When a Tenant Can Legally Break a Lease
In most cases, a rental lease is a legally binding contract that holds the tenant responsible for rent payments each month for the entirety of the lease period. However, it’s important to note that there are some specific circumstances in which a tenant can break a lease legally, or be excused from their payment responsibilities before the end of the lease period. If you’re a landlord or a tenant, you should be aware of these circumstances when a lease can be broken:
1. The property violates habitability standards
All states require landlords to maintain a rental property in a fit and habitable condition. You should clarify the specific requirements of your state, but it typically includes:
- Following health and safety codes
- Ensuring access to running water
- Providing proper waste bins for garbage
- Performing repairs in a timely fashion
- Keeping all common areas clean
If a property does not meet these requirements, a tenant may file a health or safety complaint to the city. In the case of a complaint, a city inspector will inspect the property and determine if the complaint is valid. If the property has any violations, the landlord will receive a notice to fix the issue within a certain period of time.
In most states, if the landlord does not make the necessary repairs or changes within the time period, the tenant may legally break the lease agreement. They must provide written notice of their intention to terminate the lease and must wait a certain number of days before moving out unless the violation is severe.
2. The landlord violates entry or harassment laws
Typically, a landlord is required to give at least 24 hours’ notice before entering an occupied rental unit, and must also have a legal reason for entering, such as making repairs, inspecting the unit, or showing the unit to prospects.
The tenant may have legal reason to break the lease if the landlord:
- Attempts to enter the rental unit illegally
- Makes continued attempts to enter the unit without proper notice
- Harasses the tenant
Usually, a tenant must obtain a court order against the landlord, and if the court order is violated, the tenant can then provide notice of lease termination.
3. The tenant is active duty military
Active duty military members have certain protections under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA. One of these protections offers the ability to terminate a lease if the tenant receives orders that require relocation for a period of 90 days or longer. Typically, notice must be given 30 days before the termination date and include proof of deployment or change of station orders.
4. The tenant is a domestic violence survivor
Most state laws include protections for victims of domestic abuse or violence. Tenants who have been victims of domestic violence may be able to terminate a lease agreement under certain circumstances. The act of violence usually must have occurred within the last three to six months, and the landlord has a right to request proof of the incident, which may include a copy of an order of protection or a police report documenting the incident. Like other scenarios, tenants typically must provide at least 30 days notice of termination.
5. The rental property is not legal
If a tenant discovers that they are renting an illegal unit, they may terminate the lease agreement without penalty. Depending on the state, tenants may be entitled to a return of a portion of the rent they have paid during the lease term or additional funds from the landlord to assist in finding a new rental.
All landlords and tenants should be aware of the specific lease termination laws in their state, so they can protect themselves or their property. If a tenant terminates a lease illegally, they can face legal consequences such as an eviction or be sued for breach of contract. Typically, if a tenant wants to terminate a lease early outside of one of the above circumstances, an early termination fee applies.