What do you do when you’re renting a home or apartment, and need to move to a new home before the lease is up? Since a lease is a legally binding contract, you have to be careful in how you go about addressing the issue. In some cases, you might be able to break your lease without penalty. But most of the time, you’ll have to deal with some level of financial loss as a result of leaving your apartment behind. In this guide, we’ll walk you through your rights & responsibilities as a tenant, the different reasons you might break a lease legally, and how to minimize penalties when costs are unavoidable.
What Does it Mean to Break a Lease?
A lease is essentially a contract, entered into by a landlord and a tenant, which specifies the length of the tenant’s stay (usually 1 year), the monthly rent, and other agreed-upon terms. Terminating a lease before the contract ends is commonly known as “breaking” a lease, and usually comes with financial repercussions, which can range from an early termination fee to thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. And it’s not easy to “escape” a lease early; if you don’t approach termination the right way, you could end up in small claims court.
Your Rights & Responsibilities as a Tenant
Let’s back up for a moment because before you break a lease, you have to sign a lease! In addition to agreeing on a rent price for the duration of your contract, a lease will also lay out specific responsibilities for each party. As a tenant, your responsibilities may include:
- Paying Rent: Your rent will likely need to be paid on a specified date each month The lease may also spell out a “grace period,” and penalties for late payments.
- Chores: Especially if you are leasing a house, you might have to contribute to some of the upkeep, such as mowing the lawn or clearing the driveway after a snowstorm. Make sure you know exactly which maintenance aspects are your job, versus your landlord’s responsibility before you sign.
- Adhering to “House Rules”: Some apartments are non-smoking, and some have designated quiet hours overnight as a courtesy to other tenants and neighbors.
- Repairs: As the tenant, you probably won’t have to handle repairs on your own, but it is your responsibility to alert your landlord to anything broken or run-down in your apartment.
Before breaking a lease, or leaving your apartment at the end of a lease, make sure you haven’t violated any of the terms of your agreement. If you have, try to rectify things as quickly as possible, so you don’t end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Plus, having your landlord on your side will make it much easier to get favorable rent terms at your next apartment– and leaving behind an angry landlord could make it difficult to get approved for any lease at all.
Legally Justifiable Reasons to Break a Lease
In the State of Georgia, there are certain cases in which a tenant can terminate a lease without worrying about any penalties. You can always keep in mind that renters have rights as well! Sometimes those rights make it easier to break a lease in Georgia. Here are a few ways you can legally justify terminating your lease:
- You’re an Active Military Member: Georgia allows military members to break their leases without penalty when they are moving for work-related reasons. You still have to provide notice, and may be required to provide proof of deployment or change of station orders.
- Your Apartment Isn’t Up To Code: Landlords in Georgia are required to provide safe, habitable apartments or homes for their tenants that meet the State’s rigid safety standards. If your apartment isn’t safe to live in, the court considers you and your family “constructively evicted,” and you are free to find a new home, without paying any penalties.
- Your Landlord Breached the Contract: They changed your rent mid-lease, put additional responsibilities on your shoulders, or any other violation of the written agreement.
- Your Landlord is Harassing You or Breaking Privacy Laws: According to Georgia landlord laws, a landlord must provide 24 hours’ notice before entering the rental property. They are also prohibited from changing locks, replacing windows, or turning off your utilities! Additionally, though your landlord is permitted to enter your home with appropriate notice, he or she must have a valid reason (such as repairs), and may not look through your personal belongings. If your landlord is overstepping their authority in your home, you’re legally allowed to break the lease.
For victims of Domestic Violence: Many states have special statutes that protect domestic violence victims from having to pay penalties when they leave their abusers (who may or may not be paying rent or staying with them). At the moment, Georgia does not have such a statute, but your local police officers and/or domestic violence nonprofit groups may be able to help settle issues around lease termination.
How to Minimize the Financial Impact of Breaking a Lease
If you are breaking a lease for any reason except those listed above, you most likely won’t be able to terminate the lease agreement without any consequences. However, there are ways to minimize how much you’ll have to pay.
The first thing you’ll want to do is look at your lease itself. If you’re not sure if you qualify for a “breach of contract,” take another look at the lease terms, and bring in a lawyer if you want expert advice. If you’re leaving for a different reason, you’ll always want to check to see if there’s an early termination clause in the lease agreement. If so, you may only be liable for an “early termination fee” rather than the rest of the rent.
Then, you’ll want to consider your existing relationship with your landlord. If you have a solid relationship (you’ve always paid your rent, lived there a long time, or are generally friendly), start by opening up the conversation. Give your landlord as much notice as possible. We recommend giving written notice for two reasons. First, it gives you a chance to explain your circumstances in detail to your landlord. For example, if you’re moving because you lost your job or need to take care of a sick parent, many landlords will be understanding and may offer to help find a solution.
The second reason to provide written notice is that it sets up a paper trail just in case lawyers get involved. After providing notice, you have a few different options to help minimize your costs, while ensuring that your landlord gets the rent they are rightfully owed:
- Lease Buyouts: If your landlord is open to the idea, you can negotiate a lease buyout, which offers a smaller amount of money now, instead of paying out rent over the course of the agreement. Conversely, if you aren’t able to afford the rent, your lawyer may agree to let you pay the total amount due over a longer period of time, like an installment plan.
- Subletting: Some leases will allow the tenant to find a suitable subletter, who takes over lease payments until the end of the agreement. Be careful though: never sublet without your landlord’s permission, and make sure that there’s no clause prohibiting subletting in your lease.
- Help Find a New Tenant: In some states, landlords are required to make a “reasonable” effort to find a new tenant quickly, instead of letting the lease run out and charging you for all the rent. In Georgia, that’s not the case, and your landlord has the right to simply continue charging you rent. Pitching in and finding a qualified new tenant might sway your landlord to let you “off the hook.”
Breaking a lease is never something you plan on doing, and it almost always happens because of an unexpected change in circumstances. Moving, especially when it comes as a surprise, is stressful enough, so give yourself peace of mind by understanding your lease agreement fully, and exploring all your options to protect yourself and your money. If you need help breaking a lease, you can get advice from a private law firm or your local center for legal aid.