Terminating a Lease

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 How Does a Landlord Terminate a Lease with a Tenant?

A lease termination notice is a written notice from the landlord, delivered to the tenant, asking the tenant to take action. The most frequently occurring examples of such actions would be asking the tenant to pay rent, or leave the premises. A common type of notice is the 3 day pay rent or quit notice

This notice asks the tenant to pay rent, or to move out, within three days of receiving the notice. If the tenant fails to comply with the termination notice in the amount of time provided, the landlord may then file an unlawful detainer action.

Alternatively, an eviction is a legal process initiated to remove someone from residential or commercial property. Generally speaking, an eviction requires the involvement of the courts. If a landlord wishes to evict a tenant, they must follow the very strict procedural rules of the state and, if in a rent controlled market, the city.

When rent goes unpaid and the landlord is unable to contact the tenant, it could seem that the tenant has abandoned the property without notice. If the landlord suspects that a tenant has abandoned the rental lease, there are certain steps that the landlord can take in order to reclaim the property and collect damages for any unpaid rent. Many lease agreements also contain provisions which state that if rent is overdue for a certain period of time, or if the tenant leaves the premises without telling the landlord for a specified period of time, the lease has been abandoned.

The ways in which a landlord may terminate a lease agreement with a tenant will vary from city to city. Generally speaking, a landlord can terminate the lease of a tenant in one of the following ways: 

  • By agreement to end the tenancy with the tenant;
  • Pursuant to the just cause eviction statute of the city; and
  • When the lease ends:
    • Tenancy for a term lease may require prior notice of termination by the landlord, usually thirty or sixty days;
    • Periodic tenancy, such as a month to month lease, can be terminated by either the landlord or tenant for almost any reason. Sometimes prior notice is required, which is usually thirty days; and
    • Tenancy at will, in which either party may terminate at any time, so long as prior notice was given.

As previously mentioned, landlords usually accomplish this by sending out written lease termination notices to affected tenants.

How Does a Tenant Terminate a Lease with a Landlord?

Leases are contracts which legally bind both sides. This means that tenants may wish to terminate a lease before the landlord does. A tenant may enforce a termination of lease agreement under the following limited circumstances:

  • Periodic Tenancy: An example of periodic tenancy would be a month to month lease. Leases such as these can be terminated by either the landlord or tenant for almost any reason; sometimes prior notice is required, usually thirty days;
  • Tenancy at Will: Under tenancy at will, either party may terminate at any time, as long as prior notice was given. Tenancy at will is similar to employment at will in that any reason may be used, so long as the reason is not illegal;
  • Landlord Violation of the Lease: If the property is inhospitable against the lease’s requirements, or is otherwise unlivable, the tenant can insist on leaving for their own health and safety. In most states there are statutes that require the landlord to keep a tenant’s building habitable. If the landlord fails to perform this duty, the law may allow the tenant to terminate the lease. On a related note, if the landlord has an obligation to make repairs to the building under the lease or a statute, and does not make the repairs after being asked to do so by the tenant, the tenant may have grounds to terminate the lease; and
  • Destruction of Property: State statutes and lease provisions commonly allow the tenant to terminate the lease if the premises have been destroyed.

Because a lease is a legally binding document, a tenant generally cannot cancel a lease except under specific circumstances. A landlord failing to obey a building code does not usually warrant a tenant terminating a lease; nor does landlord failure to maintain common areas, such as a courtyard.  

Often, a landlord will simply release a tenant from a lease, especially when the tenant can find another suitable tenant to replace them. If a person is experiencing domestic violence and must break the lease in order to escape the violence, this is a legally acceptable reason for breaking the lease as well.

What Are Some Tips to Consider when Terminating a Lease?

There are several considerations you should make when terminating a lease. If you break a lease without the legal grounds to do so, you may be required to pay an early termination fee. Depending on the terms of your lease, there may or may not be a penalty for terminating a lease. An example of this would be having to pay the rent for the remaining months on your lease. In some especially serious cases, a landlord may take legal action against you for breaking your lease.

Some steps tips to consider when terminating a lease include, but may not be limited to:

  • Read your lease thoroughly in order to determine their protocol for terminating the lease or what penalties you may face;
  • Speak to your landlord, preferably through email, as they may be willing to work something out;
  • Find a new renter if you can, to take over your lease for you;
  • Consider any termination offers that are detailed in your lease;
  • Be prepared to pay an early termination fee or some other penalty for terminating a lease;
  • Consult with a tenant’s union, if possible;
  • Get everything in writing, to serve as evidence should any legal issues arise;
  • Be aware of any exceptions, such as the aforementioned list of circumstances in which a tenant may terminate their lease; and
  • Consult with an attorney to ensure you are protected.

For both landlords and tenants, there are consequences for violating the terms of a lease. A landlord can use the security deposit to cover part of the costs, but this is often not sufficient. Landlords and tenants can work out these details in mediation, and settle on an agreed amount. However, it often happens that such cases end up in small claims court. If a judge believes that a tenant owes a landlord money for the lease terms, the tenant must pay the resulting judgment.

What If I’ve Suffered Losses from a Lease Termination?

As mentioned above, if you have suffered losses as a result of lease termination, you may be entitled to legal damages. For example, you may be able to recover the money it cost to relocate to a new home. If you believe that your lease was illegally terminated, you should consult with a local real estate attorney in your area as to what your legal options are. 

Are There Any Defenses For a Tenant To a Lease Termination?

There are a few defenses that a tenant may pursue in order to delay or halt a lease termination:

  • Landlord Violation of the Lease: The tenant may be able to claim that the landlord broke the terms of the contract first. However, the tenant would need sufficient evidence to prove this defense;
  • Illegal Retaliation: The landlord cannot legally punish a tenant if the tenant makes a reasonable request to enforce the lease; and
  • Violation of Eviction Procedure: The landlord cannot lock out the tenant, or do anything else which may make the property inhospitable for the tenant. Two examples of this would be turning off the tenant’s water, or violating the tenant’s right to privacy.

Should I Consult a Lawyer about My Right to Terminate a Lease?

If you have any questions regarding your right to terminate a lease, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable landlord tenant lawyer in your area. An experienced and local real estate attorney can look over your lease and explain to you what your legal options are. Additionally, an experienced attorney can also represent you in court as needed.

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