What happens if you break an apartment lease?

Whether you have a problem with your landlord, need to move for a new job, or found a better place to live, breaking an apartment lease may have consequences. While you can break a lease early, you can't always do so without paying a fee or, in some cases, facing a potential lawsuit. Read your contract thoroughly to understand your options before breaking an apartment lease.

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What is the typical penalty for breaking an apartment lease?

There is no typical penalty for breaking an apartment lease early. The consequences you face — if any — depend on the situation. A tenant that leaves a contract with no forewarning and no reason could face a lawsuit, but someone that speaks with their landlord and has a valid reason for leaving, such as a job offer out-of-state, might be able to negotiate an acceptable settlement that’s less than the total amount remaining on the lease.

Where permitted, some leases include provisions regarding early termination fees, such as one to two months' rent. And, even if the lease does not, some landlords are willing to work with tenants. If they can find a new resident willing to take on the lease, the tenant breaking the lease may not have to pay the remaining months' rent. This only typically occurs if you provide the proper notice, though. Contracts typically require some notice— such as 30 days— before leaving.

Failing to provide this notice can result in the landlord charging the entire remainder of the contract at once. Before you sign a lease, learn what questions to ask when renting an apartment.

How to break an apartment lease

Read your rental contract

If you need to end your apartment lease early, find out what terms you agreed to and what the contract says about potentially breaking the lease early.

Speak with your landlord

Explain your reasons for wanting to break the apartment lease early. If you're able, offer to help find a new renter to take your spot. While that responsibility typically falls to the landlord, offering to help shows that you're willing to make the transition as easy as possible.

Review the termination offer

Your landlord may give you a termination offer. You should expect and be ready to pay at least a small fee for breaking the lease early. If your landlord is uncooperative or tries to charge exorbitant fees, it can be a good idea to seek legal advice. You might also look for a tenant's union in your area for advice. These unions will know what landlords can and can't do upon breaking a lease early and exist to help protect tenants.

Pro tip:

Thoroughly read your rental agreement before you sign it. If you don't fully understand it, seek legal advice. Know what you are signing before you agree.

What are good reasons for breaking a lease early?

There are only a few circumstances when breaking an apartment lease is possible with no penalty, depending on your state and situation. You may wish to seek legal advice in these circumstances.

If your apartment is unsafe or violates health codes

If living in the apartment puts your health at risk, you may be able to break the lease and move. According to most state guidelines, housing must be "fit and habitable." If you don't have running water for an extended period, there are dangerous gas leaks, or other unsafe situations, the home may not fit to inhabit. However, make sure to document every incident if the situation goes to court. And your lease may require you to first notify your landlord of the defect to give the landlord an opportunity to remedy the defect before you can break the lease.

You start active military duty and are called to deploy

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protects military service members if they are called to active duty.

Your landlord enters your home without advance notice

Your home is considered your personal space, and as such, you expect privacy. If your landlord enters to perform repairs or changes the locks without first informing you, you may have a legal cause to break your lease early.

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