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How to Break a Lease Without Burning Bridges

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Well, it finally happened: After 12 years of rental history, I just broke a lease for the first time ever. There are all sorts of reasons you might need to end a lease early, such as landing a new job in a different city or buying a house, so if you find yourself in this awkward position, then read on.

How to Break a Lease in 5 Easy Steps

  • Step 1: Consult your lease agreement for early termination details.
  • Step 2: Explain your situation to your landlord and open up a conversation about how you can work this out.
  • Step 3: Move your stuff out and clean your apartment thoroughly.
  • Step 4: Pay any early termination fees to your landlord.
  • Step 5: Make sure you have written record of everything you agreed to.

How to Break a Lease: My Story

I signed a 9-month lease on an apartment in Florida owned by a private landlord who lived out of state (I met him in person first and everything, so I knew he was legit). Basically, the day I moved in, I knew I didn’t want to stay there long-term. But…I kept dragging my feet on telling my landlord I wanted to break my lease.

Eventually, he caught on that something was up, and thankfully, he asked me about it. He essentially said, “It’s okay if you’ve changed your mind about the apartment. Just let me know so we can work something out.” That opened up the dialog and he said he’d fly down with his wife in about a week to try to rent it out to someone else. He said that if he was able to find a new tenant, he’d cut me some slack on the penalty.

Eventually, he did find a new tenant. He decided to charge me only 1X the monthly rent and keep the security deposit of $600.

He and his wife were super nice about it, and I was lucky to have such an understanding landlord. We parted ways on decent terms.

How can I get out of my lease early?

Check your contract (lease agreement). Look for the words “early termination.” My lease agreement had this, and it clearly outlined what would happen if I chose to terminate the 9-month lease early: I had to give 30 day’s notice and pay one month’s rent penalty in addition to the rent for that 30-day period.

If your lease agreement makes no mention of how to terminate it early, then your next option is to talk with your landlord. Tell your landlord as soon as possible that you need to terminate your lease early. Usually, if your landlord is kind and you have a good relationship with them, they will be willing to work something out with you. They will want to find someone new to take over your lease. The sooner they can find a new tenant, the sooner you’re off the hook, and the more money you save. So if you can, offer to help them find a new tenant.

Is “breaking a lease” the same thing as “early termination?”

Yep, they are one and the same! I thought breaking a lease was illegal, and since my lease agreement had an “early termination clause” that allowed me to end the lease early while paying a penalty, I thought I wasn’t breaking my lease. But…I was wrong. I was definitely breaking my lease, even though it was legal and part of my contract. It carries such a negative stigma, but it’s honestly pretty normal for someone to do at least once in their rental history.

How can I break my lease for free?

There are very specific circumstances in which you may break a lease without penalty, and this varies by state, so please consult your state law and an attorney. Examples of reasons you may be able to legally terminate your lease without penalty include being called into active duty military service or your rental unit being uninhabitable for some reason.

Does breaking a lease hurt your credit?

Breaking a lease itself does not affect your credit in any way; it doesn’t show up anywhere on your credit report. The ONLY reason breaking a lease MIGHT affect your credit is if you do not pay the penalty and the landlord reports the delinquency to a collections agency. Then, a collections will show up on your credit report. Pay the penalties, and you won’t need to worry about that.

Does breaking a lease show up on your background check?

No, breaking a lease does not show up on a background check. Any evictions do show up on a background check though.

Is it bad to break a lease early?

It’s not good. There are at least three cons to breaking a lease that I can think of:

  • If you ever plan on using this landlord as a reference for future rental applications, they probably won’t have great things to say about you.
  • It costs you extra money (a penalty).
  • Future rental applications may ask you if you’ve ever broken a lease before, and if you have, then you may look less desirable as a tenant.

How much does it typically cost to break an apartment lease?

It depends. A very common penalty for breaking a lease is at least one time the monthly rent but up to two times the monthly rent. Anything above two times the monthly rent, I believe, is excessive. The landlord may also keep your security deposit so keep that in mind.

So, for me, breaking my lease cost me 1X the monthly rent of $1,300 plus the security deposit of $600, a total of $1,900.

Can I back out of a lease I just signed?

If you literally just signed the lease, like, yesterday, and you need to back out, then tell your landlord immediately. Because it’s so fresh, they might already have other applicants they can contact. And because you haven’t moved in yet, it’s easier for them to turn right back around and rent it again. They’ll likely want you to pay a penalty though, like at least one month’s rent. Talk to your landlord and see if you can work something out.

What happens if I break my lease and don’t pay?

Um, this is bad. Your landlord could send your debt to a debt collections agency, which could hurt your credit score. Your landlord could also sue you.

Is it better to break a lease or get evicted?

Oh my gosh, it is definitely better to break a lease than get evicted. You NEVER want to be evicted. Evictions show up on your background check and will make it extremely difficult to ever rent again or even buy a home.

If you know you can’t afford rent for the next several months, it’s better to try to break the lease and pay the smaller (in comparison) penalty. (Of course, make sure you have a cheaper place to live lined up first!) Talk it out with your landlord and try your best to make it easier for them, such as by helping them find a new tenant. Again, avoid eviction at all costs!

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Advice for Millennials shares real-life advice from real-life millennials about all the things they wish they'd known—from finance to health to careers.

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