When Can a Landlord Break a Lease?
The relationship between a landlord and a tenant is designed to be mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, now and then, certain circumstances cause living arrangements to go awry, making a landlord terminate a lease early.
A lease is a contract that outlines the terms under which one party agrees to rent property owned by another party. It guarantees the tenant the use of an asset and the landlord regular payments for a specified period, typically over 12 months.
Both parties are obligated to uphold the terms of contact, but what happens when you — the landlord — want to terminate the lease? As a lessor, it’s essential to know both your and your lessee’s rights to prevent unpleasant legal situations brought about by ignorance of the law.
Can a Landlord Terminate a Lease?
In the U.S., landlords are obligated to comply with all federal laws in addition to landlord-tenant laws in their property state. Technically, a landlord can break a lease early, but not without good reason. Unless the tenant violates the lease, a landlord’s grounds for early termination must be stipulated and agreed upon within the lease agreement.
For example, a landlord breaking a lease early to move into their property is legal, provided it is specified in a termination clause in the lease agreement. You cannot just show up at your tenant’s door and evict them on a whim. Good practice suggests you ensure your tenants are aware of the small print and that you give them sufficient time to find a new place to live. It’s vital to draw up a concise and clear lease agreement to protect your rights and ensure each party understands the repercussions should they violate them.
Reasons for Breaking a Lease
We often get asked, “can a landlord terminate a lease early?” Some circumstances permit a landlord breaking a lease early, but the answer is fairly complicated. Below are some FAQs that may help.
Can a landlord break a lease for unruly tenant behavior?
Suppose your tenant does not pay rent on time, allows unapproved roommates or pets to stay forprolonged periods, sublets without permission, causes property damage, or conducts illegal activities on the premises. In that case, they are breaching the terms of your lease agreement. Depending on the violation’s severity, you have a right to issue a warning or a request for immediate departure and/or eviction.
Can a landlord break a lease to sell the property?
Yes, this is well within your right. However, whether you keep tenants during the selling process comes down to personal preference. Some landlords prefer having tenants out of their property before they put the house on the market. Others like keeping their tenants in the property they are selling because it makes their homes look more appealing to prospective buyers. Keep your tenants updated, and if they stay on-premise throughout the sale, let them know their move-out date is variable.
Can a landlord break a lease to do repairs and renovations?
It is the landlord’s responsibility to maintain the safety of their property for their tenants at all times. If you require full access to your property to carry out renovations or repairs, or if the said upgrades will violate health and safety standards, then you may terminate the lease early.
Can a landlord break a lease to move back in?
Yes, however, you must give your tenant adequate notice and may not move in until your current tenant leaves.
How to Terminate a Lease Early
Even if it’s the tenant who has violated the agreement, standard practice requires landlords to deliver notice to their tenants when terminating a lease early. Due to various state laws, the termination notice may require specific language. You may need to send it in a particular manner (i.e., through the mail) or within a specified number of days before termination can occur.
If the tenant violates the lease agreement, you can issue them with the following options:
- Pay rent or quit: Your tenant must pay rent within a specific amount of time or vacate.
- Cure or quit: Your tenant must correct their offending problem or vacate the rental property. For example, if there is property damage, they must fix it within a specified number of days.
- Unconditional quit: In this case, your tenant must vacate the premises without the option to cure the violation or pay rent. You can exercise this option if a tenant has severely breached the lease, i.e., committed illegal activity in the property or if they issue regular late payments.
In the case of problematic tenant behavior, it is considered best practice to give your tenant a chance to correct their violations within a specific time period. For example, if they are behind on rent, you should consider giving them an extension, within reason, to let them pay you back.
If they still fail to adhere to your last chance for compliance, you retain the right to file for an eviction lawsuit. Eviction processes can be long and emotionally tumultuous, and their financial costs can be debilitating. Both parties want to avoid eviction. So, it’s imperative that your lease agreement leaves no room for interpretation due to loopholes or omissions.
At the same time, the law also protects lessees. A tenant breaking a lease due to domestic abuse, military service, renting legality, or safety violations are permissible. Additionally, the viability of a tenant terminating a lease early often depends on the nature of the lease agreement. For example, if your lease has a fixed term, a tenant can’t break it early without paying rent unless the landlord can immediately rent the property to someone else. You also can’t unlawfully evict the tenant without proper notice. Landlords can ask tenants if they can move out earlier and/or offer them cash remuneration, but your lessees are under no obligation to take up the offer.
Here are additional instances when a tenant can lawfully break a lease:
In the United States specifically, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) allows a service member to send a notice at least 30 days before their early lease termination date on the condition they receive a
military order to relocate for at least 90 days. As a landlord, you may ask them to provide proof of deployment should you feel it necessary.
Terminating a lease early is also permitted if you persistently enter the property without giving at least 24 hours’ notice, even if it’s just to make repairs or show it to prospective tenants. If you don’t provide proper notice or harass your tenants, it is within their rights to apply for a court order.
A tenant may also terminate a lease without penalty if they are victims of domestic violence, so long as theact of violence occurred within the last three to six months. Technically, they should still provide notice of at least 30 days before terminating the contract and will only be responsible for paying rent until the date of their termination. It is within your right to request a police report or order of protection as evidence if need be.
Safety and Health Violations
All tenants have the right to habitable housing, so it is your responsibility to ensure the property has fresh, running water, proper waste disposal, and that maintenance repairs follow standard health and safety protocols. If you fail to provide livable conditions, tenants can terminate the lease early.
Illegal Rental Property
Lastly, if your housing is illegal, i.e., not legally allowed to be rented out as residential property, your tenant can also end the lease. Laws vary from state to state, but tenants are entitled to a refund of a portion of the rent they have paid throughout their lease in most states.
Moreover, as a landlord, you should also understand the rules and regulations that govern creating, managing, and terminating lease agreements vary from city to city.
Some cities have laws protecting tenants with longer termination terms, while others have more flexible laws skewed to favor the outcomes of a landlord breaking lease. Always research the tenant-landlord laws in your area before leasing, and if you’re unsure about particular legalities or by-laws, contact us for clarification.
Furthermore, according to the Federal Fair Housing Act, no tenant can be rejected based on race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, family status, or mental or physical health. Each area has specific laws that prohibit discrimination, so some regulations may vary from state to state.
Protecting Yourself and Your Property
When drafting up a lease agreement, it is in both parties best interests to include as many contingencies as possible. The more opportunities there are to terminate a lease in a reasonable manner, the greater flexibility for you and your tenants. For this reason, landlords frequently have monthly leases, enabling them and their tenants to terminate the leases without too much fuss.
At the American Apartment Owners Association, we provide an online network of resources to help landlords and property owners lease their assets with ease. We’re the largest landlord association in the country and can guide you through the leasing process, ensuring your property leasing is a win-win for all.