Leases are one of the few types of contracts that are pretty one-sided. If you violate their terms, you can be evicted. But if your landlord breaks the terms, you may need a lawyer to help you. Landlords are more likely than tenants to have the money to enforce the lease, so it’s really not a fair system. Here’s how to break a lease the best way, when necessary.
Do you have a good reason to break your lease?
Your local government will have its own laws regarding what’s a good reason to break a lease. Generally, these are things you should not have to put up with in the United States:
- “Uninhabitable” conditions like an infestation of bugs, broken or malfunctioning windows or doors, mold or anything that could cause health problems.
- Many states in the US promise tenants something called “quiet enjoyment.” Online, you’ll find a lot of debate about what that means. But I found out firsthand, in California, it does include your manager’s failure to do anything about neighbors who repeatedly violate noise rules.
- Your landlord or anyone else entering your apartment without giving you 24 hours’ notice. You can waive this right and give him permission to enter, but he can’t waive it and enter on his own, except in cases of emergency (such as flooding that requires emergency repairs to your apartment).
Other good reasons
Unfortunately, this leaves out a lot of legitimate issues. Like discovering your neighbors run a meth lab. Or suddenly needing a wheelchair in an apartment that’s not handicapped accessible. Or losing your job and being unable to pay your rent. A reasonable landlord should try to work with you in circumstances like these.
But not all landlords are reasonable. Call some local tenant attorneys and/or tenant advocacy groups to find out your options. In most states, if you absolutely have to break your lease, your landlord has an obligation to re-rent your unit as quickly as possible. If he gets it re-leased in three months, you would only be obligated to pay for three months’ rent and possibly his advertising costs for getting it rented. And if he rents it for less than what you were paying, you could be obligated to make up the difference. It’s not a cheap option, but it beats owing eight months’ rent, for example. Always talk to the landlord before just splitting – you may be able to work out a payment plan.
Some landlords will propose that you find a qualified tenant to take over your lease, and they will let you go with little or no penalty. This is fine, but get everything in writing. Even if you trust your landlord, he might later forget which exact terms he agreed to. It’s in everyone’s best interest to sign a written agreement spelling out who is responsible for what.
How to break a lease
Let’s say your reason for breaking the lease is legitimate, but your landlord refuses to make things simple. Or your landlord is a slumlord who has broken the terms of your lease, but still holds you responsible for your part. The burden is unfortunately on you to prove his wrongdoings.
You might also want to look at how to negotiate lower rent for ideas on how to talk to your landlord about it.
DO NOT STOP PAYING RENT
This is very important. Withholding rent will get you evicted faster than you can bring trouble down on your landlord. Get a lawyer or tenant’s advocacy group to advise you how to go about this. In some states, you can put your rent into an escrow fund and advise the landlord he’ll get it as soon as he holds up his side of the lease. But you need to find out the process from someone who knows, and it varies from state to state.
Once upon a time, I was living in an apartment that wasn’t even being kept up to code. The owner was a huge corporation. They employed (or partnered with?) a management company that did absolutely nothing about broken windows. This is a health and safety issue, but their saving a few bucks to keep their investors happy was far more important to them than my health. And of course, getting in touch with the company to tell them how their managers were doing was impossible. They ignored my letters completely. It took some investigation to even find out who owned the building.
Involve city/county inspectors
Fortunately, the county felt differently about broken windows. I got a building inspector to cite them for repairs. The management company then made repairs that also weren’t up to code, and they didn’t even get permits to do the work. Can you believe it? So, feeling a little insulted and therefore irritable, the inspector cited them to replace every freakin’ window in the entire complex. That meant hundreds of windows, which must have cost them many thousands. And he ordered their managers to attend a school for owners who are about to be officially declared slumlords.
Well, that got their attention. Costing them money is the only way to get the attention of big corporations who don’t fulfill their legal obligations.
Despite all this, the company had no intention of letting me break my lease. But there was also a huge problem with noise in the building – constant partying from neighbors who were, I later learned, tipping the manager cash to look the other way. I gave the manager many chances to stop the parties, but he was usually at them – go figure! I called the cops several times, and they cited my neighbors. But the $500+ fines didn’t phase these rude college brats who had enough money to have a cleaning lady haul off their giant Hefty bags full of empty liquor bottles after every party. Fines only work on people who mind paying them.
I read online about whether “quiet enjoyment” applied to “manager not preventing neighbors from keeping me up all but 5 nights a month for six months straight” (no, I’m not exaggerating – I kept a sleep journal). The answer is: in theory, yes, but there aren’t any cases to set precedent, so a judge could rule either way. After my doctor advised me I had to break the lease before the sleep deprivation made my health worse, I looked for a lawyer.
Bringing a lawyer into it
I found a great one by calling the best tenant attorneys in town. I found him by searching “best tenant attorneys in [my city]” online and calling them. They told me my case was not of interest to them, but they could recommend a young, competent lawyer who would relish it. He wrote a very strong letter, demanding damages for pain and suffering, the breaking of the lease and a host of other things. I had written a similar letter and gotten no reply. But once they saw it on a lawyer’s letterhead, oh, then suddenly it mattered. That’s another thing I learned: if you write to your huge corporate landlord, it goes into the round file. But if the words “attorney at law” appear on the letterhead, it goes to the legal department.
They refused to budge on any kind of monetary settlement, but they did break the lease and pay my lawyer’s fees. My lawyer believed that if we had sued them instead of agreeing to that settlement, they would have come back with a settlement that included money for damages. But by that time, I was so desperate to get some sleep again that I took the deal I could live with rather than risk it on one I might not be able to live with. Which is unfortunate, because a scumbag company like that will do it over and over again. Companies like that are not real landlords; they just churn money on property investments for clients who buy into the funds they sell.
Check out my article on how to work with lawyers.
Some additional tips
If you need a lawyer…
- Call lots of lawyers. Sometimes when they don’t want your case, they tell you that you don’t have a case. That’s is misleading and should be illegal, in my opinion. A good lawyer should at least make suggestions. Even if you don’t have a huge money lawsuit, that doesn’t mean you have no legal options to improve your situation. Many, many legal issues can be resolved without ever going near a court.
- If you can’t afford to retain a lawyer at all, check your area for tenant advocacy groups. They provide counsel free of charge to people who need it.
- Some lawyers will advise you on how to do the work yourself. That can bring your cost down to one billable hour or a flat, affordable fee for drafting a document.