Breaking Your Lease When You Can No Longer Afford the Rent

If you do not have provisions in your lease agreement for early termination, you will be liable for the remaining amount of rent due on the lease if you break it early. Before breaking your lease when you can no longer afford the rent, review your lease agreement, speak with your landlord, and consult with a landlord-tenant lawyer in order to protect your rights.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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You have been laid off for over a year, you’ve gone through your savings, and simply can’t afford your rent payment anymore. When it rains, it pours as they say. Breaking your lease seems like the best option. You may picture yourself moving back in with family or finding a cheaper rental agreement. You could also be in a domestic violence situation. In this case, your partner may pick up the remainder of the rent, but if they default and your name is on the lease, you could still be responsible for unpaid rent.

Whatever your situation, before you break your lease, review your lease agreement, visit with your landlord, and consult with an attorney that specializes in landlord-tenant law. How and when you terminate your lease will usually have more long-term consequences than why you are terminating your lease.

A lease is a contract between a landlord and tenant. Unless there is a provision in the lease which would allow you to terminate the tenancy due to financial hardship, you would not be able to break the lease because you lost your job. These type of provisions are rare. However, if you are on good terms with the landlord, you may be able to negotiate an early end to the lease or negotiate a payment plan that fits your new financial situation. It may be in your landlord’s interest to allow you to make installment payments and/or to terminate the tenancy earlier than the original terms of the lease.

Prior to entering into negotiations with your landlord, consider the length of time remaining in your tenancy and how much notice is required to end the tenancy. If your tenancy is month to month, only thirty days written notice is required to terminate the tenancy in most cases. If your rent was paid on the first of the month, and if it is now the 15th of the month, giving your thirty days notice today would mean you would only owe rent until the 15th of next month. In other words, you would only owe one-half the rent for next month. Depending on your financial situation, this may make it easier for you to terminate the tenancy without having to discuss your financial situation or negotiate with your landlord.

If your lease on a rental property is for a year, then negotiating with the landlord an early end to the tenancy may be your best option under the circumstances. It may also be in the best interest of your landlord to allow an early termination so they can find another tenant who would be able to afford the rent. Your landlord is not obligated to allow you to terminate the tenancy earlier than set forth in the lease.

What Responsibilities Does Your Landlord Have If You End Your Rental Agreement Early?

Your contract will dictate the terms of ending your rental agreement early. But your landlord has some responsibilities as well. For example, if there is a willing and appropriate tenant who can take your place, a landlord would be reasonably expected to accept their application. You would need to pay at least up to the point a new person moved in, and a landlord can specify certain damages in some states. But if your landlord is acting unreasonably when they try to sue you for unpaid rent, it could go against them.

There are some protections specifically for military service in housing just as there is in employment. Military branches are supposed to give service members a certain amount of notice before moving them. Federal law SCRA gives military members legal justification to cancel a lease without consequence if certain criteria are met.

Regardless of your rental situation, a property owner still has a duty to mitigate, or reduce, their damages. Your landlord cannot allow your former apartment to remain vacant for the balance of the term. Your landlord must make reasonable efforts to re-rent the apartment in the same way they’d be expected to repair damage if it went beyond a certain point. This is especially true if it makes the unit uninhabitable.

Once the apartment has been rented to another tenant, your obligation to pay rent for the balance of the term of your lease ends. For example, you had a one year lease, but after six months were unable to continue paying rent and moved out. Two months later, a new tenant rents your apartment. Instead of being liable for the rent for the remaining six months of your lease, you would only be liable for the two months the apartment was actually vacant. However, if the new tenant is paying less rent than you paid, you would be liable for the difference in rent for the remaining six months of your term. Because your landlord has a duty to mitigate damages, they cannot simply charge less to the new tenant knowing that you have an obligation to pay the difference in rent for the balance of the term. They must establish a legitimate reason, such as market conditions during the recession, which resulted in the new tenant paying less than you did for the same apartment. If your landlord fails to mitigate, their damages (monetary compensation to be recovered) will be reduced accordingly.

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Can You Break a Lease If There’s Domestic Violence?

Lawyers across the country assist domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking victims in finding appropriate housing every day. Your lawyer will have to look at your individual lease. But, in general, a tenant has the right to flee immediate danger.

If you want to stay in your home in the event of domestic violence, lawyers can also help you navigate securing your current lease. If certain requirements are met, the landlord can change the locks and keep a copy, but not give a copy to the adverse party.

What Should You Do to Break Your Rental Lease Properly?

If negotiations with your landlord do not succeed and you break the lease, you will be liable for the rent for the balance of the term. For example, if your lease was for one year and you had already completed seven months of the lease term, you would still be liable and obligated to pay rent for the remaining five months, even if you moved. This is counterbalanced by the landlord’s duty to mitigate damages by finding another tenant.

If you cannot avoid breaking your lease, you may have some protection if, for example, you’re active duty. In general terms, giving the proper notice and communicating with your landlord and prospective tenants as needed goes a long way.

If you feel you need help navigating the court process, don’t be afraid to call a real estate lawyer. You can schedule a low or no cost consultation to see what your options are. If you choose to move forward, lawyers can direct you through breaking your lease, dealing with a collection agency, and much more. The trick is to contact a legal professional before you start making arrangements.

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