How to Break a Lease Early – and Gracefully

I’ve been moving around a lot in the past 18 months, and we’re not talking minor jaunts across town. I’ve gone from Los Angeles, to Madison, Wis., to New York City, to San Francisco, and back to New York. I’ve become quite good at shedding unnecessary possessions (shipping is expensive!) — and ducking out of apartment leases.

Whether you’re excited to move and start a new chapter in your life — maybe you took a new job or bought your first home — or you’re responding to a sudden crisis such as an ailing family member or a job loss, moving out isn’t always something you can time perfectly to coincide with the end of your apartment lease.

That’s why most apartment leases require a one-year contract. If everyone could move out at the drop of a hat, landlords would have a much harder time keeping their properties rented out with any consistency.

Thankfully, there are ways to break a lease without breaking the law or knowing any secret tricks. In my experience, the keys to leaving your lease early are being determined, being personable, and being gracious.

Because no matter what kind of contract you signed, your landlord has the power to let you out of it. Generally, as long as you’re in his or her good graces and there’s a new tenant willing to take your place, you won’t have a problem getting out of your lease.

If you’re wondering how to break a lease to get on with your life, here are five tips to keep in mind.

Be Kind to Your Landlord Throughout Your Tenure

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on internet forums where people discuss their real estate properties. I hope to be able to invest in rental property one day, and I enjoy learning about the process of renting out homes for income.

One common thread I find in these forums is that landlords are by and large grateful when they’re lucky enough to have tenants who exhibit even the most basic decency. Being quiet on weeknights and attempting to fix very simple problems before reaching for the phone are seen as particularly admirable qualities for a tenant to possess. Paying rent on time and telling the truth if they need an extension are also pluses.

These are all practices you can easily incorporate into your life as a renter. As busy as you may be, and as annoying as it can be to do simple fixes when you’re not handy, giving it a shot can pay dividends down the road. And, as with any relationship, the more goodwill you build up, the easier it will be to make requests down the line.

Thankfully, my fiance and I didn’t face serious issues with our units that required urgent attention from the landlord. But, we encountered many small things (unclogging drains, stopping leaks, etc.) that we were able to handle ourselves with a little bit of effort and elbow grease.

The pinnacle of these efforts was the time my fiance fixed the gate of our building’s parking garage. It had been blown off its track on a particularly windy day. This fix so surprised our landlord that it earned us a personal email of thanks. I assume acts like this, as well as timely, consistent rent payments, helped ease our transition out of the lease and secured us a glowing recommendation when our next landlord vetted us.

 

Offer to Find a Replacement Tenant

Landlords generally just want to receive their rent check every month with as few intervening headaches as possible — it doesn’t really matter from whom. As long as the renter has good credit history or references, doesn’t damage the property, and pays rent on time, most landlords are happy.

Just as finding an apartment can be a grind, listing one for rent can be difficult as well. Posting an ad, drawing up a new lease, showing the apartment to prospective tenants, and evaluating applications and running credit checks is a lot of legwork. Listing through a real estate agent can eliminate some of that work, but typically comes with a fee of one month’s rent to be paid by either the landlord or the tenant.

Unless you’re in a red-hot real estate market where your landlord could potentially raise the rent to make up for the extra work and disruption, your landlord probably doesn’t want to deal with all the extra work of finding a new tenant when they already have one under contract.

So, if you’re going to try breaking your lease, always offer to help find a replacement tenant. We had one landlord who said we could move out whenever we wanted as long as we agreed to list the apartment on Craigslist and handle all the logistics ourselves. We did so, and presented her with qualified candidates — and it made the transition go as smoothly as possible.

Build a Real Relationship With Your Landlord

On the rare times I have to call our building manager out to handle a situation, I try to take the time to treat them like any other guest. I offer them water, ask them questions, and stick around to see if I can be of any help. (Of course, I’m never any help. I can barely hang a picture frame. But I’m great at nodding and furrowing my brow as problems are explained to me.)

Being friendly has led to some great interactions. When my landlord in Madison had to come by and fix a spring on our door, I got to hear all about his childhood. It turned out that he used to go on long runs through a nearby spot in the woods. Learning about his exploits inspired me to check out that area, and I had some great times there. I might have never explored that spot had I not taken the time to try to get to know him.

Just as practicing basic kindness is almost always a good idea in the long run, getting on more personal terms with your landlord can help if you later need to get out of your lease. This particular landlord ended up being more than generous when we told him how we were hoping to get out of our lease a few months early. I can’t help but imagine our personal relationship was a big help in that regard.

Be Prepared to Make Some Sacrifices

If you want to get out of your a lease quickly, it might cost you some time and money. Whether it’s showing your apartment to prospective tenants at inconvenient hours, agreeing to replace or repair things you had no part in breaking, or giving up your security deposit, there will be some hard choices to make.

When leaving our last place, the only way we could get out was to give up our entire security deposit. We kept the place in pristine condition, so that was a tough pill to swallow. Until that point, I’d never left an apartment without receiving my security deposit back in full.

But when doing a thorough analysis of the pros and cons, we realized we’d save more money by moving right away — via the higher salaries we were set to earn — than if we’d stayed put just to save the security deposit.

Move Out with Grace

This is obvious. Just as you shouldn’t leave a job by upending your desk and giving the middle finger to your boss (as tempting as it may be), you also shouldn’t be disrespectful to your landlord during the move-out process. Clean the apartment, even if you feel like there’s no point. Return the keys, even if it means you have to commute across town at rush hour to do so. Send your landlord a nice email to thank them for their help, even if it did take them two weeks to fix that leak over the tub.

My fiancee and I made the choice to clean our apartment top to bottom before moving out, even though we knew we were going to lose our security deposit for breaking the lease. It was the right thing to do, and while it was a hassle, you never know who’s going to call your former landlord looking for a reference.

Summing Up

That was quite a few words on getting out of a lease, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that it all boils down to being a decent person. As with most things in life, if you’re nice to people and reasonable, they’re going to be more willing to help you.

It’s also important to remember that you’ll never get anywhere if you’re afraid to ask your landlord some tough questions. You’ll never know if you can break the lease if you don’t ask. Happy moving!

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