When a Tenant Wants To Break A Lease: A Landlord’s Guide on What to Do

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Picture this: a few months after a new tenant has signed on the dotted line agreeing to pay rent for the next year, they unexpectedly want to move out. While this hopefully won’t happen frequently in your rental process, you will probably come across a tenant wanting to break a lease at some point. It might come sooner than you think as unemployment rates have hit record highs and out-migration has been prevalent throughout the pandemic. Keep reading our guide as we prepare you for when a tenant wants to break a lease.

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5 Reasons Tenants Want to Break a Lease Agreement

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When a tenant approaches you about breaking the lease agreement, before jumping to conclusions, it’s important to understand there are many situations out of their or your control. Being sympathetic, listening to your tenant, and staying mindful of different circumstances will help you understand how you should move forward. While you need to always check local and state landlord-tenant laws, here are five reasons tenants might want to break a lease:

1: Active Military Duty

Active military duty is one of the few times when a tenant is able to legally break a lease without penalty. Active duty military members are covered by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which means a military service member who receives orders to be deployed or to move is allowed to break a lease. It’s important to note, the tenant still needs to follow the proper course of action. Should a service member receive a change of station order during the course of their lease that requires them to relocate for a period of at least 90 days, they must notify the landlord in writing no less than 30 days prior to vacating the rental unit. They also need to provide the landlord with proof they have been relocated, such as a copy of the change of station orders or military deployment.

2: The Tenant Unexpectedly Becomes Unemployed

Job circumstances can change unexpectedly and suddenly. Your tenant might have had a stable job and proof of pay stubs when they signed the lease, but down the road, loses their job. Unless there is a provision in the lease that allows a tenant to break a lease due to financial hardship, the tenant is still responsible for paying rent in a timely manner per the lease agreement. Having a clause related to financial hardship was atypical in the past, but the last year and a half could prompt landlords to include one. Some jurisdictions might require landlords to work with tenants in this situation, or in the case of the pandemic, there may be local or federal moratoriums in place to prevent tenants from being evicted for nonpayment of rent.

If the lease does not include a clause regarding financial hardship, renters should contact the landlord to inquire about alternative options, such as adding a cosigner or negotiating rent. Remember to be sympathetic and communicate with your tenant to come up with a solution that works for the both of you. 

3: Job Transfer

A sudden job transfer is a common reason why tenants may wish to break a lease. Should this happen, the landlord is not obligated to release the tenant from their rental agreement. Landlords should explain to the tenant they must pay the remainder of the lease; a solution for this particular reason could be to allow the tenant to sublet which we’ll explain below. 

4: The Tenant Has Found Another Home

A tenant may come to you and tell you they found a different rental unit to live in, or that they purchased a home and, as a result, need to break the lease. In this case, the landlord is under no obligation to agree to let the tenant out of their rental unit without penalty, especially if it violates the lease agreement and there are no other protections in place. 

5: Environmental Factors

Tenants might want to break a lease based on additional environmental factors. The biggest example of this is domestic violence – the majority of states allow victims of domestic violence to break the lease agreement without penalty by providing landlords with written notice; double-check your state’s landlord-tenant laws to see what protections are in place for domestic violence victims. 

Another environmental factor tenants might want to break the lease because of is an unlivable condition in the rental unit. If landlords have failed to keep the implied warranty of habitability to provide a safe and livable rental unit, tenants may have grounds to break a lease agreement. Once again, always check your landlord-tenant laws, or consult with an attorney to make sure you are staying compliant. 

How to Protect Yourself in the Lease Agreement

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The biggest thing landlords can do to protect themselves when a tenant wants to break a lease is putting the right clauses in the lease agreement itself. Since a lease agreement is a legally binding contract, it’s essential to always review the lease agreement with your tenant so they understand their responsibilities as well as yours as the landlord. Here are some things to include in your lease to help protect yourself when a tenant wants to break the agreement:

  1. Subleasing Clause: If you choose to include a subletting clause in the lease agreement, this can be a great alternative for renters who need to move away suddenly or cannot afford rent anymore. It can be a convenient solution for landlords as the previous tenant will find a replacement renter, and you can sign a new lease with a new renter. Remember to always screen subletters as well to protect your rental investment.
  2. Lease Buyout Fee: A landlord can protect their own interests by including a lease buyout fee in the lease agreement. This requires a tenant to give a 60-day written notice and also pay an additional amount equal to two months’ rent. The money is usually due upon notice, and the 60 day period begins when the fee has been paid and an exact move-out date has been provided. 
  3. Forfeit Security Deposit: Another option landlords can include in the lease agreement is that if a tenant wants to break a lease, they forfeit the security deposit. This can be in addition to the buyout fee or any other legally allowed consequences.

Read here to learn what else should be included in a standard lease agreement. To customize a lease agreement, build your own state-specific lease in your TurboTenant account.

How to Prevent a Tenant from Breaking the Lease

As we mentioned above, sometimes there are circumstances out of your control or legal obligations you have to follow when a tenant wants to break a lease. However, there are a few things you can do to help prevent tenants from wanting to break a lease in the first place. The most important and obvious thing to do is screen all potential tenants. While a screening report will give you a criminal background check, credit check, and eviction history report, landlords should also talk to the tenant and get to know them better.

Ultimately, landlords need to review all of the lease terms, clauses, and additional provisions before a tenant signs. Emphasizing both parties’ responsibilities will help everyone be on the same page.

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If you have a tenant who wants to break a lease, remember to be understanding, communicative, and always consult the lease agreement, along with landlord-tenant law. Landlords should be prepared for this type of situation by knowing the legal reasons a tenant can break the lease and setting up the lease agreement properly. If you are looking to fill your vacancy or are expecting a tenant to break a lease, create your TurboTenant account today so you can streamline the process and fill your property in no time.

Tenants Breaking Lease Agreements FAQ

When a tenant needs to break a lease, do they need to give written notice?

Always check your local and state guidelines, but it might depend on the situation. In the example of an active service member, they are required to provide a 30-day written notice. Typically, when leases end, a tenant should also fill out a notice to vacate form. 

Should I consult a lawyer when a tenant tries to break a lease?

It’s never a bad idea to consult with your lawyer to know your rights and understand what the correct actions are that you can take. Remember, each state and even individual cities might have different laws when it comes to tenants breaking lease agreements.

How can I build protections against tenants breaking a lease into my rental agreement?

You can build protections into your lease agreement, like we mentioned above, by including things such as a buyout clause or subleasing clause. You can easily do this with our customizable and online lease agreements found right in your TurboTenant account. Our leases are state-specific and have been proofed by local landlords and lawyers to ensure you stay compliant. 

This blog was updated in August 2021.

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