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How to Break a Lease Early – and Gracefully
I’ve been moving around a lot in the past 18 months, and I’m not talking minor jaunts across town. I’ve gone from Los Angeles, to Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City, to San Francisco and back to New York. I’ve become quite good at shedding unnecessary possessions — and figuring out how to get out of a lease.
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 a COVID-19-related illness or you lost your job due to the pandemic, your first step might be breaking a lease. Many people around the country have had to give up their homes due to COVID-19 or other factors, so if you’re stuck in a lease right now and need to get out, we can help.
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 the lease
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 wife 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 wife 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.
[ Read: Is It Cheaper to Move Out of the City? ]
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 friendship 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 sacrifices
If you want to get out of your 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 wife 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.
Consider possible penalties
Unfortunately breaking your lease can come with a penalty, and it varies greatly based on your landlord and if your lease has any clauses. Here’s what happens if you break a lease in many cases. You might be charged a month (or a few months’) rent as a penalty. Some landlords will require you to pay out the end of your lease, which can be especially tough if you have several months left. You might also have to pay the rent on your place until the landlord finds a new tenant.
And while in some states it’s illegal for a landlord to keep the security deposit as a penalty for a broken lease, it does still happen in some places. Know the rules in your state so if your landlord tries to penalize you with that, you’ll be familiar with whether or not they can legally do that.
If I break my lease, do I still have to pay my renters insurance?
This will depend on your renters insurance plan but your best bet is to contact your insurance agency and ask them what the protocol is. If you’ve paid out your plan for the entirety of the year, you might just be stuck and have to get a new plan at a new place. If you pay monthly, depending on your plan and agency, you might be able to switch your coverage. It’s all a matter of discussing this with your insurance agent to see what they can do for you.
When can I break my lease?
Technically you’re able to break your lease whenever you’d like. While a lease is a binding contract, it still can be broken if you choose, just know that it will come with a penalty. Depending on where you live and who your landlord is, the penalty might be really ugly. For example, if you live in New York, you’ll probably have a harder time breaking your lease, especially amid COVID-19 when the rental market is so bleak for landlords. However, if you live in a smaller area with friendly landlords, they may be willing to work with you.
It’s important to know, though, the few ways you can get out of your lease penalty-free. If any of the following apply to you, you might be able to get out of your lease with proper documentation.
- Military duty: If you’re in the military and deployed or relocated (or your spouse is), you are to be let out of your lease under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. This is highly common and should your landlord give you any trouble, a lawyer should easily be able to fight it if you have documentation.
- Constructive eviction: Constructive eviction is basically self-eviction. If your home is unlivable and your landlord is refusing to fix it, you can evict yourself (aka, just leave). The important thing is to make sure that your home truly is unlivable and that you’ve actually moved out, as you’ll need to prove these in court if you decide to sue.
- Bankruptcy: Typically if a tenant files for bankruptcy, it means they’re in breach of their lease and can thus break it. This should all be covered in the bankruptcy process, should you need further guidance on it.
- Natural disaster: If your home is damaged in a natural disaster, you need to work with your landlord to fix it. If your landlord doesn’t make fixes and the home is unlivable, you can either move forward with constructive eviction or speak with a housing lawyer on what your rights are.
- COVID-19: Usually an illness won’t get you out of your lease but with the prevalence of COVID-19 in the United States right now, many landlords are making exceptions for people who need to break a lease due to their own illness or the illness of a family member.
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