5 Times a Tenant Can Break a Lease Without Penalty

A Tenant's Right to Break the Contract

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A lease agreement is a legally binding contract between a landlord and a tenant. The tenant has agreed to occupy the property for a fixed term, usually a year. There are certain situations where a tenant can get out of this lease early without fear of penalty. Here are five times a tenant can legally break a lease. 

1. Landlord Fails to Maintain Fit and Habitable Premises

One of the main responsibilities every landlord has is the obligation to maintain the property. Some common obligations include:

  • Making Sure the Property Has Running Water at All Times.
  • Providing Proper Trash Bins.
  • Keeping the Common Area Clean.
  • Performing Repairs.
  • Following Health and Safety Codes.

If a tenant believes that there is a significant health or safety violation at the property, the tenant can file a complaint with the local health or safety department or other property inspection organization or can file a complaint directly with the landlord.

  • Complaining to Health or Safety Organization:

If the tenant complains directly to the building department or other health or safety organization, this organization will usually come out to the property to inspect the property to see if the tenant's complaint has any merit. If the inspector decides the claim is valid, the landlord will be sent a violation notice, stating that the landlord needs to fix the problem within a certain number of days.

  • Complaining to Landlord:

A tenant can provide written notice directly to the landlord stating that there is a health or safety violation that needs to be repaired. State laws will vary on how long the landlord has to respond and fix the violation.

In most states, if the landlord fails to fix a significant health or safety violation, not just a simple repair, the tenant may be legally allowed to break the lease agreement. The tenant would typically have to provide the landlord with written notice stating the tenant's intention to terminate the lease agreement. Depending on state law, the tenant would have to wait a certain number of days after giving this notice before the tenant could move out, unless the health or safety violation was so severe that it required that the tenant move out immediately.

2. Landlord Illegally Enters Apartment

A landlord must usually give at least 24 hours’ notice before the landlord has the right to enter the tenant’s rental unit. The landlord can only enter for legal reasons, such as:

If the landlord tries to enter the tenant’s rental unit for reasons which are not legally allowed, makes continued attempts to enter the tenant’s unit without proper notice or harasses the tenant, the tenant may have the right to break the lease. The tenant must usually obtain a court order to get the landlord to stop the behavior. If the landlord violates the court order and refuses to quit the behavior, then the tenant can provide notice that he or she will terminate the lease.

3. Tenant Is Active Duty Military

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, otherwise known as SCRA, offers certain protections for active duty military members. It protects these members when they receive change of station orders.

If a service member signs a lease and then receives orders that require the member to relocate for a period of at least 90 days, the tenant can provide the landlord with a written notice of their need to terminate the lease agreement. This notice must usually be made at least 30 days before the desired date of termination. The tenant should also provide proof, such as a copy of the change of station orders or military deployment.

4. Victims of Domestic Violence

Tenants who have been victims of domestic violence have the right to terminate their lease agreement without penalty in many states. The act of violence must usually have occurred in the recent past, typically within the last three to six months.

The Tenant Must:

  • Provide the landlord with written notice of their desire to break the lease due to domestic violence.
  • Notice must be at least 30 fays prior to desired date of termination. Some states require more than 30 days’ notice.
  • The tenant is only responsible for paying rent up until the date of lease termination.

The landlord has the right to request proof of this act of domestic violence. The tenant can usually comply with this by providing a copy of an order of protection or a police report which documented the incident.

5. Illegal Apartment

If it turns out that the apartment a tenant was renting was not a legal rental unit, the tenant can terminate the lease agreement without penalty. State laws will vary, but the tenant is often entitled to the return of at least a portion of the rent they have paid over the life of their lease. They may even be entitled to additional money from the landlord to assist them in finding another apartment to rent.