What Happens If You Break Your Apartment Lease Early?

Let's unpack your rights and responsibilities

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what happens if you break a lease

Breaking a rental agreement early is never ideal. But sometimes, it’s your least bad option. 

How it goes largely depends on the way you communicate your decision to your landlord and the steps you take to make the process as smooth as possible.

Will I be penalized for breaking my apartment lease?

It depends. 

Some landlords will allow tenants to break their lease under certain circumstances, such as if they find a replacement tenant to take over their contract or if they provide whatever the landlord considers sufficient notice.

However, there are potential risks that come with breaking a lease agreement.

Penalty fees

Rental contracts state exactly how long you are responsible for paying rent. Standard contracts are for one year, but may be longer or shorter. 

When you sign a rental contract, you are agreeing to all terms and conditions. That means that if you don’t pay rent for the given time period, you could be responsible for paying an early termination fee. Early termination fees usually equal two to four times the monthly rent and aren’t covered by renters insurance, so it’s important to plan accordingly.

Getting sued

in rare cases your landlord may sue you over a broken lease

A landlord may decide to sue a tenant who breaks a lease early, although it’s more likely that they’ll charge penalty fees before taking legal action.

To avoid landing in court, pay close attention to the contract details regarding breaking your lease early. It’s likely that you can avoid a lawsuit if you can work out a deal with your landlord or simply adhere to his or her stipulations for breaking the lease.

Difficulty renting apartments in the future

A record of breaking your lease early could lead landlords to think twice before accepting your application to rent an apartment.

Landlords want to sign contracts with reliable tenants who they can trust will pay their monthly rent. Many rental applications include a question about if you’ve ever broken a lease, and answering “‘yes” may cause your potential landlord to question your commitment and disqualify you as a tenant.

Additionally, leaving on bad terms with a past landlord can jeopardize future rental opportunities if a potential landlord asks for a reference. That makes it all the more important to do everything you can to break your lease amicably, and to explain to potential future landlords up-front why you had to break your lease.

Drop in credit score for unpaid penalty fees

Simply breaking a lease won’t harm your credit score. But if you fail to pay any penalty fees imposed by your landlord, your score could take a hit. 

A drop in credit score not only affects your future as a renter, but can have a lasting impact on many financial decisions, such as buying a house, car, or taking a bank loan. 

While landlords don’t usually report unpaid penalty fees to credit bureaus, they will likely send your debt to a collection agency, who will report it. 

When am I legally allowed to break a lease?

There are certain circumstances in which a tenant can legally break their lease. The following are instances in which a tenant is legally allowed to do so, but keep in mind the specifics may vary by state.

Military service

active military duty is a valid legal reason to break a lease

As part of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, members of the military and commissioned officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Public Health Service are legally allowed to break their lease if called for active military duty at least 50 miles away. However, tenants are still required to give their landlords 30 days notice.

Illegal contract

An illegal contract could mean that the landlord rented out an illegal space or the apartment building was not up to code. 

If a tenant learns that their contract was illegal, they have the right to vacate without any penalty.

Domestic violence

Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are legally allowed to break their lease. To take advantage of these protections, tenants must provide written notice of their desire to break the lease. Additionally, most states require at least 30 days notice, although some require more.

Improper upkeep

If a landlord doesn’t keep up their end of the contract to maintain the building and the rented unit, a tenant may be able to break their lease early. Not adhering to safety codes and lack of running water both count as improper upkeep of an apartment.

How to break an apartment lease

Letting your landlord know you’ll be leaving your apartment early can be nerve-racking, but by following the right steps, you can make it far less stressful for both yourself and your landlord.

Start by reviewing your lease

review your rental contract before breaking your lease early

Before speaking with your landlord, make sure you know what’s legally required before breaking your lease early. 

Review your apartment contract thoroughly and see what it says about early lease termination. Pay close attention to legal repercussions, if the landlord allows you to find a replacement tenant, and what the penalty fees are. 

If you have any difficulty understanding your rights and responsibilities outlined in the contract, you should speak with an attorney for clarification.

Speak with your landlord

How you communicate your desire to break the lease early will depend on your overall relationship with your landlord or property manager. 

Do what’s most comfortable for you, but be open and transparent about your desire to vacate and inquire what the next step is. It’s also recommended to give as much notice as possible so that you and your landlord have time to sort out the details and find a new tenant. This is also essential to maintaining a good relationship with your landlord.

Once you’ve communicated your wish to break the lease, you may need to write a letter of termination or fill out some paperwork.

Find a new renter

If you’re responsible for finding a new tenant, you’ll either have to find someone to sublet the apartment or re-rent it from you. 

Subletting is when a new tenant takes over your current lease, but the contract is still in your name. A subletter will sign a month-to-month lease and be responsible for the remaining rent. That means that any damage they cause will still be considered your responsibility, and you won’t get your security deposit back until their contract is over. 

Re-renting implies finding a new tenant who will sign their own lease with the landlord, relieving you of any responsibility.

Once you and your landlord have worked out a deal, make sure to get all the details in writing. This offers both you and your landlord protection against any disputes that may arise. A comprehensive written lease termination agreement also provides a document you can refer to for clarification, if needed. 

Before we go…

From relocation to job losses to break-ups and beyond, there are many reasons you may have to break your lease. (There are also plenty of instances in which you may be concerned about what happens to your lease—such as what your rights are if your landlord sells their property.)

If you need to break your lease, start the process as early as possible to give your landlord a significant amount of time to find a new tenant. It’s also important to give proper notice and follow all necessary protocol to protect yourself.

Speaking of protection and maintaining good ties with current and future landlords: 81% of landlords say that a tenant’s willingness to get renters insurance can make or break lease deal, so why not get covered? It takes just two minutes to sign up with Lemonade.

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Please note: Lemonade articles and other editorial content are meant for educational purposes only, and should not be relied upon instead of professional legal, insurance or financial advice. The content of these educational articles does not alter the terms, conditions, exclusions, or limitations of policies issued by Lemonade, which differ according to your state of residence. While we regularly review previously published content to ensure it is accurate and up-to-date, there may be instances in which legal conditions or policy details have changed since publication. Any hypothetical examples used in Lemonade editorial content are purely expositional. Hypothetical examples do not alter or bind Lemonade to any application of your insurance policy to the particular facts and circumstances of any actual claim.