It’s Murphy’s Law, rental edition: You find the perfect apartment, sign the lease, move in, start to get settled in, then something happens. Maybe you get transferred to another state for work, maybe you meet the love of your life and decide to shack up together (congrats!), or perhaps your parents fall ill and you need to move closer to them.
Unfortunately life and rental laws don’t always coincide, all of which might mean you may have to entertain the idea of breaking a lease. What would happen if you do? Answers are ahead, along with some advice on how to handle this sticky scenario.
First things first: Read your lease
If you find yourself needing to break your lease, your first step should be to read it again—carefully. You could get lucky: Some leases have an “opt out” clause, meaning that you can terminate early for an agreed-upon fee. Depending on that financial amount, it might make sense for you to just pay the penalty and make a clean break, says David Reiss, academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.
Then again, some leases will say that you’re responsible for the rent due for the remainder of the term of your lease. Still, even in this worse-case scenario, you may have some wiggle room based on how benevolent your landlord is.
Talk to your landlord
If there is no opting out or the fees are too steep for you to financially absorb, it would probably behoove you to speak directly with your landlord or rental company.
“Your landlord may be willing to let you out of the lease early,” says Reiss. “You could also try to negotiate a lower amount for early termination than the lease calls for by forfeiting your security deposit.”
All in all, it never hurts to ask (and pray you catch your landlord in a good mood). It’s possible he may not mind your moving out since this means he could raise the rent sooner.You won’t know until you ask.
Find a new tenant
Another option is to offer to help your landlord find a new tenant for your apartment.
“It generally is not allowed without landlord consent, but you can discuss it with your management to see if they would consent to a sublease and under what terms,” says Reiss. You may also need to check local laws that may be applicable to subleases. If it is allowable, you might try a site like Flip, where renters can post leases they need to break in search of qualified renters who are looking for someplace to live.
Don’t just walk out
The one thing you absolutely cannot do without legal ramifications is just walk out and stop paying your rent. You won’t be trading your apartment for a cell with bars (it’s a civil, not criminal, matter), but Reiss warns you can get in a lot of financial hot water if you handle this incorrectly.
Please, Mr. Postman
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“You cannot be arrested for nonpayment of rent—unless you live in 19th-century London—but you can be sued in court; have a judgment against you; have your wages garnished; and [have] liens placed on your property to satisfy the judgment,” says Reiss.
Did we mention that this will mess up your credit scores? It will mess up your credit scores.
That said, there are a couple of cases where you could break your lease without consequences, but they are extenuating circumstances.
“If the apartment becomes unlivable—for instance, no heat in the winter—you could argue that you have been constructively evicted from the unit,” says Reiss. “Also, some states allow domestic violence survivors to break a lease in order to ensure their safety.”