Breaking a lease can be a difficult and costly experience. It is very important that tenants understand that a lease is a legal contract. We are always amazed by tenants who seem surprised to find that this is the case, regardless of how many times we tell them prior to signing the lease.
That said, leases can be broken but the consequences for doing so can be severe. You may be required to pay rent through the end of your original lease term or until a new tenant is found. You could also be taken to court or find yourself in collections, both of which can deeply impact your credit — not to mention hurt your rental reference for future tenancy with another landlord.
Breaking your lease should be your last resort. If you find yourself forced down this path, we recommend following the below steps to help minimize your costs and the negative consequences of breaking a lease.
1) Read the leasing documents thoroughly. Pay particularly close attention to the stated lease term, notice requirements, and lease breaking rules or costs. Not all landlords include the last two items in their leases or addenda (but they should), so don’t be surprised if they aren’t mentioned.
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: Leases and addenda items can get very lengthy. However, best practice is to provide more information versus less about important monetary and legal matters. Outline your lease breaking policy as well as base costs in the lease or addenda to save from scrambling later. Having a signed policy in place can help your position in court, especially if you are consistently sticking to that policy.
2) Talk to your landlord. Most landlords will understand extenuating circumstances, such as job loss or mandatory relocation, marital separation, or other unexpected emergencies. Be up front with them, no matter what the reason is for wanting out of your lease. Your honesty and forthrightness may make the difference between a helpful and cooperative landlord or one who refuses to budge.
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: Do your best to be understanding and helpful, regardless of the tenant’s situation or past rental history. This is a stressful experience for both of you and being resistant and difficult will not help you to rent the unit any faster or recoup any of your expenses. In fact, a scorned tenant is far less likely to pay and more likely to fight any charges in court. Be professional and remember it is your legal obligation to mitigate damages to the best of your ability.
3) Find your own subleaser, if your landlord allows. Not all landlords will allow subleasing or for tenants to find their own subleaser so be sure to ask if this is an option. If it is, you can save tons of money on your lease breaking — not to mention earn the appreciation of your landlord — by doing your own advertising and showings.
Pre-screen interested parties before you let them into your home by asking about their job, if they smoke or have pets, how many people would be living in the unit, and why they are moving. You’ll also want to let them know what the application requirements are and stress that applicants probably need to have good credit and positive rental references — those are going to be standard no matter who your landlord is.
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: Allowing tenants to show their own unit to prospective applicants not only saves you time and money but can help reel in a new tenant faster. No one sells their home better than someone who needs to get out of a lease.
4) Sign a break lease agreement. This tip might be geared more towards your landlord but it offers you protection as well. Getting it in writing that your landlord consents to end your lease provides you legal protection in the event that something goes awry and the landlord claims that you are still liable through the end of your lease.
That said, expect the document to show that you will be held liable until the end of your lease or a new tenant takes occupancy, whichever comes first. It should also lay out in detail the fees for breaking your lease. Do not simply take the landlord’s word that they will or won’t charge certain things — get it in writing to protect yourself.
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: The same advice applies to you. Put everything in writing to protect yourself and ensure that you will be compensated for the additional costs of re-renting a unit. You also want this to ensure that you don’t end up with two leases on one property, should your exiting tenant change their mind on breaking the lease. This could be a legal and financial nightmare for you and it truly is in your best interest to have everything in writing before you begin marketing the property for rent.
Our break lease agreement states the following:
- “Tenant is seeking to end tenancy as of [DATE]. Tenant is responsible for all rents and utilities until the original Lease ending date or until another tenant begins to occupy the unit, whichever comes first.”
- “Tenant is requesting that the Landlord relet the property as of the above date and understands that the Landlord will market the property as available to a new occupant following their requested move out date. When and if a new tenant is secured for the property, the current Tenant(s) must vacate the above property according to this Agreement.”
- “Tenant understands that by breaking the original Lease Agreement, they are voluntarily terminating their Lease prior to the stated and as such they may be subject to lease breaking fees including all costs of re-renting the property.”
- “Tenant acknowledges that they fully understand that a monetary cost for breaking the Lease Agreement will be incurred and enforced if a Subleaser or new tenant is required due to the Lessee breaking the Lease Agreement prior to Lease expiration. These costs could be substantial. Base costs for breaking a lease are as follows: …” (List your minimum break lease fees, including if they find their own tenant or if you must find one for them, the cost per showing, document preparation fees, advertising costs, etc.)
5) Keep your unit clean and presentable. Moving is a stressful and messy process. However, it can make it far more difficult to rent your unit if it looks like a tornado has torn through it. It is in everyone’s best interest to keep everything as neat and tidy as possible throughout the showing process.
Best practice for packing while you’re still actively living in the home is to box up all of the items that you don’t immediately need, label the boxes, and either leave them neatly stacked in the room they came from or find one common area for them to be stored until moving day. Prospective tenants will absolutely sympathize with this. They generally don’t see past piles of clothes on the floor, dirty dishes piled in the sink, and other untidiness. Keeping everything clean will help prospects envision their family in the home, surrounded by their own furniture and possessions.
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: Don’t be afraid to reach out to tenants on any cosmetic issues like this that arise. Recently we asked a lease breaker to keep his blinds pulled up (he had broken them), keep his boxes organized (we could hardly make a path through the family room), and work on the landscaping (it was like a jungle had taken over). He hadn’t considered that these things would help us rent the unit faster and immediately complied. It worked as intended and we had a lease signed in days.
Just be polite and explain that you understand they are in the process of moving but these improvements could greatly help get unit rented faster and get them off the hook.
6) Communicate with your landlord throughout the process. Do your best to touch base with the landlord and keep them posted with your moving timeline. Doing so will encourage them to do the same. Make sure you are aware of what is expected of you for re-renting the unit, showings, leasing, and move-out.
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: Keep your tenant updated as to the progress on reletting the unit. They will sleep a little easier once they know it has been rented. It is also very important that you notify tenants of your expectations for showings, leasing, and move-out. (See more below)
7) Leave the property move-in ready. This is where a lot of tenants go wrong — lease-breakers or otherwise. Whether the landlord has expressed it to you or not, they expect you to leave the unit spotless and move-in ready — meaning that someone could theoretically move in right after you move out. It doesn’t matter what condition you found the home in; it’s still your responsibility to leave it better than how you found it or your security deposit may pay the price for that.
Clean everything from top to bottom. Walls, window sills, under appliances, vacuum the edges, wipe out every drawer, scrub every floor. Ask your landlord for a move-out or cleaning checklist. If they don’t have one, use ours as a guideline. Be sure to find out if you are required to clean the carpets or not and schedule the appointment as close to your move-out date as possible. And don’t forget to return your keys and garage door openers!
PRO TIP FOR LANDLORDS: Coming back to the previous item regarding communication, you’ll want to be sure that you clearly outline your move-out expectations. Provide a move-out checklist to tenants and give them cleaning requirements. Let them know exactly how much it will cost for you to clean that oven or replace those blinds. Give them the opportunity to make things right on their own. It will make the turnover go much more quickly and smoothly, plus maybe prevent frustration at surprise charges against their deposit.