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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109 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Lael

    Hi we were late with our rent & our landlord started the eviction process. I asked several times could we stay if we paid she said no. We found another place to stay & paid what was owed, then she tells us you don’t have to move now. We still left. She has kept our deposit & wants money for the rest of the months on our lease. Can she do that even though she asked us to leave?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Lael,
      When you sign a lease for 12 months, for example, let’s say for $1,000 a month, you are really agreeing to pay $12,000, but broken up into 12 monthly payments. If you leave early, the landlord is still entitled to that $12,000. So if you have paid only $6,000 so far, for example, the landlord is still entitled to the remaining $6,000. In eviction cases the landlord can still collect the remainder of the rent due. But in most states, landlords need to mitigate their damages, meaning they need to try to find another renter. If they do, you are off the hook. But not all states have that law. Look up your law here: https://www.landlordology.com/state-laws/

  • Neel

    I had to break my lease because I lost my job and had to move.
    My landlord is doing a less than ideal job in advertising the home for rent. For example, he has put only 4 photos of the property online, while other properties have more than 10 photos. He has also listed the property at $2700 per month, while my lease, signed 2 months ago, had a rent of $2600.

    Is he within his rights to increase the rent on the property, while I have to keep paying the rent for the months that it does not rent? I fear that the higher rent ask would drive away tenants, and keep the house vacant longer. What options do I have in this case?

    Thanks,
    Kedar.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Kedar,
      You pose some good and interesting questions. I’m not an attorney. So I’m answering you as a landlord with some experience. From my understanding, landlords in most states need to try to mitigate damages by trying to re-rent. So advertising and posting photos (even if only 4) would likely suffice. Regarding charging more for rent, the increase in your case is not too much. If it’s in line with area rents, it’s probably okay. If your landlord were to advertise for twice as much as area rents, for example, let’s say for $5,200 a month, that would probably be seen as disingenuous. It looks to me as if your landlord is doing what they need to do, and you need to pay rent until the place re-rents. You can always seek legal counsel.

      • Neel

        Thanks for your response Laura. That certainly helps me in setting my expectations right.

        One other question – how does the security deposit work out in such a situation? As per the lease, I am supposed to get a statement from the landlord within 21 days which itemizes the expenses and returns the remainder of the deposit.

        However, in case of early termination, the lease says that the landlord may hold the security deposit to recover lost rent. We have continued to pay the rent even after vacating the premises. So there isn’t a case for any lost rent here.

        In such a case, should we expect the first condition to hold, and expect to get an itemized statement and remainder of the deposit within 21 days?

        Thanks!

        • Laura Agadoni

          You’re welcome Kedar. Again, same answer regarding I can’t give legal answers or advice. So again, this answer is from my experience as a landlord. Once you sign a lease, let’s say for $2,500 a month for 12 months, you are agreeing to pay your landlord $30,000 to live there for a year. This $30,000 is broken into 12 monthly payments. Until you’ve paid your $30,000, or until your landlord re-rents, you are the tenant, even if you’ve chosen to live elsewhere. So the landlord keeps the security deposit until you have satisfied the contract and paid the $30,000 (or until someone else takes over the lease). So the landlord returns the security deposit, in this case, within 21 days of the end of your lease, not 21 days after you move out.

  • Melissa Glick

    What about for medical reasons? My tenant is a 70 year old man and since he was coming from another country he had a friend come see the condo. From the 2nd fl the stairs to the laundry in the basement are thin and steep. It makes perfect sense and he says it is giving him heart palpitations.

    But Oct 15th is a difficult time to find a new tenant. I have assured him that I am trying to fill it as fast as I can, but he is insistent about not paying more than one month’s rent.

  • Priscilla

    Hi, so I put an apartment in my name for my cousin, she ended up not paying rent and leaving. I didn’t want the eviction to go on my credit so I kept the apartment and decided to rent it out. I had someone decided they wanted to move in. She paid me a full months rent, I didn’t ask for a deposit, but then she decided because the other person who rented the other room had a food she didn’t want to move in anymore. She wants her money back. I resist in Texas. How many days do I have to return her money?

  • LISA

    Hi Laura,

    I’m a landlord in California. I have a tenant who signed a one-year lease, he paid first month’s rent and last month’s rent and a security deposit. He let me know that he’s moving out after staying for 3 months. Also, he did not give a 30-day notice. He will be leaving before his last month’s rent is used. My question is this: is it in my rights to keep the last month’s rent and not return it? Thank you!

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Lisa,
      When your tenant signs a 1-year lease, they agree to pay you the full year, only broken into 12 payments. So your tenant owes you for the entire lease term unless you re-rent or unless you allow a lease-break fee and they pay that. If and when one of those happen, then your tenant no longer owes you.

      • Alex

        But do you charge last month’s rent plus the lease break fee? Or just the lease break fee? Let’s say they give 30 days “notice” to break a lease, but move out 2 weeks later. Can you keep the full last month’s rent (for the 30 days notice in full) PLUS the 1.5 times monthly rent lease break fee? Thanks!

  • Rubi

    Hello, im just wondering if what i need to do. I am signing the lease for 12months . And my lease should be end by december of this year. But i told my landlord that i will be moving my the end of november. Is that okay that my landlord wants to inspect the house even tho i still live in here? He said he needs to check the house before he decide to let me go. I don’t think that its right. I told him just inspect it once i completely move out but he said no. Why is he doing that? I don’t have any rights?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Rubi,
      You can move whenever you like. But if you have a lease that goes through December, you still need to pay for December whether you are living there or have moved. The exception is if your landlord re-rents to someone else who will pay December rent, or if your landlord just lets you out of the lease for some reason. Regarding an inspection, landlords can inspect their property as long as they give their tenants proper notice.

      • Rubi

        This is what happened, i signed a lease for 12 months. So my lease should be end this December. But i told him that i just move out end of next month. So is there any way i can just pay him with my Deposit coz i haven’t work for over 2 months now due to my pregnancy complication. But i didn’t tell him the reason. So, he told me that he can help on one condition, that the house required to be very clean. It could be possibility. So i assumed that he agree with me. So i thank him. But then few days later, he texted me that he want to inspect the house tomorrow or sat. I told him just inspect it once i completely moved out coz i still live in here. And this is what he replied:

        • Rubi

          Can not, I need to make sure it will be good shape for a buyer (Paint/cleaning/ maint)before I can approve for ur move out November. Technically u re responsible till December and using ur DP. I dont know what shape is in currently. Again, u re renting from me. Lmk if I can inspect or u need more time.

          I understand that i am renting, but where’s my privacy tho? There’s also a big reason why i want to move out ASAP. I can’t tell in here 😔 its really comolicated thats why i need a free legal advice but don’t know where can i get one (sigh)

  • Tineen

    Hi, I have a tenant who signed a 1yr lease last month and 4 days into the lease she’s telling me she cannot afford the home and wants to break the least. Tenant agreed to move out at the end of that month, but moved out 5 days into the next month. The tenant is now requesting her deposit back. She didn’t clean the place and I had to take all her unwanted trash she had in the backyard to the streets. She owes me for lost of rent and cleaning. She stayed five days over into the new month and I lost a months rent. No deposit right?

  • Sam

    I signed a year lease in June but had a job transfer in July. Before I moved out I sent them more then a 30 day notice that I was moving due to job transfer. In the leasing agreement if does say to give a 30 day notice in which I did. It does not say anything about a early termination fee. Can they technically still make me pay for the remaining lease term?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Sam,
      I can’t comment on individual leases. Generally, when you sign a lease, everything in the above article applies. Get clarification on what the 30-day notice means in your lease. It could refer to before your lease ends, you need to let them know your intentions.

  • Eric

    My tenant signed a two-years lease in May 2018. Then, he informed me in early October that he will only stay still mid-November due to job relocation out of state. He moved out around November 5th without informing me but mailed me a check with only half month rent of November, though I told him that he is still responsible for the rent until a new tenant is secured, which my realtor has been trying. Can I deposit the half month rent check without impacting any claim I am going to file in court? What should I do with the appliance that my tenant left behind? Can I use the security deposit to cover lost rent and file a claim to recover any lost rent until a new tenant is secured? I do not even have the tenant out of state address.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Eric,
      I’m not an attorney, so this is not legal advice. From my understanding as a landlord, you would not accept partial payment if you are evicting. But since you are not evicting, I would think you can keep the half month’s rent and the security deposit, and you can sue for the remainder of what your tenant owes. Once you re-rent, you will know how much you can sue for. Here are two more articles that can answer the appliance and the address questions. Good luck! https://www.landlordology.com/abandoned-personal-property/comment-page-1/ https://www.landlordology.com/find-deadbeat-ex-tenants/

      • Eric

        Laura,

        Per you advice, “…I would think you can keep the half month’s rent and the security deposit…”, by California rule, am I supposed to return whatever left after the itemized cost for tenant caused repairs and if I can secure a new tenant within 21 days in this case? If I am, what if I still could not secure a new tenant within the 21 days, could I continue to keep the security deposit? Please advise. Thank you,
        Eric

  • Sam Kamali

    Hello my landlord kicked me out early of the apartment because violates and now request for 2 months extra rent. I don’t know what is my right and what shall i do?

  • Elvira

    Hello. My tenant just notified me that he needs to leave the rental place due to personal and financial reasons. He will be leaving tonight the same day he notified me. He still has 5 months for the lease to terminate. Is there a no charge written landlord and tenant agreement where states that he is responsible for the 5 months of rent left and to list how we agreed for him to pay the monies?
    Thank you.

  • Pretti

    Hello,

    My tenant has left within 3 weeks and refuses to pay rent. Upon receiving keys he has done some damage which can not be regular wear and tear. Refuses to pay for damage and rent. He has left the country. What are my rights as a landlord? Any advise or help is appreciated. Thank you.

  • Rachel

    My landlord threatened to evict me after she accused my guest of smoking in the building. She took ny second set of keys which prevented my children from entering the build from school in the winter then charged me $30 fee for maintenance letting them in the building and my apartment. I called the real estate and they didn’t care, the said if I found another apartment I could ask the building manager about moving early. Could they take my keys and charge me to get into my apartment for that?

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