Getting out of a lease or rental agreement early may be a costly undertaking.
When you sign a lease, you agree to pay the entirety, typically in monthly installments. If you leave early, you may still have to pay rent for any months left on your contract. Your landlord may take legal action if you don’t.
But what if you have a serious illness or injury that makes it difficult for you to stay in the same rental unit? In such a case, you may be able to break the lease, but it varies from case to case and state to state.
Read your rental agreement
Before you notify your landlord of your intent to leave, read your rental agreement. Some agreements have an opt-out or default clause explaining exactly what you’re responsible for financially if you break or default on the agreement.
In some cases, the agreement may state that you must give notice of your intent to break the lease one or two months before you leave. If you leave and don’t give ample notice, you will at the very least be responsible for paying the rent for the time allotted in the opt-out clause.
Talk to your landlord
Speak with your landlord as soon as you know you’ll need to leave. Explain the nature of your (or a family member’s) illness or injury and why you can no longer rent the unit.
If your injury makes it nearly impossible to access the building or your rental unit, your landlord may wish to make updates so you can still stay on as a renter. You might also have a right to modify your unit or portions of the property at your own expense to make the site accessible. It’s possible that some building updates are already in the works to ensure it’s up to code.
The Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations to multi-family dwellings (within reason) to make the property accessible. In other words, the site should have a handicapped parking spot near the door if you require one, or sturdy railings along all stairways, provided the place you live has more than five units. These types of features would be the landlord’s responsibility.
These FHA laws do not apply to structures with less than five rental units. So if you rent half of a duplex, an apartment added on to your landlord’s garage, or a single-family house, these laws don’t apply. In Virginia and some other states, the FHA requirements don’t apply if you live in the dwelling that you are renting to roommates. But it’s still worth checking your state and local laws, as they may specify landlord responsibilities for small operations.
If your injury or illness is of a long-term nature and updating your own rental space would prove too expensive, breaking the lease may be less costly for you.
How much rent is due if I leave?
Let’s say you have six months left on a one-year lease when you move out. If there is no opt-out clause or a state law that benefits your situation, you could be responsible for the six months left on the lease if the landlord doesn’t rent your unit out before then.
In most states, however, a landlord is required to “mitigate damages to the tenant”, which usually means they are required to actively seek a new tenant for the vacated unit; they can’t just do nothing and collect rent for six months.
You can help speed things along by helping find someone to rent your old home.
Keep in mind that the landlord still has the right to screen and deny potential applicants. You will most likely need to pay rent for however many months the unit is vacant.
When you can break the lease without ramifications
National and statewide fair-housing laws may allow you to break the lease. For instance, in one case in which a renter had post-traumatic stress disorder, loud noises near the rental complex triggered PTSD symptoms and made it difficult for the renter to sleep or enjoy a normal life.
The renter also obtained proof of the condition from a doctor. The landlord was unable to do anything to make “reasonable accommodations” for the renter since the problem was due to noise from a highway and railroad tracks nearby. In such a case, a tenant would legally be allowed to break the lease, based on terms in California housing rules and by the guidelines of the Fair Housing Act.
There’s no simple answer
In a nutshell, there’s no simple answer to the question, “Can I break my lease,” and to whether you’d legally be allowed out of your lease. It depends upon the conditions of the illness or injury, as well as the state laws. Some states such as Nevada are more lenient with tenants over age 60.
Check your state laws to look for fair housing rules that may help your situation. If you’re not sure how to interpret what you’ve read, contact your state or community’s fair-housing department to determine the best course of action.