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Let's say you're moving from California to Connecticut. Or maybe you're fed up with a noisy next-door neighbor. Perhaps your landlord keeps ignoring requests to fix a clogged drain. In these situations and others, a renter might want or need to break their lease. But can you do that?
Yes, you can break a lease early. However, breaking a lease before it ends could be complicated and costly.
Can I Break a Lease Early?
Although you can break a lease early, not every reason for doing so is legally protected. And no matter why you break a lease, you could be on the hook for paying the rent until the landlord finds a new tenant or the lease expires. After all, breaking a lease early means you're prematurely ending a legally binding contract.
Depending on state and local laws, scenarios when you might be able to legally break a lease include:
- You're a member of the military who's being deployed or permanently relocated.
- The landlord hasn't made a repair—typically related to health and safety—within a certain period of time. This might involve a broken security gate or a faulty electrical outlet, for example.
- The landlord fails to install, inspect or fix a smoke alarm.
- The property has become plagued by crime, such as gang or drug activity.
- A neighbor is arrested after threatening you with a deadly weapon, but the landlord fails to evict them.
- You're a survivor of family violence.
- You're the recent victim of sexual abuse or stalking.
- You've been unlawfully harassed by the landlord or one of their representatives. For example, a maintenance worker might regularly show up at your apartment without warning and your requests for this to stop haven't been honored.
- The landlord hasn't provided accurate, up-to-date information about the property's ownership and management.
State and local laws often don't protect an array of other reasons for breaking a lease, such as moving to another city, coping with persistent noise problems or constantly quarreling with a hostile neighbor. Some non-legal reasons might be allowed, though. For instance, your landlord may let you get out of a lease if your employer is transferring you to a city at least 50 miles away, but that is very landlord-dependent.
Keep in mind that you may be able to negotiate with your landlord to be released from your lease before it expires. This might mean being free of financial penalties and further rent payments.
Also, be sure to look into whether your lease already spells out the rules for canceling it. For example, the lease might state that you can break the contract early if you provide a 60-day written notice and pay two months' rent before you move out.
What Happens if I Break a Lease Early?
If you break a lease early, particularly when the reason isn't legally protected, you may:
- Be required to pay your rent until the property is leased to a new tenant or the lease ends.
- Be told that your security deposit won't be returned.
- Be charged an early termination fee.
- Be forced to deal with a debt collector over unpaid rent.
- Be sued by the landlord.
- Be stuck with the landlord as a bad reference for future rentals.
- Be saddled with negative information on your credit report.
How to End a Lease Early
Ending a lease early can be simple or sticky. To steer clear of trouble, follow these six tips.
1. Review the Lease
Before taking any steps to break the lease, go over the document to make sure you know what your rights and responsibilities are. You might discover that the contract gives you some leeway in terms of ending the lease.
If you don't have a copy of the lease, ask your landlord for one.
2. Look Into Legal Help
Since lease contracts are legal documents, it might be tough to decipher them. If you're unclear about any of the language in the lease, consider reaching out to a tenants' rights group or legal aid organization for help.
3. Notify the Landlord
As soon as possible, inform your landlord in writing that you plan to move out before the lease ends. Landlords often require a 30-day notice. You also might need to provide documentation related to your move-out, such as orders for a military deployment.
4. Search for a New Tenant
It may give you an advantage with your landlord if you're able to nail down a tenant who can sign a new lease and move into the place you're vacating. Successfully recruiting a new tenant might result in the landlord going easy on you when it comes to penalties for early termination of the lease.
5. Consider a Sublease
In some cases, you may be able to locate a tenant who's willing to take over your lease, meaning you'd sublet your place to them and they'd finish out your existing lease. However, subletting might be illegal where you are or your landlord might not permit it. Before heading down the subletting path, find out whether it's allowed.
6. Ponder Hiring an Attorney
If your landlord mentions taking you to court over breaking the lease, you may want to hire an attorney who's got experience representing tenants. While you'll end up with legal bills, you might save money in the long run if the lawyer can help you avoid a lawsuit or other legal hurdles.
What Does Breaking a Lease Do to Your Credit?
Most landlords don't report rent payments to credit bureaus because rent isn't a type of debt or credit. If this is your landlord's practice, breaking a lease won't automatically appear on your credit reports.
The situation changes, though, if you owe past-due rent in connection with the broken lease and the landlord sends your debt to a debt collector. In this case, the debt collector normally will report your account to credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax), and your credit reports will reflect the amount you owe.
This information will stay on your credit reports for up to seven years and could harm your credit scores. Payment history, such as a debt being turned over to a debt collector, ranks as the top factor in calculating your credit scores.
On top of the effect on your credit, a canceled lease can show up on a document known as a tenant screening report, which is not related to a credit report. A tenant screening report covers your history as a tenant. Information in the report might include your payment record as well as any broken leases. Negative information in this report can make it tougher to qualify for a lease.
The Bottom Line
Breaking a lease can be tricky. In some situations, you might be able to cancel a lease with little to no trouble. But in other cases, you might encounter problems, such as losing your security deposit or being hit with fees. Even worse, a past-due debt related to a lease could wind up on your credit reports and ding your credit scores. To stay on top of your credit, check your Experian credit report for free and make any necessary moves to improve your score.