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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82 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

        • Andrea

          I know this comment is a bit old. However, I know for a fact that MOST states allow for persons who’ve been victims of a violent crime to break their lease. I noticed you said your daughter was moving for safety reasons. If she has shared this information and can prove that is her reason for needing to leave, most states cover her and overrule the lease. (Look up state laws in your area)

  • 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

  • Susie Berger

    If I want to break my lease with 3 months left and leave my roommate who pays the other half of the rent, will he be responsible to pay the full amount of our rent or just his half? Will he get his half of the rental deposit when I leave?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Susie,
      I can’t comment on individual circumstances. Here is how it generally works: Your landlord probably won’t let you just break your lease. But you can still leave. The landlord still gets the full rent, though, whether you are there or not. If they don’t get the full rent, they can evict and sue anyone on the lease for the rent. If you are responsible for half, what typically happens is that the landlord expects to get 100% of rent from the person who stays. The person who stays can sue the person who leaves for their share if that person stops paying. When you sign a lease, you are generally responsible to pay rent until the lease ends.

  • Ellen Knowlen

    My tenant wants to break the lease and leave 3 months early, her and her boyfriend at the time put down a $1,000 deposit and co-signed the lease when they moved in (they both put up $500 for the deposit). She kicked him out after they moved in but now it’s a year later and she wants to move out she wants to get the deposit but when I return the deposit to her it would have to have his name on the check too? Correct?

  • Jaff

    I am on month to month lease from last two years and My landlord wants to sing up for one year lease.
    I am process of moving out of state. I have requested my landlord to extend one to three more month but he don’t want to loose summer holidays window . He want me to sing for one year lease or vacant the property in one month
    I am really confused if I go out for other property they may lease for one year or I have to pay double rent for 3 month. More over moving home items for small duration is big task.
    If I signing for one year lease and if i break lease, in that case landlord wants one month breaking lease amount and rent untill his property get occupied with other tenant.
    I don’t know how landlord can change his mind

  • Ashley

    I have a year lease. Its up November. I’m job less, pregnant and i need to go stay with my mom because i’m due in November plus i’m very high risk with this pregnancy. I have like 4 months in my lease. Can i break it? Minnesota laws.

  • Ashley Vo

    Hi Laura, I had a tenant signed a lease contract for 3 year term, however, he abandoned the house and broke the lease after 5 months, while still owes me 3 month rent. I didn’t know about his departure until the alarm system alerted the house had no signal to the central. I contacted him and he said he would not moved back. Long story short, I filed lawsuits to evict him out of the house (even he already moved out, but some of his clothes, Christmas decorations, kitchen stuffs are still there). Did I do it right or should have I sue him for the rent payment? We live in Houston TX. Thanks!

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Ashley,
      I don’t know enough about your exact situation, but here’s how it typically works. If your tenant has a signed lease, they must pay the rent every month. They are responsible for the rent for the entire lease term, but if they break the lease, you usually need to find another tenant. Once you do, the first tenant doesn’t pay rent anymore.

  • Bryonka White

    Hi Lauren,

    I want to verify, my place is uninhabitable as in I’ve been seeing pest and I’ve told my landlord they stated that they were going to come by to spray but they did it while I wasn’t present, short story I don’t believe that they sprayed because I’m still seeing pest. I read above that the tenant can break the lease so does that mean that I will still have to pay an early termination fee if done so? Appreciate your answer in advance, thank you.

  • Bryonka White

    Hi Laura,

    I want to verify, my place is uninhabitable as in I’ve been seeing pest and I’ve told my landlord they stated that they were going to come by to spray but they did it while I wasn’t present, short story I don’t believe that they sprayed because I’m still seeing pest. I read above that the tenant can break the lease so does that mean that I will still have to pay an early termination fee if done so? Appreciate your answer in advance, thank you.

  • Le

    Hi Laura.
    I signed an one year contract in an apartment last year Oct. and i live together with my friends, but both of them leave left me on the June. I can’t afford the rent and hard to find cotenant, so i moved out. Before i leave, I informed the owner one month ago. He keeps my deposit(one month rent), but he still insist me to pay for the apartment until the end of contract or i must find new tenants there. Ive tried every methods to find but nobody want to live there. He did nothing cuz he’s abroad.
    I wonder do I have rights to refuse to pay the next few month rent cuz the deposit can be regarded as the compensation to the landlord.

    Ps-There’s no terms to show if one side break the contract.
    Thank u very much.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Le,
      It’s nice that you informed the owner. But you signed a lease, which typically means you are responsible to pay the rent for the entirety of the lease term. Depending on where you live, your landlord might have a duty to try to find another tenant. If your landlord finds another tenant, then you would no longer need to pay rent. But until your landlord does, you need to pay rent until the lease ends. Your deposit covers only one month, and your landlord is entitled to get the entire rent you agreed to pay by signing a lease. The landlord can go after any one of you for the money. If your landlord chooses to get it from you, you can sue your roommates for their share if they are also on the lease.

  • Lisa

    Our now former landlord is giving as a few problems. We lived there over 20 years and he rarely fixed anything, example the cellar door was rotted away, hanging on one hook, the bedroom windows didn’t lock, the bathroom had mold, the shower leaked into the living room from the day we moved it. The ceiling towels in the living was hanging down from all the water coming through from the bathroom. The dining room window had a whole in the glass and was broken and could not be opened, the front porch roof was rotted and when it rained it leaked though very badly. Every time he promises to fix any he didn’t. We would report something wrong and he wouldn’t come to fix it and it would become a big problem and he would said we didn’t tell him. He upped the rent, last time is being by $125.00. We never had a lease with him from day one! He causes anxiety with my family. My mother passed in Jan, of 2018 she was always worried about what was going to happen next. We think of him as a slum lord, from this information do you agree. Also, when we moved the movers messed things up and we have filed a report on the movers. Our ex landlord sent pictures of the house from this past week and it looks worse, than the last time we left the house on 07/04/18. and he wants $400 to clean it up. We paid $200 because that is all be had. Does he have any rights to demand this.

  • karen

    I live in California. I signed a year lease . I asked to break it few months ago and said I needed to be out July 26th The landlord found someone to move in on the 1st of August.
    He is saying now that I must pay for the 27th to the 31st AND be out on the 26th so he can prepare for the next tenant. He is threatening to sue me for damages if the painters don’t have time to paint before the next tenant…etc The lease break says I have to pay for time until new tenant come is in , which I understand… but don’t I still have right to occupy if I”m charged rent?

    I asked for clarity, but her is just threatening and insulting_ me more…

  • karen

    I live in California. I signed a year lease . I asked to break it few months ago and said I needed to be out July 26th The landlord found someone to move in on the 1st of August.
    He is saying now that I must pay for the 27th to the 31st AND be out on the 26th so he can prepare for the next tenant. He is threatening to sue me for damages if the painters don’t have time to paint before the next tenant…etc The lease break says I have to pay for time until new tenant come is in , which I understand… but don’t I still have right to occupy if I”m charged rent?

    I asked for clarity, but he is just threatening and insulting me more/ and or not responding. need

    help soon tomorrow is 26th!

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Karen,
      Usually when you break a lease, you need to pay the price for that, which is generally a lease-break fee that could be one, two, or even three months’ rent. Another usual scenario is that you are on the hook for rent until the place is re-rented. You are very fortunate that your landlord re-rented immediately. All you need to do, in this case, is to vacate a few days’ early to let the landlord ready the place for the new tenant. If you insist on staying until the 31st, then your landlord might charge you for August rent if the new tenant can’t move in on time. Plus, rent is almost always calculated month to month, not day to day. So if you stay even one day into the next month, you pay for the month.

  • February

    So my landlord put a notice on my door saying that i am going to have to move out cause my apartment building is non livable and they gave me opptions to move to a different building or a sister apt complex they own. But i find out that there is no apt left in my complex and the other complexes are worse than the one i live in. So my question is would they owe me rent for the remainder of my lease?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi February,
      No. In that case, you would be living rent-free. You can check with an attorney, but typically in these cases, you can break your lease and find another place to live. Maybe you can live in the place that isn’t as nice until you find something you like. And since it isn’t as nice, maybe you can pay less rent. Good luck!

  • Fran

    Hi

    My tenants wants to break their lease. They recently signed an extension for another year leaving eight months left on the lease. The property is in Danbury Ct. They have bought something. They don’t want me to show the unit until they are out, because they say she is ill. They want to leave in September and stated they will pay Oct rent as a bonus.

    I feel they should lose their deposit and pay until the unit is rented, but after they lose their deposit what is there to keep them from not paying. The place now needs painting and the sliders need to be fixed it is also dirty. Should I come up with a one time fee to break the lease or keep the deposit and keep charging them until it is rented. The rent is $825. Fran

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Fran,
      Since your tenants intent to break a legal document, the lease, they are not the ones to be calling the shots here. You should. In CT, you must try to re-rent after the tenant leaves, and once you find someone acceptable, the original tenants are off the hook. It’s up to you whether you choose to charge rent until you find new tenants or whether you wish to charge a fee for breaking the lease. If you charge a lease-breaking fee that is not addressed in the lease, the tenants must agree to it, and then you need to put it in writing. If you charge rent until you re-rent and the tenants stop paying, you take them to small claims court for the money they owe you. Good luck!

  • Aaron

    Hi,
    I am renting out an apartment without any lease but I took 2 month security deposit. Now the tenant is leaving and refused to pay me rent for last 2 month but told me to keep initial security which he gave me for 2 month. To be on safe side I asked him to write and sign on paper that I can keep the security and he will leave end of next month. Need to know if i am on safe side or if i need to ask him for outstandjng rent.

  • MICHELLE R

    Hi, I’m from MN, I’m breaking my lease 2 months early but I’m going to agree to pay the rest of the lease off when I leave. Can he keep my security deposit because of me breaking it? Also he never had a check in sheet when I moved in so I made my own. No damage was made to the place from me but there were a few things previously broken when I moved in. I noted them down…can he blame me for anything that was previously broken i.e. cupboard door screws bent, wobbly toilet, scratches on door. Thank You!

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Michelle,
      If you pay your rent in full, your landlord needs to return your security deposit, minus any damages caused by you. You should not have to pay for damages already present when you moved in. As a best practice moving forward, when you note problems before you move in, share them with your landlord and have them sign off on them.

      • MICHELLE R

        Thank You Very Much! This helps!

      • MICHELLE R

        I do have another question :) I told my landlord I plan on breaking my lease and he said I have to give a 60 day notice and find a replacement tenant. There’s no way possible for me to find a replacement tenant…especially when it sat empty for years before I moved in, and the population here is 900 lol… So if I pay off the rest of my lease do I still have to find a replacement in the meantime legally? I know MN it’s the tenants responsibility to find a replacement but do I still need to if I pay off my lease?

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Michelle,
          Generally when leases end, tenants don’t need to give notice; they just move if they want when the lease is up. Most landlords approach tenants around 60 days before the lease ends to find out whether tenants are staying or leaving. If you are paying your entire lease term, you are not breaking your lease. You’re just moving out early. It’s still your place, even after you’ve moved, until the lease ends if you are still paying rent. You absolutely do not need to find a replacement tenant for your landlord after your lease is up. People who do that are called property managers and are paid!

          • Michelle R

            Oh ok awesome! So I can still come over and do laundry here? Even if I’m moved out? As to the new place doesn’t have personal laundry machines like this one. When would I turn my keys in..when the official lease is up?

            • Laura Agadoni

              As long as you are paying rent, the place is yours. In my lease, I ask tenants to let me know if they will be gone from the property for longer than 10 days. That’s so I can check on the place when it’s vacant. Check your lease to see if you need to do that. But if you come regularly to do laundry, the place isn’t considered vacant. Regarding the keys, please ask your landlord for specific move-out instructions.

  • Alyssa

    Important question for anyone with knowledge on the matter. The people I have been renting from for four months now have made me believe they were the owners. I’ve been receiving receipts for all the money I’ve given them and signed a year lease with the m. Come to find out they aren’t the real owners but the property maintained for the real owner. I have not met the real owner nor have a lease signed with him. What are my rights and abilities to handle this issue?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Alyssa,
      A property owner can assign all landlord duties to a property manager. Ask the owner whether they have an agreement with the people you’ve been paying rent to.

  • Jason

    So we signed a 3 month lease. Wife had her work contract cancelled. On aug 8th i informed the landlord by text msg we would be leaving and last day is on sept 3rd. Also provided a copy of the contract termination letter to landlord. Already paid rent from july 27th – aug 27th. Turns out the job was offered back and we informed landlord on aug 14th we were going to stay. He said, ok, no reason for us to find another place since we were already there and he needed to cancel a few reservations. Now he states he cannot cancel one of the reservations and we need to vacate for 2 days. Also wants me to pay the agreed upon rental payment even though he’s asking me to vacate for 2 days. We are in New Hampshire. What legal grounds do i have here??

  • Samantha Cooper

    I need to break my apartment lease early – they offer a early termination fee equal to 2 months rent and require a 60 day written notice. If i give my 60 day written notice Sept 1st – do i still need to pay for rent for the next 60 days on top of the early termination fee?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Samantha,
      You can get the best answer by asking your own property manager. How this usually works is that you pay rent every month you live there. So if you will be there until Oct. 31, you pay rent for Sept. and Oct. You would also pay the early termination fee. If you didn’t pay both, you would just be leaving early with no penalties for you. When you sign a lease, the landlord counts on getting all the money you contracted to pay. In this case, you have a way out without being liable for the whole lease term.

  • Brenda West

    Live in Rockport Texas. Had a renter and as her new renewal lease came up, she requested a 2 year lease. We honored her request. Then 6 months later she gave us the news that she had an opportunity to purchase her a house. So she would have to break the lease and we can keep the deposit for the one month rental. She moved into a new remodel place with high ends. Now to get out of these she says we had cheap flooring. We have great quality products and have documents to prove it. She has left the house with some things that a cleaning crew has to use some elbow muscle. she has turn of the power to show the house and she will not pay the 3 months or whatever months it stays vacant till we rent it out.

  • Gaby

    Hello
    In Texas, my renter just moved out without notice, changed phone number and didn’t pay this month. He had told me that had some problems and would pay today (11th). The deposit was 1000 and the rent was 1100. Still 5 months in contract but no apparent way to find him. Would it make sense to seek legal action?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Gaby,
      I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give you legal advice. I can tell you what I’d do as a landlord. If this happened to me, I’d try to re-rent ASAP. If you re-rent and are only out a month’s rent, it’s probably not worth pursuing the matter in small claims court. But if you can’t re-rent after trying, and you are out 5 months of rent, then you might wish to sue your ex-tenant. Keep in mind that you need to know where your tenant is. This might help if you don’t know: https://www.landlordology.com/find-deadbeat-ex-tenants/

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