When North Carolina renter (and attorney) Melissa Brumback needed to move out of her residence early, she didn’t run into too much of a problem.

“I had to get out of a lease because my apartment was shot into by someone,” Brumback tells MainStreet. “Needless, to say the landlord let us out.”

Now, we’re not saying that the key to getting out of a lease is to be a victim of a drive-by shooting, but it’s important to know that while the specifics vary from state to state, getting out of a lease isn’t always so simple. Landlords, generally speaking, do have an obligation to keep your quarters inhabitable, but proving this type of contract breach (minus the aforementioned bullet holes) can be tricky … and time consuming.

“Any breach of the lease can allow you to break the lease and move elsewhere,” T. Russ Ferguson, an attorney in Washington, D.C., explains, before adding “you must give the landlord notice of the breach first, however, and the landlord can cure the breach” before you can move out debt-free.

If your landlord allows problems to persist, you may be able to terminate the contract at little-to-no personal expense. Additionally, depending on the language of your lease, you can work certain situations to your advantage.

“If your lease says you are entitled to a pool and the pool is broken for a month, you can sever your lease and move elsewhere,” Ferguson says. You also need to be willing to, as Brumbeck puts it, “fight the livability fight in court.” However, those looking to abandon their living arrangements due to personal reasons (such as a new job that requires relocation or a bad roommate who is driving them insane) may not be able to avoid paying out.  The good news is, tenants choosing early termination don’t usually get stuck paying their contract in its entirety.  This is because, by law, all landlords have to make a reasonable effort to find someone to take over a broken lease.
“If a lease says you are liable for one year and you leave at month two, [your landlord] can’t just sit back and do nothing and collect 10 extra months from you,” Brumback explains. “They must make good faith efforts to find alternative renters to minimize damages. Now, if they find someone to re-let the place at month five, you would still be liable for months three and four.”

You can minimize the financial damage your incur by giving as much notice to your landlord as possible and, subsequently, making sure that he or she follows up immediately by placing classified ads in the newspaper and rental signs on the property.

“If the tenant gives his or her landlord plenty of notice that they will be breaking their lease, there is often no consequence at all because the landlord has ample time to find another renter,” Ferguson says.

Moreover, lease-breakers looking to avoid paying rent for a long interim can consider subletting … even if it is prohibited in their original agreement. This is because, technically, you’re not subletting out your apartment. You’re covering the lease for your landlord.

“You get someone else to takeover your lease and make payments to the landlord instead of payments to the tenant, as in a sublet,” Ferguson explains. “Essentially, you have covered for the landlord yourself. That way, he has rented your apartment and you cannot be liable for lost rent during the remaining months of your lease.”

As FindLaw.com explains, “a landlord would be hard-pressed or foolhardy to turn away a willing prospect who has all the credit and background plusses that you had.” However, if you want to avoid complications, you can ask to have a sublet clause added to lease before you sign it.
In fact, you can also ask, prior to signing, to include a buy-out clause or early termination provision in your agreement. Renters electing to do so, however, need to pay careful attention to the wording as these types of provisions can be scripted to benefit the landlord just as easily as it can be to benefit them.

For example, if the early termination clause requires you to pay out four months of rent if you break the lease, you can be made to pay out those four months even if the landlord finds someone to rent the rooms before then. Additionally, many landlords may include a liquidated damages clause that requires you to pay a certain amount of money the second you give notice of an early termination … not matter how many Drive-by shootings may have occurred on the premises.

“It means that the landlord will not have to prove the actual amount of money damage your breach would cause,” Findlaw.com explains. “Don’t get stuck with one!”

For more information of what to do when your rented living arrangements are less than desirable, check out MainStreet’s article How to Evict a Bad Roommate.

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