How to Escape a Bad Lease (& Keep Your Security Deposit)

published Dec 5, 2017
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(Image credit: Craig Kellmann)

A new baby on the way, a cockroach infestation, a creepy roommate: While there are many legitimate reasons to break a lease, it’s often easier said than done. But you’re not entirely out of luck if you’re looking to hightail it out of there in one piece. Here are our tips for escaping with your sanity and your security deposit:

Remember the clock is ticking

When you’re hoping to break a lease, time is of the essence. Be honest and open with your landlord, and explain your situation. The worst thing you can do is leave it until the last minute. “Many tenants fret about breaking their lease and put off the conversation with their landlord, wasting valuable time,” says Dana Bull, a Boston-based real estate agent who is also a landlord. “If you are able to give your landlord 60 to 90 days notice, you have a much better chance at figuring out a solution that works for both of you. The goal is to be cooperative, not combative.”

Know what you signed

Hopefully, you stashed away a copy of your lease after signing it, because this is the time to go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Are there any loopholes mentioned? Do you have a “get out free card” indicated for illness, divorce, or job loss? It’s vital to understand what you signed when you entered the legal agreement with your landlord. In some cases, you may have the right to break a lease without penalty, like if you’re an active member of the military and you get called for duty.

You have rights

There are several situations where the landlord may be at fault. Are they violating health or safety laws? Is the heat broken? Is there no running water? “If you give the landlord notice of these issues and the landlord does nothing, you do not have to pay rent, but you have to leave, because the place is not habitable,” says real estate attorney Felicia B. Watson. “If the landlord does not return your security deposit, you can take the landlord to the special court in your city to get your funds back.” Check out your city’s housing authority website to determine if your landlord is breaking any laws.

Be reasonable

If there’s nothing wrong with your unit and you simply have decided to up and move, face the fact that you’re going to be financially penalized. “You can’t just walk from a lease without good reason and if there is not a good reason, without penalty,” says Watson. “You may lose all of your security deposit.” What you can do is make the transition as easy as possible for both yourself and your landlord.

When you’ve notified your landlord that you’d like to break your lease, keep your rental in tip-top condition and accommodate showings for potential tenants. Also, attempt to find a subletter through your own network, whether it’s sharing the ad with coworkers, or posting on your social media. Anything you can do to make the transition easier for your landlord will help you out in the long run. “Think about the situation from your landlord’s perspective,” says Bull. “Their livelihood depends on rental income, so how you can minimize the impact of lost cashflow?”

Last resort

If you’ve decided to go the legal route, you need to be prepared for battle.Most people would agree that it’s best not to drag lease issues through the legal system,” says Bull. However, sometimes you can’t avoid it. Make sure that you have everything documented and time stamped in writing. If you have a conversation over the phone, be sure to follow up in email summarizing the points of the discussion. While laws vary from state to state, be sure to seek legal counsel from an experienced professional, ideally someone who specializes in tenant/landlord disputes.