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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22 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • David Lobell

    Hi Laura,

    My landlord offered a fitness center as an amenity which was big inducement fro me to rent there. the fitness center has been under renovation and not available for use for over five months now, do I have a legal right to terminate the lease based on the loss of this amenity?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi David,
      I’m not a lawyer, and I can’t give you legal advice. You can always ask to get out of your lease or to have some sort of rent abatement. If the landlord grants you nothing, you have the right to take your landlord to small claims court.
      Good luck!

  • Isabelle

    We are we are renting a house in Las Vegas after five years we decide to sell the property , January 2016 my husband sent an email stating that the tenant could stay on for another two years we never signed a lease for this period of time The tenant said that we have given him two years lease and he will not move until March 2018 is it legal or not legal to break this “not signed lease

  • King

    The Keywords are used by search engines for fetching inrtimaofon. The target audience is very important. The articles that are relevant to them attract a target audience to the blogs. Take your time and makes an effort to analyze what topics interest them.

  • Jeffrey PREISS

    My landlord who live upstairs is selling his house. He has asked me to move my furniture out so he can stage for the sale. I said I will be vacating 8 days before the end of the Month th and lease. In addition, I have been asked to not be around while they have open houses and and showings.
    I mentioned to him that I will be leaving Saturday 8 days early to help him with his sale. I said I would like to prorate the Month and receive my last 8 days rent back to the amount of 440.00. He said if I move my furniture to a shed before I go he would think about it.
    I have already been greatly unconvinced by this. I removed my furniture to the yard during the week so they could photograph the house for the listing. Do I have a legal right to money

  • Anthony

    Hi Laura,

    My wife and I signed a lease with our previous landlord and within 5 months she sold the house, including the basement unit we’re renting out. The new landlords are firm on holding us to our original agreement with our previous landlord. Even though our original lease agreement was with our first landlord, does the lease automatically transfer to the new landlords, despite not having a newly signed agreement between the two parties?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Anthony,

      Yes, the lease typically stays the same for both parties when there is a transfer of ownership. So, while the new owner can’t kick you out and must abide by your lease, you need to as well. If you want to leave now, it would probably be treated the same as breaking your lease.

  • Ana

    Hello!

    I signed one year agreement renting a room in a basement, but living there has been becoming impossible my landlord smokes inside the house and the smells goes to my room , landlord fight with his partner very loud at night last time his partner was knocking really hard the door around​ 3 am , they use weed he even kicked me out when he was fighting with the partner , partner leaves and he brings other “partners” is really uncomfortable live like that I can’t I’m desperate I wonder if this is enough to break the lease .

  • Anna

    How can I report a tenant I’ve had problems with so that it shows on their background report for future landlords?

  • Tara

    Hi my name is Tara i’ve been written for eight months for the past three months I’ve had mice problems I’ve told my landlord multiple times I took out of my own pocket paid for things to get rid of the mice it got worse about two weeks ago had to throw all my food away and move out of my pocket for a week I bombed it rat poison and it left mice traps everywhere still I have mice I have them in my GDS trashcan outside I have mousetrap is on my bed on my daughters bed my daughters got sick the past two weeks with a urinary track infection a head cold do I have the right to breach my lease contract

  • FirsttimeLandlord

    Looks like tenants skipped out of my rental property, before September’s rent was due & months before their lease expired. I’ve tried reaching them by phone/text message, but they aren’t returning those calls or messages. What are my rights as a Pennsylvania Landlord?

  • Sherry

    What about breaking lease with population less than 5500

  • Fernando Perez

    Hi, my wife signed a lease for a year, than we decided to stay for another 18 months, and the landlord raise the rent up for almos 200, but we’re trying to moveout and brake the lease we’re from San Antonio Tx
    what would happen if we do that? we have six more months to do to complete the lease

  • Angie

    Hi. I signed a lease, haven’t paid the deposit, and would like to break my lease. Will I be held financially liable for rent? Lease starts on October 11. Please advise.

  • millie

    Hi my sister just signed a lease for an apartment & paid her deposit. The unit they showed her was a model of what hers would look like when repairs ect was done. 3 days later she was contacted & started to move in & noticed nothing had been done. Filth remained, wires hanging from the ceiling & looked nothing like model. Also on the lease manager signed stating it was safe & drug free. We got a police report & there has been over 50 crimes reported in last 2 months. She doesn’t feel safe & they won’t refund her deposit & she never got to move in. What recourse does she have in getting her deposit back? This is in N.C. Please advise!

  • Christine

    We rented our place that included snow removal and I have been shoveling myself out of the driveway every day for me to get out of the driveway to go to work. Isnt this a breach of our lease contract and can I break the lease for his failure to abide by the terms of the lease?
    Thank you

  • GFoster

    Verbal rental agreement. Nothing in writing. February to February. Renters vacated early December but paid rent for the month. Property now sits vacant. New renters lined up to move in Jan 1. Questions: 1- do I have to refund them any rent? 2- can I change locks as they refuse to return the keys until Jan 1? They broke lease agreement and vacated of own free will. I do not want to put myself in harms way with the law.

  • Tim

    I didn’t see that I had to give my landlord 90 days notice that I would not be coming back . Instead of 90 I gave him 76. He renewed me for another year and increased my rent. Is their anything I can do?

  • irene escalante

    I’m a landlord in san Antonio, TX. My tenants of 3 month pay in partial they do not let me know when they wil pay, they don’t pay late fees always come up with outrageous excuses n have had 3 leaks In 2 months, there wer no leaks its a beautiful home in a subdivision, wants me to respond to leak immediately I fixed it within 2 days even though I know it was their fault, neighbors say that there is another person living in home other than tenants listed on lease, and never turned in inventory list when I gave it to her at move in. Can I evict them for being delinquent all the time with rent, having someone else living with them, and destruction to the house.

  • sam

    Hello!

    I am living in a basement with another girl. Her boyfriend is staying there from day 1 since we moved in and he is not paying for anything. I talked with both parties: the landlord and the girl, they both refused to listen to me. I still have 4 months left in my lease. My landlord has not taken any actions regarding this. I told him i want to move out and nobody is ready to take over the lease he said i can not move out and will be at guilt. Can i leave the place?

  • walker

    Hi Laura, my landlord 2 times now shutting off the water while im taking a shower.. she lives on the property and is nosey and bothersome and i think yesterday she threatened me about a tampon in the drain and said $900 in damage/repair.. i am a man but have had a female guest here recentely, no tampons though, i have 2 months left on the lease can i terminate early with a notice breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment?

  • Sam

    I am a tenant and I signed the lease in Nov’17 for the period of Aug’18 to July’19. I then planned to move out when the present lease ends (July’18) and informed my landlord in Feb’18 about this. However, she tells me that I need to pay a reletting fee if I leave at the END of my present lease , because I’ve already signed the new lease. I am a little skeptic as it’s really very early that I’ve informed her and the new lease period hasn’t even started.

    She also says that I’ll have to pay reletting fee if SHE finds a new tenant but not in case I find one.

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