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How can I cancel my apartment lease?
Need to move early? How to break your lease agreement
Do you need to get out of your lease? Maybe your plans changed or you lost your job. Whatever the reason it can be done. Canceling your apartment lease may not be easy or free, but it can be done. When you signed your lease agreement, you signed a contract. Like any other contract, there are certain things you agreed to such as how much rent you will pay and how long you have to pay that rent. If you cannot fulfill your lease obligations, there are ways to try to cancel your apartment lease. If you are lucky, your landlord will let you blackout of your lease. If you are not so lucky, you may end up owing a bit after your move.
5 Considerations for getting out of your lease
1. Know your rental lease
Read your lease! This is the most important piece of advice we can give you so grab your favorite beverage, sit down in a quiet space and read away (it’s a pretty important general tip, but it’s especially important in this circumstance).
Written into the lease, you’ll find the consequences for breaking it. Be sure to read it carefully to see if you understand the circumstances, the consequences you may be facing, and what you can and can’t do.
If you’ve noticed the lease agreement looks pretty similar from one apartment to the next, you are not wrong. Many landlords use the standard National Apartment Association (NAA) “Click & Lease” template — it’s reported to be used in over 20,000 communities in 46 states.
The NAA created it so there would be some uniformity across apartments around the country, and to make agreements just a little easier and fairer for tenants and landlords. Judges are also familiar with it and its tried and true nature, so are able to rule more predictably as a result.
2. Do you have a reason to cancel your lease with little or no penalty?
There are a lot of reasons why you might want (or need) to break your lease. Maybe you got a job in another state. Maybe you can’t stand your neighborhood. Maybe you just can’t afford your rent anymore. Some of the reasons that could drive you to break your lease are reasons that a landlord might understand, and they might be more inclined to give you leeway.
- Health crisis — Maybe there was a death or illness in your family and you have no choice but to leave your apartment (and maybe even your city and state) and move back home. In these unfortunate circumstances, talk to your landlord to see if you can work out a mutual termination of the lease.
- Active military — Maybe you’re joining the army and have to report for basic training. Give your landlord written notice and a copy of your military orders (and plenty of notice, like 30 days), and you should be able to break your lease.
- Victim of domestic violence — In certain states (such as Nevada and Washington), victims of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, stalking, or sexual abuse can break a lease and move, if necessary. Even if it’s not required by law in your state, your landlord may let you out of the lease if you fall into one of these unfortunate categories.
- Habitability issue — Your landlord is required to keep your apartment in livable condition, so if it’s unsafe or unlivable, you can break your lease. There are a number of factors that could contribute to a place being uninhabitable, such as danger from lead or asbestos, lack of heat or hot water, or other dangerous conditions. If these are met, you should be able to break your lease.
- Early-termination clause — This is one reason why it’s smart to read your lease, as it may already contain an early-termination clause. It would typically contain a buyout clause, where you could pay a certain amount (typically 1-2 month’s rent) to get out of your lease early. It’ll cost you a bit, but you’ll be free and clear once you pay the fee.
- Moving due to job requirement/new job offer — You typically don’t have control over whether your job transfers you to another location, or if your dream job ends up being in another state. This happens and, most of the time, your landlord will be pretty open to a mutual termination of your lease.
If your financial circumstances change (you lose your job, perhaps), you may be able to renegotiate with your landlord for a lower monthly rent. They may prefer getting a little less money from you each month to losing you as a tenant and having to go out and find another one.
This is especially relevant these days, as COVID-19 is affecting all of us. It’s created economic hardships for many of us, and lots of people have lost their jobs or had their hours cut back because of the pandemic. While some legal protections regarding COVID-19 have expired, it’s always a good idea to speak to your landlord if the pandemic has affected your income. They’ll probably be reasonable and you may be able to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement.
3. No matter what your reason, talk to your landlord
Even though this may be a difficult conversation to have, it’s an important one, and you should have it as soon as you can. You’re going to want to get your landlord on your side, so talking to them honestly and openly can start that process along. Call your landlord (or arrange an in-person meeting, if they prefer). This does a few things for you:
- It gives you the chance to make your case. Talking to your landlord lets you tell your story. If you have extenuating circumstances, you can explain them here. You can tell your landlord your reasons for leaving and your plans for dealing with your absence (such as finding another renter to take your place).
- It allows both of you to ask questions. Your landlord will probably have some questions for you, such as the logistics of your leaving (timing, etc.), and you may have some questions for them. They’ll want to know why you’re leaving, when, and how, and you’ll have questions about the consequences and how you’ll exit. It’s best to get these questions out in the open early, so you can get on the same page as best as possible.
- It allows you to get on the same page going forward. Your announcement may come as a surprise to your landlord, so it’s a wise move to make sure you’re clear about what’s happening. And you’ll want to know everything that your landlord is thinking, too. So, after an honest conversation, you can both understand the situation and what you need to do going forward.
“In my experience, it is always best practice to work with your tenants to find a solution that works for both of you. I would rather let a tenant out of their lease then have them stop paying rent. I would lose a lot more in unpaid rent, eviction costs, and property damage than I would if I worked out a deal with them.”
— Shad Elia, owner, WeBuyHousesHere.com
4. Try to make right by your landlord
If you have to break your lease, you can often soften the blow by finding your own replacement. This will give you a chance to avoid some of the nastier consequences of breaking your lease (like getting sued (see above)) and help your landlord absorb the blow of losing you as a tenant (and the income you represent).
You can do this by:
- Giving as much notice as possible. This is always a good idea. The sooner you start the ball rolling, the better your chances of getting a resolution that works for you and your landlord. This gives your landlord time to digest the details of the situation and work with you to figure out how to best resolve it.
- Getting a shorter lease. Most often, renters sign a one-year lease. If you need to break your lease early, you should ask your landlord if you can shift to a shorter lease (say, three months or month-to-month). This could be a nice compromise for both of you.
- Finding a new tenant. This is perhaps the easiest way to balance the scales for your landlord. If you need to leave and you can find another tenant to take your place, then your landlord won’t need to worry about filling your spot and losing revenue. You should pull out all the stops and see if you can find your own replacement. Check with your friends, family, and co-workers. Reach out on social media or online (check Craigslist and other local sites where people go to look for housing). If you can find someone who is at least as qualified for the apartment as you are, then you’ve saved your landlord a lot of work and made sure they won’t lose revenue from your departure.
- Transferring your lease. Similar to the above, you might be able to find someone else to take over your apartment. If you do find someone, you might be able to transfer the remainder of your lease over to them. They would take over the responsibility of your lease, and you’d be free and clear. Talk to your landlord about this option to see if the person you have in mind would be a good fit.
- Subletting. Another option is to sublet your apartment for whatever length of time is left on your lease. First, check with your landlord to see if you can do this (see? We told you that communication was key!) and then see if you can find someone to sublet your spot. Again, you can find potential candidates in the same way you looked for new tenants. If you can find someone who is looking for a short-term stay (someone working a temporary internship, maybe, or someone who is only in town for a few months for work), then that person can finish out your lease and it would be as if you never had to break your arrangement with your landlord. If they’re okay with this, then it’s a nice solution that helps out three parties!
- Work out a payment plan. If you’re getting out of your lease early, you’re essentially costing your landlord a chunk of money that you’d already agreed to pay. If you need to move for some reason, you might be able to work out a payment plan with your landlord, paying off the remainder of your rent while still having the flexibility to move out and onto the next phase of your life!
Since you are inconveniencing your landlord and potentially costing them revenue, finding a way to make up for that could go a long way toward convincing them that breaking your lease is no big deal!
5. Seek legal advice
When all else fails, you can seek out a lawyer in my state or your local tenants’ union and get some advice. Laws about breaking leases differ from state to state, and our advice above is sound, but not tailored to your specific state (or your specific situation!).
If you have specific questions about the language in your lease, about what you can and can’t do, or about things your landlord has said and done, you should take some time to talk to a lawyer and get the answers to the questions you may have.
Possible consequences of quitting your lease early
- Losing your security deposit. This is one of the reasons why your landlord required you to put down a security deposit in the first place. It’s a bit of insurance for them. If you need to break your lease, at least they get one month’s cushion before they have to find a replacement for you. This is a bummer for you, as your security deposit is not a small chunk of change, but this consequence is likely spelled out in your lease and is a pretty common one for people who break their leases.
- Getting sued. This is a common outcome if you can’t come to another arrangement with your landlord (see below for ways to try and avoid this outcome). If your landlord is unsatisfied with your reasons for leaving, unable to find someone else to rent the space to, or just aggravated (or prone to suing), there’s a good chance you’ll be called into court. Your landlord will try to get the balance of the rent that you owe. You can defend yourself or end up dropping a lot of money to break your lease.
- Your credit will be affected. There are a few possible negative financial consequences that you may face if you break your lease. A judge may decide that you need to pay your landlord back, in full or in a payment plan (see below). Your credit may also be affected by this kind of judgment, which can create problems for you down the line (See below).
- Debt collection and garnishment. If a judge enters a credit judgment against you, you’ll be required to pay back the money you owe your landlord. You may be referred to a collection agency, and you may even have your wages garnished to pay back the amount you owe.
- Difficulty renting the next place. If you do get into a sticky situation involving the law or a credit judgment, expect it to follow you for the foreseeable future. When you apply for your next apartment, your new landlord will know about your credit history and that may hurt you when they decide whether or not to rent you the new place.
The lowdown on getting out of your lease
If you have to get out of your lease, you’re probably in a situation that’s complicated. Your move out may be tricky, but getting out of your lease may not be. Make sure you read the lease and talk to your landlord. That will give you a clear idea as to what your options are.
You may find out that you can take steps to make this situation far less painful than it otherwise would be. Just remain calm, keep communicating, and you’ll end up figuring out the best way to get out of your lease!
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