How to break a lease without SCRA

By Kate Horrell,

Sometimes, life doesn’t go the way you plan.  Good or bad, things happen.  Sometimes those things mean that you want or need to break a lease for a house or apartment.  Now, if you’re breaking a lease because the military member has Permanent Change of Station (PCS) or deployment orders, then you’re good:  the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) provides protections for breaking a lease.  But what if you want to break a lease for other reasons?  Maybe you want to buy a house, or you’re getting married, or getting divorced, or you’re broke and need a roommate, or having triplets, or whatever.  Can you get out of a lease?

A residential lease is a two-way legal document that obligates both the landlord and the tenant to certain things.  The main thing is that the landlord will let the tenant live there, and the tenant will continue living there for the term of the lease.  Generally speaking, the tenant can’t just break the lease.  The tenant is legally obligated to pay rent for the term of the lease.  Period.

Now, there are always exceptions. Unless protected under federal law, like the SCRA, landlord-tenant issues fall under state law.  Most states allow you to move out if there are health or safety issues.  Some states will allow you to move out if you are the victim of domestic violence, or if you are moving on base.  In any of these cases, there is a specific procedure for breaking the lease.

What if you really want or need to break your lease, and you don’t have a PCS move or deployment, and your state doesn’t have an exception for your situation?  There are still things you can do:

Read your lease

The very first step is to read your lease.  Ever single word.  In particular, you want to see if early termination is addressed in the lease.  Some landlords include a break lease fee; it is common to have to give 60 days notice and pay two month’s rent as a penalty.  Other leases may allow you to sub-let the premises, which means that you retain the legal obligation for the property but you can let someone else live there and have them pay rent to you.

Talk to your landlord

Next, talk to your landlord.  You have no idea what’s going on in their world, and you’ll never know unless you start a conversation with them.   Your landlord may have reasons for wanting you to move anyway, or they may feel strongly that you need to stick to the lease agreement.

Get it in writing

If your lease has provisions for early termination, or you come to an agreement with your landlord, put it in writing.  Either send it certified mail with a return receipt, or make two copies and have the landlord sign both copies.  Written notice is very important.  For example, a break lease fee may require that you pay the two month penalty at the time of submitting the written notice, and the 60 day notice won’t start until you’ve paid the fee and provided written notice.

Try to find a replacement tenant

In most states, the landlord has the legal responsibility to try to re-rent the property, and your obligation ends when a new tenant moves in.   If you can find a replacement tenant, then you’ll be free of the rest of the lease.  The landlord is not obligated to change their selection criteria, or go to extra effort to re-rent the property.

You never want to sign a lease that you don’t intend to complete, but sometimes things happen.  If you need to break a lease, taking these steps can help minimize the amount of extra rent that you need to pay and ensure that you won’t find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit down the road.

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