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How to break a lease

renters thinking about breaking a lease

When you signed your lease, you probably had every intention of staying in the rental for the full term. But sometimes life throws you a curveball and you’ve got to move before your lease is up.

When you sign a lease to rent a house or apartment, that means you need to abide by the lease terms. That includes paying the total rent for the entire period. For example, say you agreed to pay $1,500 per month for a 12-month lease. But you’re really agreeing to pay $18,000 to live in the rental unit for a year, and instead of paying all that up front, you agree to pay this sum in 12 equal installments of $1,500 per month.

Usually, there is a fee involved with breaking a lease, but if you play your cards right, you could get out of a lease without having to dish out unpaid rent.

5 Ways to Get Out of Your Lease

  • Talk to your landlord.

    If you want to break your lease early—no matter the reason—tell your landlord immediately. They may be amenable to it. Why? If you’re in a hot market, your landlord may be able to quickly find a new tenant willing to pay a higher rent.

  • Or maybe your lease ends during the winter, which isn’t a great time for a landlord to find a new tenant. If you offer to leave early—in the spring or summer, for example—he or she might let you out of your lease because it’s typically easier to find new renters during warmer months.

    Even if your landlord isn’t thrilled about you leaving early, telling them as soon as you know is still the best policy. “Give your landlord as much notice as possible prior to breaking your lease,” says Steven Seigel of The Luxury Team in Florida. “This gives the landlord time to find a new tenant to minimize any loss of income.”

  • Offer to find a replacement.

    Many landlords like to screen tenants by conducting background and credit checks, so you can’t expect to just stick anyone in your rental without your landlord’s approval. But it doesn’t hurt to let them know that you either have or would be willing to find another tenant to take over your lease. Your landlord can then conduct his or her normal screening procedure.

  • Here’s a useful tip from Ryan Hardy, a Chicago real estate agent: “Know your real estate laws. In some cities like Chicago, landlords are required by city ordinance to let you sublet with no penalty.” The caveat is that this ordinance doesn’t apply to single-family homes or properties with fewer than seven units. And the landlord can deny subtenants who don’t meet normal tenant screening standards.

    Note that whether you find a replacement tenant or your landlord does, as soon as the new person moves in, you’re off the hook for rent. Landlords can’t double dip by collecting rent from you and the new tenant simultaneously.

  • Consider a compromise.

    When it comes to charging fees, the ball is in your landlord’s court. “If you’re contractually bound to paying fees, then your landlord ultimately has the final say,” says Diane Elizabeth, a serial renter. “The best thing you can do is ask directly for the resolution that you want and work amicably with your landlord toward a win-win solution.”

    But how would you do that? It helps if you’ve cultivated a good relationship with your landlord from the beginning, by always paying your rent on time, notifying them as soon as possible when there’s a problem with the unit, taking care of the property, and keeping open lines of communication.

    You can then sweeten the deal for your landlord by offering to help out. Let your landlord know that you want to work with them, Elizabeth suggests. “Besides offering to help find a replacement tenant, stage the rental and be flexible and available for showings.”

    Jeff Roark, property manager and author of How to Find & Keep Great Tenants, says he’s let tenants out of their lease early a couple of times. “In both cases, we located a new, qualified tenant, made the first tenant responsible for cleaning and repairs, and then wrote a new lease for one year, versus having the new tenant take over the balance of the existing lease.”

  • 4. Play hardball.

    If your landlord won’t work with you or has tried and failed to find a suitable replacement tenant, you may be on the hook for the balance of the unpaid rent. If that’s the case, you might want to try playing hardball by making sure your landlord is complying to the letter with the landlord-tenant laws for your jurisdiction .

    “No matter what’s written on your lease, you’re legally protected by something called the warranty of habitability,” says real estate analyst Emile L’Eplattenier. “By law, your unit must be ‘habitable.’ In other words, free from infestations, have functioning heat and hot water, etc.” If your landlord hasn’t complied with your state or local laws, let them know—they may be willing to let you break your lease early.

  • Go back to your lease.

    When all else fails, read the directions, right? The same goes for renting property. Review your lease to see whether there’s an opt-out clause. “This allows you to leave by paying a small fee rather than being responsible for the rent until a new tenant comes along,” says Brentnie Daggett, a rental expert with Rentec Direct.