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It's Hard—but Not Impossible—to Break an Apartment Lease, Here's How to Make It Happen

Kristine Gill

In the event you need to break your current lease, here's exactly what to expect.

Let’s say you’ve landed your dream job across the country, but your lease doesn’t end for another six months. Or, after weeks going back and forth with your landlord, your apartment is still moldy after a flood. Maybe the neighbor upstairs likes to tap dance at midnight. Whatever the reason, you’re looking to break your lease.

When it comes to breaking an apartment lease, Jerry Leazer, a licensed real estate broker in New York City, says there’s one thing you’ll learn quickly: “Not all landlords are created equal, and there is no typical scenario.” But here’s how you can begin to parse out the best solution for your situation.

Read your contract and look for relevant language.

The first step you should take when considering a lease break is to actually read your lease.

Maybe you’re the rare breed who reads contracts before they sign. In that case, you’ll already understand the terms. But if you haven’t, pull out the contract and look for a clause about early move-out.

Michelle Clardie, a professional property manager with rentals in Southern California, says your lease might spell out these terms using phrases such as “lease-break,” “early termination,” “breach of contract,” or “unable to fulfill the terms.”

Prepare to pay the fines.

You’ll always have the option to break a lease, but you’ll also likely have to pay. “If you're breaking your lease, you're the one in breach of contract,” Clardie says. “In most cases, landlords are willing to work with you to some degree because they don't really want a vacant unit, but you can't expect the landlord to allow you to break your lease without consequence.”

Instead, prepare to pay some hefty fines. Many states, including California, require two months of rent as your lease break fee, Clardie says. Some landlords will also keep your security deposit as part of those terms.

Have a good reason.

Of course, there are some situations that will allow you to break your lease scot-free. Holly McQueen, vice president of GMH Capital Partners, says federal and state laws allow for active military members to terminate a lease early under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

McQueen says you can also break a lease if you’re a senior citizen who’s moving to an elderly care facility. Otherwise, of course, if a landlord has violated the lease by committing health and safety violations, you’ll likely have a good case for leaving. The same goes for significant damage to the property caused by natural disasters.

“Many states will allow domestic violence victims to terminate their leases without penalty,” McQueen adds. Leazer also says that in some states, you have grounds to break your lease if your landlord is harassing you or violating your privacy. “Even though NYC allows lease breaks in the above situations, you may not find it as simple as a phone call to the landlord’s office,” he says.

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Gather all the paperwork.

If you believe you have good reason to break your lease without facing fees, the next step is to prepare your paperwork.

“Gather all documentation for the reason you want to break the lease, such as the offer letter for a new job, termination letter for a job loss, military orders for duty, financial hardship due to divorce or medical bills, or court order for stalking/restraining order/domestic violence,” says Candice Williams, a realtor with RE/MAX Space Center.

Consider subletting your space.

If you don’t have a reason to break your lease without fees, but you don’t want to pay any fines, subletting could be an option. Clardie says sublet laws vary by state, but if allowed, the original tenant is ultimately responsible for the condition of the property. “If your subletters fail to pay, or trash the apartment, the landlord can still come after you for damages because you are still legally liable,” she says.

The success of this option really depends on finding a quality subletter you trust. Some landlords will also entertain the idea of letting you off the hook if you present a new tenant who will agree to sign on for a new, full lease.

“The replacement tenant would complete the application process just as any other prospect,” McQueen says. “If they’re approved by the landlord, the tenant would then be released the day the new lease commences.”

There’s also a complicated but well-known roommate shuffle you can perform. Clardie says this involves adding a new roommate to your lease and eventually leaving the apartment to them. It involves signing an addendum to include the new roommate and remove yourself from the lease after a short period.

“Just make sure the new tenants qualify for the lease on their own, and that they’re willing to release you from the lease by signing that final addendum,” Clardie says.

Use the power of negotiation.

If you don’t have a good reason to leave and you can’t find a subletter, don’t despair. “If all else fails, appeal to the landlord’s goodwill,” McQueen says. “Try to give as much advance notice as possible and clean the apartment from top to bottom.”

Mcqueen also suggests working out a repayment plan with the landlord if you can’t pay the lease break fee all at once. “Most landlords would rather collect the past-due amount over time than have to give 20 or 30 percent to a collection agency,” she says.

Say you’re leaving your apartment because you’re buying a new home, but your landlord isn’t receptive to your charm. Clardie says you can ask your realtor to pay the lease break fee for you. And good news: Leazer says it never hurts to have a legitimate sob story that might appeal to your landlord’s better nature. That includes job loss or a serious illness.

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Brush up on state laws.

Do your research on state laws using a site such as the American Apartment Owners Association, which has an interactive map detailing state landlord-tenant laws, and prepare your documentation and talking points.

“Most of the time an honest, but friendly conversation with the landlord is all you need,” Clardie says. But if all else fails....

Know when to bring in a lawyer.

Your last resort should be to contact a lawyer, and only in cases when your landlord is being negligent. “Consider hiring a lawyer if your landlord has violated state housing laws yet still refuses to let your out of your lease without penalty,” Williams says. “Document everything—date, time, who, what, when, and where that the landlord violated the laws or the lease agreement.”

Prepare for the next time.

The next time you sign a lease, prepare for the possibility of an early break. If you’re actively job hunting as you look to renew your lease, Clardie suggests considering a month-to-month option. Or see if there’s a shorter term lease—three or six months—with a premium if you know you’re about to close on a house.

Finally, always read your lease and ask questions. If there’s language or fines you don’t agree with (or don’t understand), look for a different place.

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