Can My Tenant Break the Lease?

Written on December 20, 2016 by , updated on February 15, 2018

Break a LeaseAfter a tenant signs the lease, you’re likely to expect they’ll stay for the entire term. But a tenant might decide to leave early and break the lease. What should you do?

Your tenant probably had every intention of renting from you for the entire lease period, which is typically a year, or maybe even longer. But lots of things can happen—job loss, job transfer, the opportunity to buy a house, etc. If your tenant wants to break the lease, they probably have a good reason.

Can you hold them financially responsible?

Of course, you can’t make a tenant stay. But can you can hold them financially responsible for the remainder of the lease?

The answer is…it depends.

Now what?

Even if your tenant has a good reason for breaking the lease, you still have some decisions to make.

Here’s a breakdown of what happens when a tenant decides to break the lease, with some options you should consider at each step.

A Lease Is a Binding Agreement

Just as a lease protects tenants from landlords kicking them out early for no cause, a lease also protects landlords from tenants who decide they want to leave early. When a tenant signs a lease, they’re agreeing to pay rent for the entire lease term, only they usually pay this amount in monthly (or bimonthly or weekly) increments.

For example, if rent is $1,000 a month, and the lease term is for 12 months, the tenant agrees to pay you $12,000 in 12 equal installments. If they want to leave early, say after six months, they should still owe you $6,000 – right?

There are, however, some exceptions:

1. Mitigating Damages

In most states, landlords are not allowed to hold the tenant to the terms of the lease while the unit sits vacant. In these states, even though the tenant has breached the lease by leaving early, the landlord must try to re-rent the place—even if during inconvenient times, like the middle of winter.

Your tenant is still responsible for paying rent, however, until you find someone to take their place. And you can still go though the same screening process you normally do when looking for a replacement tenant. In other words, you don’t have to rent to the first person who comes along if they don’t meet your requirements.

You don’t have to rent to the first person who comes along.

But in a few states, landlords are not required to try to find a new tenant. They can hold the original tenant responsible for the entire lease term. You can find out if your state has this law here.

2. Being Called for Military or Active Duty

Federal law allows people in the military to break their lease to start active military duty, or if their orders take them far away (approx 50 miles). This rule is called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and the law applies to people in the armed forces, the activated National Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Public Health Service.

Your tenant would need to give you a 30-day notice if they’re leaving for military reasons, even if they have time left on the lease.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Renter’s Rights Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

3. The Rental Is Uninhabitable

When you have tenants, you must provide a habitable and safe place for them to live. You must provide a (non-leaky) roof over their heads. You must provide heat, hot water, doors and windows that lock, safe stairs, working electrical systems, and a pest-free place.

If you don’t provide a safe and livable place, and if you aren’t responsive if something comes up that makes the place unsafe or unlivable, your tenant could break the lease.

4. You’re Intrusive

It’s true that you own the place, but as soon as you take money from a tenant, you give up your right to come in anytime you like. There are times when you can come in, such as during an emergency like a flood, or when you’ve given notice to do a routine inspection or to make a repair. But tenants have a right to privacy, and if you violate that right, your tenant can probably break the lease.

Even if you act intrusively and don’t respect a tenant’s privacy, they still have to give you a “warning.” It’s call a “notice to remedy or quit,” and it’s a very simple letter that might say, “Stop coming over unannounced,” or, “I’m terminating the lease in 10 days.” Very rarely may a tenant terminate a lease immediately. If you received a notice to remedy or quit, you might want to talk to a lawyer to see if you’re violating any local or state laws.

Related: 

Early Termination Fees

Continuing to charge your tenant rent, even after they’ve moved out, is acceptable as long as you are actively looking for a replacement tenant.

If the tenant who left would rather not pay the ongoing rent charges, they could pay an “early termination fee,” an amount that allows them to break the lease and walk away without any recourse. Unlike security deposits, these fees are not refundable. So even if the tenant opts to pay the “two-month termination fee,” equal to two times the monthly rent, you aren’t obligated to refund a prorated amount if you find a replacement tenant sooner than 60 days. However, if it takes you 90 days to find a replacement, you  can’t force the previous tenant to pay for the third month of vacancy.

Make sure you outline the early termination fee amounts in your lease so the tenant has plenty of warning.

Here’s why:

Receiving double rent is a no-no, but receiving an early termination fee and then rent from a new tenant is a generally accepted practice. After all, it’s the tenant’s choice and a way they can bet against paying three-plus months of rent.

They might choose to pay two months of rent now to avoid paying four months later. Sometimes it works in the renter’s favor, and sometimes it doesn’t.

How Tenants Can Help

If your tenant tells you they want to break the lease, ask them to help you out. They might be able to help find someone who can take over the lease. Of course, you should still screen whomever they find. Consider asking them if they can help show the place to prospective tenants who answer your ad.

About Suing Your Tenant

If your tenant breaks the lease and won’t pay for the months the unit is vacant, you might need to take them to court to get your money. Theoretically, you’d just need to present a copy of the signed lease, and state which months your tenant still needs to pay. You should be awarded a judgment, but please talk to a local attorney before taking any legal action.

Be Prepared for Your Tenant to Present False Charges

Some tenants, in an effort to get out of paying you, might come up with false charges.

They might claim the place was infested with rats and that you did nothing about it. Or they might claim the heat never worked, the place was unsafe, or you acted inappropriately by coming over all the time. Be prepared to defend yourself against false charges. Keep maintenance records, and have photographs to show how you maintained the unit.

Bottom Line

If you inform your tenant they’re still financially responsible for rent until you re-rent the place (or until their lease period ends), they might choose to stay to avoid paying for two places at once.

Consider all these factors when deciding how to handle a tenant breaking the lease. Of course you can’t make them stay, but in many cases, you can be compensated for your extra efforts and added risk.

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43 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Liz

    The olace my daughter signed a lease will not let her give a 30 day notice until she pays the fee for breaking the lease? We sre going to pay the fee but she for safety reasons needs to leave within 30 days . Can the landlird deny the 30 days?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Liz,
      I’m not sure what deny the 30 days means? But I’ll answer this way: Your daughter can leave whenever she likes. But she is still responsible for paying rent and/or a lease breaking fee per her agreement, whether she chooses to live there or not. Is that what you were asking?

      • Liz

        Yes! The landlord told her they will not accept her 30 day notice and that she needed to stay until her termination if lease is paid

  • Connie

    We recently broke the lease on a house we were renting (through a property mgmt company) in Oregon. We were prepared to pay a fee of one and one-half times the rent, as per our agreement, but were told if we would cooperate with showing the house we might not have to pay the whole fee, if they were able to rent it out. Turns out, the owner decided to sell the property instead of renting, had furniture moved in immediately after we left to stage the house for selling, and had it sold within a week. We were expecting not to have to pay the fee since there was no attempt to re-rent the property, but the property mgmt company now says it’s a “broken lease fee” and they can still charge it.

  • Lauren

    Hi, I have to move out with 6 months remaining on my lease because I got a job out of state. My landlord is not allowing a lease transfer or sublet, but rather is requiring me to find a new tenant to sign a new 12month lease at a higher rate than I’m paying. Is this legal?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Lauren,
      Most of your questions are addressed in this article. Your landlord can ask you to help find another tenant, but you don’t have to do that. Your landlord can charge you for the 6 months you are not there, though. But landlords typically must try to find another renter. Most states don’t allow landlords to just do nothing and collect rent after the tenant has left. But it might benefit you to try to find someone to rent the place. You are probably more motivated to get this re-rented quickly. Good luck!

      • Lauren

        Thanks! The answers on this site have been really helpful. I’m still a bit confused about why it may (or may not?) be legal in Pennsylvania for our landlord to require that we find a tenant for 6 months past the end of our lease rather than someone to take over the remaining 6 months. Has anyone ever heard of this?

        • Laura Agadoni

          I’m not an attorney, so this is not legal advice. From my understanding, however, Pennsylvania doesn’t require landlords to find a renter (mitigate their damages) if you break the lease (unless you have an exception as described in the article). So in your case, your landlord can charge you for the 6 months you are not there. You can pay that or try to find another renter that your landlord finds acceptable. And in this case, it sounds as if acceptable terms are to find someone who will sign a 12-month lease. In other words, your landlord can collect 6 months rent from you. They would rather just do that unless you can sweeten the deal by finding a renter for 12 months.

  • Lois

    Hi Laura,

    We gave 30 Day notice and broke our lease. We moved out January 31 and returned keys to the landlord. We made a check to the landlord for February’s rent (even though we were not living there) and the landlord kept the prepaid deposit and last month’s rent to cover the remainder of lease until he found tenants. The landlord has now told us recently that he stopped all re-renting efforts after he received February rent and left the property vacant for the remainder of the lease. Is he allowed to do this? I live in Washington State.

    Thank you in advance.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Lois,
      I am not a lawyer. This is my understanding as a landlord: Landlords in Washington state can’t just sit back and make no effort to re-rent. They need to mitigate damages. But they also don’t have to rent to someone who does not meet their qualifications. So they need to look, but if they don’t find anyone, you are on the hook until they do or until your lease runs out.

  • sheila

    hi, I have a tenant who just told me today she wants to break her lease and has a place to live already. what fees can I as the landlord charge her according to state law in Illinois. she states she wants to move right away without any notice. Is

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