So Your Landlord’s Bad. Does This Mean You Can Break Your Lease?

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Let’s say you are in the middle of your lease and your living situation is getting increasingly lousy: You’ve got mold, your toilet keeps backing up, and roaches and rodents have begun marching through your kitchen just when your insomnia prompts a midnight snack. These living conditions are unacceptable but do you have enough of a legal leg to stand on to break your lease? Turns out it’s all about the fine print.

To begin, all leases clearly state that the landlord must provide an apartment that’s fit for human habitation. However, that term can be subjective.

“While there is no magic wand permitting tenants to terminate a lease, courts have considered certain things to be a breach of a lease,” says Mark Hakim, a real estate lawyer with SSRGA in New York City. This is called the “warranty of habitability” and it’s a provision in most states.

Topping the list of issues that may make your apartment uninhabitable in the eyes of the law: Asbestos, toxic mold, or other similar hazardous materials such as lead paint when young children live in the apartment. Next is structural problems (i.e. severe damage to the walls, ceiling, or floor), followed by lack of electricity, lack of heat and hot water, bed bugs, and other severe infestation of insects or vermin that aren’t caused by the tenant and aren’t remedied by the landlord. Finally, some states say that if your front door is broken or damaged—of no fault of your own—you can try to break your lease because the space is considered unsafe.

“In the end, you have to have specific grounds to break your lease, not just that you don’t get along or that your landlord is a mean person,” says Shaolaine Loving, a landlord/tenant attorney with Loving Law in Las Vegas, Nevada.

For example, if your landlord isn’t making repairs, then most states have legal remedies, like terminating the lease. And even if your state doesn’t have specific laws allowing you to terminate your lease, you can say your landlord breached the lease by failing to uphold their obligations, Loving says.

Keep in mind, too, most states will give you legal recourse to break your lease if your landlord excessively enters your property to the point of harassment.

“Again, your state laws could very well give you the remedy to terminate or you can alternatively argue that the landlord is not allowing you to enjoy the premises uninterrupted,” Loving says.

No matter the reason for your housing distress, always put every single incident or scenario in writing, document your living conditions via photos and video, and never withhold rent or abandon the apartment without checking with an attorney, Hakim says.

“The most successful actions against a landlord happen when the landlord is placed on written notice of the condition or issue,” Hakim says. “It also may be necessary to notify every governing agency that may independently verify the problem and may even fine the landlord.”

Or, you may just have to spend way more time at your friends’ apartments until, that is, your lease comes to an end.