Can My Tenant Break the Lease?

Written on December 20, 2016 by , updated on July 21, 2020

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.


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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144 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:

      • Kay

        Hi Laura,
        My tenant signed a 1 year lease from Aug 2018 to July 2019 but they bought a house and moved out in Jan 2019 and paid up to Jan 2019. Both the tenant and I are looking for a new tenant now. I have their last month rent and a one month worth deposit. They tenant asked me to use the money to pay Feb 2019 rent and the water and sewage bills. Please let me if they cannot do that. My understanding is that the the last month rent is for July 2019, and the deposit is to be used to cover repair of any damages and cleaning fees at the end of lease. Do I have to do what they they ask for? Also am I obligate to make the time assurance for a 1.5 year lease to the potential sublet tenants if they ask for it at this time? Thank you.

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Kay,
          You can use last month’s rent to cover February 2019. If you get another tenant in for March, then your old tenant no longer needs to pay the rest. You would handle the security deposit as a security deposit, keeping what is needed for cleaning and repairs and returning any leftover. If you don’t rent the place in March, April, May, June or July, your old tenant needs to pay for those months (or until you do re-rent). You can make your new lease with the new tenants for as long or as short as you like. Good luck!

  • 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?


    • 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?


        • 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!

        • Reta Roberts

          I need to know reply to Alex’s question. I gave my tenants a 30 day notice, we have a month to month contract. Their termination date is March 14,2019. Today renter verbally informed my husband (landlord) they will be out by February 28,2019. They are not giving me 30 days notice. Can I charge them until end of my 30 day termination notice and extra 14 days? Including Wi-Fi they pay half. Thank you

          • Laura Agadoni

            Hi Reta,
            For month-to-month, tenant needs to give you the proper notice for your jurisdiction. If that is 30 days, then they pay for the entire next month. Landlords usually charge by the month, not the day. Let’s say your tenant’s rent is due the 1st of the month. They give you a 30-day notice today, which is Feb. 21. That means their last day would be March 31, and you collect rent for all of March. If they leave March 21, you still get all of March rent. Let’s say they stay until April 2. Then they owe you for all of April now since you can’t get April’s rent from a new tenant because they stayed into April. It’s month-to-month, not day-to-day, typically.

  • 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!

      • Eric


        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,

  • 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


    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?

  • tammy

    We had a major downpour in my town and some water got into my tenants unit. The water was dry by the next day and it was in a very small area. I requested she use fans but she never did and in fact left the windows open during the rain. Long story short, even though the unit does not fit the definition of uninhabitable, it is the same as it was 5 days ago before the rain, she wants to leave. I am allowing her to leave, giving the rest of her rent back (pro-rated up until the day of the storm), allowing her to keep her belongings in the unit for 2 weeks and the deposit will be returned based on the condition of the unit when she leaves. I think I am being more the accommodating but she’s threatening me with legal action.

  • Yu

    Hello, I have to move out early because of the second-hand smoke in my apartment, it comes from the cracks in the walls from the apartments near and downstairs. It affects my health so I have to move out. There are some other issues with the rental unit which must be fixed by the landlord but the major one is the one which affects my health. I have tried to contact the landlords, they hang up on me, not answering the phone calls and emails nor text messages. I have contacted them with the move out notice but when I try to arrange a meeting or talked to them so we could talk about termination fees(which are not listed in the lease) they just do not respond.
    What is the best way to deal with that situation?
    Thank you so much for the advice.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hello Yu,
      If there are no termination fees in the lease, that usually means you cannot break the lease. You can move anytime you like, but you are probably liable for the rent until your lease term ends or until your landlord re-rents the place. If the place is uninhabitable, you would have grounds to break your lease. That is something you would need to prove.

  • Jin


    I am a tenant and just signed another year of lease last month. My lease has a clause that says I need to pay two months of rent in case I break the lease. I am considering breaking the lease because a new neighbor that moved in below my apartment unit smoke Marijuana and whenever I turn on the AC/heater my whole apartment smell Marijuana. It looks like the ventilation is connected. I cannot keep inhaling it especially I have little kids living with me. If I break the lease and pay two months termination fee, can landlord do anything against me? To hurt my credit for example? Or seek to get more money from me?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Jin,
      Since you have an early termination clause in your lease, contact your landlord to let them know you plan to use it. Find out the procedure, such as whether notice is required from you, and if so, how much. Pay the 2 months of rent, and get a receipt stating that you have fulfilled your lease agreement by terminating early and by paying the required termination fee (or words to that effect). If you follow your lease terms and pay the 2 months rent (termination fee) your credit will not be hurt, and you won’t need to continue paying rent after paying the termination fee.

  • Jason


    We rent a house in Colorado. We ended our lease early because we bought a house and are paying the required early termination fee. This comes out of our security deposit once the property management company finds replacement tenants.

    Fortunately we were able to find replacement tenants for them very quickly. They are signing a lease and moving in _before_ the end of the month (7 days). But, we have paid for the _entire _ month’s rent already.

    Are we entitled to get back that 7 days rent? Seems odd we’d be required to pay for these tenants to live there. If so, do we get this from the property management company or the new tenants? How long do we have to wait to get back that prorated amount?


    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Jason,
      I can’t comment on specific situations. You need to find out the answer from your management company. You do seem to be confusing two situations though, and you need to be clear what your lease says. You either pay an early termination fee or you pay rent until the place is re-rented. You don’t do both. And regarding paying rent, you typically pay for a full month even if you are there only one day into the new month. Rents are usually paid by the month, not by the day. Sometimes you might get a prorated amount, but again, that is a deal between you and your landlord/management company that should be in the lease. Good luck!

  • Brendan

    I have been living in a place for two weeks there are a lot of ants and two dead mice we found in basement.. I want to end lease.. There were ant sepcalist who came and said the ants will not leave the wood is wet and white under the house..

  • kathy

    my daughter and her friends are in college and were going to move to a different apartment complex and they all figured out that they couldn’t afford to move there. They haven’t moved in and the complex had a special deal to get students to sign a lease early. No deposits, and no security deposits. They were promised a $100.00 gift card when they moved in. I read her lease and there is no penalty in the agreement about getting out early. The girls had already found someone take over the lease for the next year. There move in date in is August of 2019. The complex told them they still had to pay a $350.00 fee to get out of it and they already found 4 renters.

  • Nick

    Our landlord has given us a notice to vacate at the end of the lease because they are selling the home. However our end of our lease is four months away and we have found a new home but they will not let us move. Start to feel like a hostage,!

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Nick,
      No need to be so dramatic. Your landlord can’t make you stay or hold you “hostage.” You are free to move whenever you like. But if you move early, you will still need to pay for rent until the end of your lease term.

  • Lika

    Hi, I have a tenant that moved out two months early, I set up a payment plan for the one month only and got it re-rented for the last month. Do I still return the remaining deposit after the cleaning expenses ?

  • Donna Garrison

    We bought a new build home in Jan. to rent. An interested party who lived in another state contacted us and wanted to move in Feb. 5th. On Feb 1, she said her work transfer has been delayed to March 19. We are now losing over a month’s rent. We held the home for her because she provided a signed 1 yr lease and a small down payment towards security deposit funded by her nephew. I contacted her to arrange a meeting time for the 19th and she informed me she quit her job & taking a different course. She Never moved in after signing lease. Can we charge her a pro-rated amt for the time that she was to move in (3/19) to the date that another tenant moves in (4/10)? We turned away people as we held the home for her. Is so, how do we collect?

  • Carrie

    Hi, I live in CA. My lease doesn’t end until April 30 but my landlord violated rights by entering without notice. Now planning to move out first week of April. Do I still owe for the remainder of lease even though he violated?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Carrie,
      Your landlord shouldn’t have done that. But you still need to pay rent. If he entered without notice and it shook you up to the point that you had to get out immediately and never return, you might have a case for breaking the lease. But if you stay, then you need to pay. And whether you stay until April 30 or move out the first week of April, you owe for all of April since the landlord can’t re-rent for April with you still there.

  • chris foster

    Hello if I decide to move out early and break my lease will that still be considered an eviction?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Chris,
      Leaving early and breaking the lease is not an eviction. But you still need to do one of the following, depending on your situation: pay a lease break fee (if your landlord offers or allows this), pay rent for the rest of the lease term, pay rent until your landlord re-rents. If you just leave without paying what you owe, your landlord could take you to small claims court.

  • James F

    Hi Laura, emergency contact informed me on 6th day of the 11th month (of a 12 months lease) that tenant had to vacate premises because of a medical situation and will not be returning to their rental home. Home was indeed vacated. Rent for the 11th month was not paid. Security deposit is currently held and can be applied to unpaid rent as per lease. Early termination fee is 2 x rent (but remaining lease term was two months). I can’t get in touch with emergency contact or tenant anymore. What options would you consider in this scenario?

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