Signing a lease on an apartment definitely has its pros and cons. With the standard one-year lease, you’re guaranteed a place to live at a fixed rate for that period of time. Simultaneously, you’re bound to that contract and can’t simply leave without financial repercussions. Fortunately, there are some ways to still have flexibility while under a lease and to limit the financial damage if you want or need to break that lease. Here are some of the tips I’ve learned after dealing with several landlords.
1. Find out if you’ll be able to sublet your apartment. Every lease that I’ve signed has said that tenants are not allowed to sublease the apartment, at least not without landlord approval. However, I’ve found that subleasing is rarely a problem, as most landlords seem to be indifferent as long as they don’t lose any rental income. If you’re unsure, ask the landlord before moving in what their policy is on subtenants. If, for some crazy reason, they won’t allow subleases under any circumstances, you might want to consider renting elsewhere. I don’t think this will be the case for most situations, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask the landlord ahead of time.
2. Figure out how sublettable your apartment will be. I currently pay $400 a month to rent, which is on the low end for the city I live in. Since it’s a decent apartment for a cheap price, I’m confident that I’ll never have a problem subletting if I decide to leave. Subletting can be stressful and difficult, especially in places where there’s an abundance of rooms available. However, marketing an inexpensive apartment in a highly-desirable neighborhood means that there will be much more interest should I decide to leave.
3. Lower rent to lower liability. While we all obviously want to pay as little as possible for an apartment, an overlooked advantage of lower rent is that you’ll simply owe less if you move out early. It merely comes down to simple math that paying rent owed for an apartment you don’t live in that’s $400 a month is much less painful than $800 a month. If you’re moving somewhere that you’re not certain you will stay, consider a lower rent on a less-fancy apartment for this reason, too.
4. Negotiate the terms of your lease. If you know you want to be in a apartment less than a year, see if the landlord will accept a lease term shorter than 12 months. It never hurts to ask, and you’ll often be surprised how easily you can negotiate with very little time or effort on your part.
Also, try to negotiate as small of a deposit as possible. I’m not saying this so you can trash the place and have as little money on the hook as possible (plus, you can still be taken to court for further damages). But if you need to break your lease, for whatever reason, your landlord will have less of your money in their hands already.
5. Give plenty of notice. If you must leave, make sure to give your landlord as much notice as possible. Many landlords are nice about this and will try to find a replacement to fill your unit. Giving your landlord more notice gives them more time to advertise the apartment and find someone new.
6. Force landlords to mitigate your loss. In many states, landlords are required to search for a replacement tenant to mitigate the tenants’ loses. While some landlords may be good about this, they’re also still entitled to receive rent from you while they are searching. I haven’t had any experience with this, but I would anticipate that not all landlords are inclined to put 100% effort into their search for a replacement tenant. Still, it’s their responsibility to do something about it and reminding them of law is a good idea for your own sake.
7. Carefully read the terms of your lease (and use them to your advantage). If your landlord has violated terms of the lease, like invading your privacy, you may have grounds to terminate the contract. If they’ve failed to properly maintain the property, that could be grounds for breaking a lease, too. But just because you believe that the landlord has violated the lease doesn’t mean you can simply walk away. Landlords aren’t likely to give in easily, so prepare for resistance and even legal action if you simply try to move out. At the very least, your security deposit is on the line.
8. Stop paying rent. This applies only in the worst-case scenario where your landlord is awful and you have no other recourse. You’ll probably be evicted, which is not good when searching for new apartments. In many states, you are allowed to leave if your apartment has become uninhabitable. In either case, you’re probably going to have to fight to get your security deposit back.
Before making any choices related to breaking your lease, consider the ethics of your decision. While many of the tactics are favorable for tenants trying to escape a lease, I’m not advocating screwing over your landlord. Whenever you can, be fair and honor your lease and try to come to an agreement with your landlord if you must leave.
Have you ever had to break a lease? How did you do it?
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photo by: seier+seier