumer credit reports compiled by the three major credit reporting bureaus, a welcome consequence of the National Consumer Assistance Plan. As such, they may not directly damage your credit score.
However, they remain legally binding. A money judgment in the property owner’s favor may allow them to garnish your wages, subject to income limits (usually 25% of disposable income) and possibly your bank account. If you live in a community property state, your spouse’s assets may be subject to garnishment as well.
3. You May Have to Deal With Debt Collectors
If the property owner decides not to bother with the time and expense of pursuing a court judgment to recoup outstanding rent, they may hire a collection agency to recover the debt on their behalf.
Though federal law limits the lengths to which they can go to collect on debts, collection agencies are invariably more aggressive than original lienholders. If one takes your case, you’ll know it. Moreover, the collection agency that assumes your lease-breaking debt may choose to do what the property owner didn’t: seek a money judgment in court.
Debt collection is something you want to avoid at all costs. It will severely impact your credit score. If you’re afraid the property owner might hire a collection agency, sign up for credit monitoring from TransUnion. You can also use Credit Karma to check your credit score for free each month.
4. You May Lose Your Security Deposit
Breaking your lease is one of many reasons you could lose your security deposit. Even when the owner decides not to take you to court, they may seize your deposit, usually in its entirety.
Most states limit security deposits to one or two months’ rent. A few, including Ohio and New York, have no state-level statutory limits on security deposits for non-rent-controlled units. In those states, municipalities may impose lower security deposit limits.
5. You May Have Difficulty Finding New Housing
Although money judgments for unpaid rent no longer appear on credit reports, the debts themselves endure, and the property owner isn’t likely to forget you broke your lease. That could come back to bite you when you’re looking for housing.
Even if your rental or mortgage application omits the address where you broke your lease, a routine background check and property search will unearth it and the property owner’s identity. That you omitted the problem address is a red flag in and of itself. Now imagine how the conversation between the owner you stiffed and the owner or mortgage lender of your potential future home will go.
The jilted property owner may also report the broken lease to tenant reporting bureaus, such as the Landlord Protection Agency. Tenants may have little or no recourse to remove derogatory and potentially inaccurate information from these lightly regulated resources.
6. You May Experience Ongoing Financial Hardship
When funds are tight and savings is light, any excess housing-related levy may be enough to upend your budget. Finding yourself on the hook for multiple months’ unpaid rent after a property owner secures a money judgment could prove catastrophic for your finances.
When Can You Break Your Lease With Minimal Penalty?
Under many circumstances, you are permitted to break your lease with minimal financial penalty — or none at all. But even if your lease-breaking decision is protected by state law, you may still forfeit part or all of your security deposit.
Laws governing property owner and tenant rights (often called “landlord-tenant laws”) vary by state, so check with your state attorney general’s office or consumer protection office for local guidance.
Free legal resources like Nolo and FindLaw have lots of information about rental housing laws. But they’re no substitute for official sources, which may cite a handful of common reasons to break your lease agreement.
1. You’re Called to Active-Duty Military Service
The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) allows active-duty uniformed service members to break housing leases without penalty provided you meet certain conditions. The protection applies to:
- Active-duty members of all regular armed forces branches, such as the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines
- Active-duty Coast Guard members serving in support of regular armed forces branches
- National Guard members and reservists called to active duty
To break a lease signed before entering active-duty status, provide the property owner with a copy of your military orders no fewer than 30 days before you intend to break your lease. Your active-duty status must last at least 90 consecutive days.
To break a lease signed after entering active-duty status, provide a copy of deployment or permanent change of station orders lasting at least 90 consecutive days. The 30-day notice period applies here as well.
In either case, the SCRA allows you 30 days to vacate the premises after your last monthly rent payment’s due date.
2. Your Unit Suffers Serious Damage (Beyond Your Control)
Many states allow renters to break leases without penalty when their units become uninhabitable due to circumstances beyond their control.
Definitions of “uninhabitable” and “circumstances beyond your control” vary by state, but common situations include natural disasters and criminal acts, such as arson, that gut or destroy the premises.
3. You’re a Victim of Domestic Violence
Many states allow domestic violence victims to break housing leases without penalty. Rules vary by state, but a current court-issued protective order is usually sufficient proof of victim status.
The minimum notice period is generally 30 days, but you should never remain in an unsafe situation to avoid financial consequences that may never come. If you feel you’re in danger, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).
4. You or a Co-Tenant Face a Health Crisis
If a serious physical or mental health issue renders you, a dependent living with you, or a co-tenant unable to live independently in your rented housing, you may qualify for early lease termination without obligation to pay the entire balance of rent due.
Where permitted, health-related lease-breaking arrangements may be age-restricted. For example, in Nevada, the minimum age is 60 years. Most states require a note from a locally licensed physician and at least 30 days’ notice. Permissible conditions vary but generally dovetail with conditions for which you may claim disability insurance benefits.
5. The Property Owner Isn’t Honoring Their Obligations to Maintain Habitable Housing
Many states have “constructive eviction” laws that allow tenants to move out without penalty when the owner fails to maintain safe, habitable housing.
To qualify as constructive eviction, the failure must be persistent and severe. Ignoring a request to replace a broken microwave probably won’t cut it. Ignoring repeated, urgent notifications the heat or running water is out likely will. Generally, the problem must be so severe you’re compelled to move out before your lease ends.
Even if the owner’s failure meets the constructive eviction standard, you must thoroughly document the problem, including when it began, how it developed, how it affects your use of the property, and all service requests. Enlisting a licensed building inspector to document the issue and verify the unit is unlivable can strengthen your case.
If you’ve been constructively evicted, be ready to appear in court if and when the property owner sues you for unpaid rent. Constructive eviction is a valid defense against outstanding rent claims, but judges don’t merely take tenants at their word, hence the need for documentation.
If you paid any rent after the problem became intolerable, you could sue the property owner to recover it. Look for pro bono tenants’ rights representation in your area. For example, in Minneapolis, the Volunteer Lawyers Network is an excellent resource for low-income renters and housing-insecure individuals.
6. The Property Owner Interferes or Permits Interference With Your Privacy
There’s a legal concept known as “breach of quiet enjoyment.” Property owners can’t unduly interfere with tenants’ rights to:
- Privacy. Rules vary by state, but owners must generally give 12 to 24 hours advance notice they intend to access the property in nonemergency situations, such as for showings or repairs.
- Safety. Property owners can’t directly or indirectly jeopardize tenant safety. For instance, they can’t knowingly allow illegal activity to occur on the premises or fail to repair a leaking gas line in clear violation of rental property safety codes.
- Exclusive Use. A tenant with exclusive use of a rented property has the sole right to occupy and use that property for the purpose stated in the lease, a binding contract. That means only tenants named on the lease may dwell on the premises. For example, a property owner can’t temporarily evict a tenant to make room for a visiting relative or list a second bedroom on Airbnb without the tenant’s permission.
If you believe the property owner has broken this covenant, you may be within your rights to move out without penalty. Again, documentation is your friend if and when a property owner takes you to small claims court.
7. Your Lease Has an Early Termination Clause
Tenant-friendly housing leases may have expansive early termination clauses that allow tenants to break leases for reasons not protected by state or local law.
But even where permitted, state law may require sufficient advance notice (known as proper notice). The proper notice period is often 30 to 60 days. Early termination clauses generally require tenants to provide adequate documentation they’re leaving for a permissible reason, such as an official job offer letter or divorce filing.
Early termination clauses may cover situations such as:
- Job Relocation. The early termination clause may cover forced relocation by your current employer or relocation to take a job with a new employer. A spouse or domestic partner’s relocation may be covered as well.
- Job Loss. If you experience financial hardship due to unexpected job loss, you may have reason to break your lease with minimal penalty. But unless you have a cheaper or free place lined up, you may first want to negotiate an alternative rental agreement.
- Divorce. Financial hardship or relocation caused by divorce may absolve you of your obligation to pay some or all the remaining rent due on a broken lease. But the mere fact of your divorce is unlikely to be sufficient. With each of your divorce attorneys present to offer legal advice, draft and sign a lease transfer agreement that assigns all tenant rights and obligations, including full payment of remaining rent due, to the spouse remaining in the unit.
- A Family Health Crisis. If you need to provide in-home care for a seriously ill family member or experience financial hardship related to their care, you may have recourse. But note the mere existence of a family member’s illness likely isn’t sufficient to break your lease agreement if you’re not financially responsible for their care.
In a renter’s market, you can attempt to negotiate a more comprehensive early termination clause before you sign your lease.
Mitigating the Financial Impact of a Broken Lease
Even if state renter protection laws don’t cover your lease-breaking decision, these strategies may blunt its financial impact.
1. Document Everything
First, if you believe your decision to break your lease is justified by state or local statute, document anything and everything that might support your claim. Keep records of:
- Important Dates and Times. Examples include the day you first noticed a habitability issue or the timing of a police call to the next-door unit.
- Service or Inspection Records. Track all events or expenses related to the issue, such as a furnace inspection that confirmed the need for replacement.
- Communication About the Issue With the Owner. Include emails, mailed letters, legal notices, phone call summaries or recordings (if permitted by law), and in-person conversation summaries.
Without adequate documentation, you’re far less likely to prevail in court if it comes to that.
2. Advise the Property Owner of Their Duty to Mitigate Damages
In most states, rental property owners must make reasonable efforts to re-rent units vacated before the lease expires. In legal parlance, it’s known as a “duty to mitigate damages.” Nolo has a comprehensive list of states where the duty to mitigate damages applies and where the law is less clear.
If you live in a duty-to-mitigate state, monitor the property owner’s efforts to re-rent the unit you’ve vacated by checking rental listing sites like Apartments.com, popular online classifieds sites like Craigslist, and public real estate databases like Zillow. If it appears they’re not making reasonable efforts, not making any effort at all, or they formally request unpaid rent shortly after you move out, send them a written notice of their duty to mitigate.
The notice should refer them to the applicable state statute and briefly describe its provisions, including its definition of “reasonable efforts” and how the steps they’ve taken or not taken to date fall short of that standard. Make clear in your letter that the property owner can’t expect to merely allow your lease term to expire, re-rent the place on a new long-term lease, and then take you to court for rent due.
I broke my lease in a duty-to-mitigate state, and it was immediately apparent the property owner understood his obligations under the law. Within days of giving notice, he was showing the place, and I’m pretty sure he had a new renter lined up before I officially left. In any case, the ease with which he re-rented the unit no doubt played into his leniency.
3. Find a Subtenant
Even when the property owner has a duty to re-rent the unit, it’s best to make your own reasonable efforts to assist that process.
One of the easiest ways to resolve a broken lease is to sublet the unit for the remainder of your lease term. Many housing leases expressly forbid subleasing, but if yours doesn’t, inform the property owner you intend to sublet. You can advertise the place on free or cheap resources frequented by prospective renters in your area, such as Craigslist, Nextdoor, or Roommates.com.
It’s essential you’re honest about your intentions to sublet. Understandably, property owners tend to be wary of subtenants, and at a minimum, they’ll subject yours to the same tenant vetting as anyone else. It’s also in your best interests since you remain responsible for the lease and rent due even after subletting.
The ideal subtenant is someone you have a preexisting relationship with and have no hesitation vouching for. I know tenants who’ve been burned by sketchy subtenants they had no prior association with.
4. Transfer Your Lease
If you’d prefer not to retain responsibility for your lease after moving out, you may be able to transfer it to a new tenant. Transferees assume legal responsibility for rent due after the transfer date, absolving the prior tenant, which allows you to walk away from your lease early with no lingering obligation beyond any legally permissible fees for damage or uncleanliness you caused.
Confirm your lease is transferable before spending the time and effort to seek new tenants. If your lease is transferable, the property owner can’t stop you from making this move, but you may still be bound by a required notice period, usually 30 to 60 days. If transfer isn’t explicitly permitted, you can ask permission, but the property owner may be within their rights to decline.
In either case, be forthright. Many property owners are wary of lease transfers for the same reasons they’re wary of subleasing arrangements. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of owners thwarting departing tenants’ efforts to transfer leases, even when the lease explicitly permits transfers.
5. Give as Much Notice as Possible
The longer your notice period, the lower the likelihood your unit will sit vacant after you depart. It never hurts to exceed your state’s required notice period if you can.
6. Switch to a Shorter-Term Lease
The lease I broke was a six-month lease, likely another factor in my landlord’s leniency. And my wife and I were fortunate to switch to a monthly lease shortly before purchasing our first home. At the end of our last month in that apartment, we were free and clear.
If you’re preparing to renew your lease and expect to move before the subsequent renewal date, ask the property owner if you can get a renewal term shorter than one year. Monthly is ideal, but many owners aren’t willing to take that risk. Three or six months is more common. Note that the property owner is under no obligation to agree to a shorter lease.
7. Appeal for Leniency
When all else fails, appeal to the property owner’s softer side. Most property owners aren’t cartoon villains who care about nothing other than maximizing their properties’ cash flow. In cases of genuine hardship, they may be willing to cut you a break.
Help the owner get to yes by going the extra mile before and during move-out. Clean the place thoroughly, offer to paint or make minor repairs that don’t require specialized labor, make a concerted effort to find replacement tenants — without usurping the property owner’s duty to mitigate — and sing their praises on online tenant forums.
If the property owner isn’t willing to outright forgive outstanding rent, the next best thing is to work out a mutually agreeable repayment plan without going to court. If you owe four months’ rent, perhaps the owner can accept installments over the following 12 or 18 months. Ultimately, the property owner would probably prefer full or even partial payment over time to a substantial write-off.
My decision to break my lease ended well enough. But not all rental property owners are like my former landlord. Some are faceless corporate entities with the means and desire to pursue lease-breaking renters for every penny they owe. Others are smaller, independent outfits or individuals who seem to delight in making tenants’ lives miserable.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know where the owner of your rental falls on the spectrum until you force their hand. That’s why it’s so important to keep detailed records and not to hesitate if or when the time comes to consult a real estate attorney.
That said, if your current housing situation threatens your safety, liberty, or privacy, you have every right to leave quickly and worry about exercising your legal rights later. Your life is more important than any temporary financial setback.