5 Times a Tenant Can Get Out of a Lease Without Penalty

Tenant's Right to Break the Contract

Picture of Times a Tenant Can Get Out of a Lease Without Penalty
••• Roberto Westbrook/Blend Images/Getty Images

The lease agreement is a contract between landlord and tenant where the tenant agrees to live in the rental property for a set period of time. Although the tenant may have had every intention of remaining in the rental for the entire length of the lease, situations come up that may force the tenant to move out earlier. Learn five times a tenant may be able to get out of a lease without penalty for breaking the contract.

Consequences of Illegally Breaking a Lease

Since a lease is a binding contract between landlord and tenant, if a tenant breaks the contract, he or she could face serious legal consequences. These include:

  1. Landlord could sue tenant for rent owed.
  2. Landlord could sue tenant for breach of contract and damages.
  3. Tenant could have an eviction on record.
  4. Judgments and eviction will negatively impact tenant's credit score.
  5. Tenant could have difficulty finding new apartment due to eviction and/or poor credit.

5 Times Tenant Can Get Out of Lease Without Penalty

1. Property in Violation of Habitability Standards

Landlords have to maintain the property in a fit and habitable condition. Some common obligations include:

  • Tenants Have Access to Running Water at All Times.
  • Providing Proper Trash Bins for Garbage
  • Keeping the Common Areas Clean.
  • Performing Repairs.
  • Following Health and Safety Codes.

Tenant Can File a Health or Safety Complaint with the Town or the Landlord:

  1. Complaining to Health or Safety Organization:
    1. If the tenant complains directly to the building department or other health or safety organization, an inspector will come to 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.
  2. Complaining to Landlord:
    1. 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 to and fix the violation.
    2. 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.
    3. To break the lease, the tenant would have to provide the landlord with written notice of 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 he or she could move out, unless the health or safety violation was so severe that it required the tenant to move out immediately.

2. Landlord Violates Rules of Entry or Harasses Tenant

A landlord must usually give at least 24 hours’ notice before the landlord has the right to enter the tenant’s rental unit. In addition, the landlord must have a legal reason to enter the apartment, such as:

The Tenant May Have the Right to Break the Lease If:

  • The landlord tries to enter the tenant’s rental for reasons that are not legally allowed.
  • Makes continued attempts to enter the tenant’s unit without proper notice
  • Harasses the tenant.

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. These members are protected 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 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

Many states include protections for victims of domestic violence in their landlord tenant laws. Tenants who have been victims of domestic violence may have the right to terminate their lease agreement without penalty. Usually, the act of violence must 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.
  • Must provide this notice at least 30 days 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. Acceptable forms of proof usually include a copy of an order of protection or a police report which documented the incident.

5. The Apartment Is Illegal

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.

Tenants may be able to legally break a lease if the apartment violates habitability standards, if the landlord harasses the tenant, if the tenant receives change in military station orders, if the tenant is a victim of domestic violence or if the apartment is illegal.

Article Sources

  1. The Judicial Council of California. "Security Deposits." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  2. New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. "Lease Information Bulletin," Page 3. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  3. TransUnion SmartMove. "7 Steps to Checking a Prospective Tenant’s Rental History." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  4. Experian. "How Does an Eviction Affect Your Credit?" Accessed May 14, 2020.

  5. Realtor.com®. "Renting After an Eviction: 6 Tips to Get You Back on Your Feet." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  6. City of Denver. "Residential Landlord Tenant Guide," Page 14. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  7. Minnesota State Legislature. "Landlord and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities," Page 14. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  8. Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project. "When to Take Your Landlord to Court," Pages 310-311. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  9. Los Angeles County, Consumer and Business Affairs. "Landlord Entering Your Unit." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  10. State of California, Department of Consumer Affairs. "California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights And Responsibilities," Page 35. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  11. New York State Attorney General. "Tenants' Rights Guide," Page 27. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  12. Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project. "When to Take Your Landlord to Court," Page 308. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  13. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Landlord/Tenant Law in Florida." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  14. Michigan Department of Attorney General. "Other Legal Protections and Rights Provided by State and Federal Law." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  15. Washington State Legislature. "RCW 59.18.575 Victim Protection—Notice to Landlord—Termination of Rental Agreement—Procedures." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  16. New Jersey, Department of Consumer Affairs. "Truth in Renting," Pages 6-7. Accessed May 14, 2020.

  17. Tobener Ravenscroft. "Renting an Illegal Unit." Accessed May 14, 2020.