How to Break an Apartment Lease – the Definitive Guide

Breaking an apartment lease is never ideal. Not only do you have to find a new place to live, but by breaking a lease, you fail to live up to your obligations under a rental agreement. Depending on your circumstances, breaking a lease could cost you thousands of dollars, hurt your credit, or—done improperly— even get you sued. 

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to break a lease. While the wrong way can lead to serious repercussions, the right way can let you vacate early and move on without any lasting problems.

If you need to break your lease, it’s best to do it right – so you can protect your credit and not hurt your chances of getting approved for another lease in the future.

The 7 Steps to Breaking an Apartment Lease

1. Check Your Lease

If you think you may need to break your lease, the very first thing to do is re-read your lease agreement. That way you can make sure you understand your obligations that are outlined in the lease. You can specifically see if there are any provisions for breaking a lease, such as:

  • A fee for moving out early
  • A penalty for breaking the lease (often equal to a month’s rent), or
  • A required notice period if you intend to move out early

Checking your lease also gives you an opportunity to see whether your landlord has upheld their end of the agreement. If your landlord has been failing to meet their obligations under your lease, that may give you leverage to vacate early without paying a penalty.

Some landlord violations that might give you cause to break your lease include:

  • Entering the property without your permission
  • Harrassing you or contacting you at odd hours
  • Failing to maintain critical appliances or systems, such as heat or air conditioning

Your lease is a governing document, so you should always look to it if you think you may need to deviate from your agreement—and that includes moving out early. 

2. Consider Getting Legal Help

Depending on how well you understand your lease—or if your landlord has been in violation of your agreement—you may want to speak with an attorney or consult your local bar association to find legal aid. These resources can help answer any questions you have about your lease or clarify any points of confusion. 

An attorney may also be able to give you specific guidance about breaking a lease in your area or help you through the rest of the process.  

If you want help understanding your lease or your rights as a tenant, ask a professional. Don’t ask a real estate agent for legal advice and don’t take your roommate’s word for things.

3. Consult Your Budget

Before you go any further, stop to think about what you’ll do after you move out. Where will you go? What can you afford? Checking your budget will help you answer these questions and give you an idea of what you can afford to pay in fees and penalties when you move out. 

Depending on what you find, you may want to consider offering your landlord a fee to break your lease. This might convince them not to report you to credit bureaus or take other action to force you to pay rent still owed for the remainder of your lease term.

Don’t expect to break your lease without penalty. It’s very unlikely that your landlord will simply let you move out early without any kind of fee or other consequences.

4. Notify Landlord

Now that you’ve done some initial legwork by consulting your lease and checking your budget, let your landlord know you intend to break your lease. While there are quite a few things to do before this step, you still want to do this as early as possible, giving them the maximum amount of time before you intend to vacate (ideally, 30 days or longer). 

Notifying your landlord has a lot of potential benefits, including:

  • It gives you an opportunity to break the news carefully to try to stay on good terms
  • You may gain a sympathetic ear from your landlord so they make the process cheap or easy for you
  • You can find out from the landlord if there’s anything you can do before vacating that will make the process easier for them (like allowing showings or finding someone to sublease)
  • You can settle on a move out date to do your final walk-through and hand over the keys (and hopefully recoup your security deposit)

If you need to break your lease, don’t blame your landlord or keep them in the dark. They didn’t force you to move in and they probably aren’t forcing you to move out. Being calm and diplomatic may help you in the long-run, but being argumentative can only hurt you. 

5. Find a Replacement Tenant 

Depending on what you find in your lease and what you work out with your landlord, you may want to find a tenant who can take over your rental. In fact, your lease may be assumable—which means that a new tenant could basically take over and just start paying rent after you move out. Or, you may be able to sublease, which would make no difference to your landlord (they just keep receiving rent like they did before).

If you’re able to find a new tenant to take over your lease, your landlord may be more likely to let you move out without paying a fee or penalty, since they may not be losing any money when you move out. 

One thing to be aware of, though, is that if you do sublet your property, you’re still responsible for the rent owed to your landlord. If the tenant you find to sublease your unit fails to pay, your landlord can still come after you for unpaid rent.

If you’re working with your landlord to find a tenant who can take over your lease, don’t deny your landlord access to the property—especially for things like inspections or showings.

6. Prepare to Vacate

By now, you’re probably getting down to the wire—it’s time for you to pack and get ready to move out. 

In addition to packing your belongings, you should make note of any damage done to the property while you lived there. You’ll want to leave your unit in the best possible shape when you move out. This will give you the best possible chance to recoup your security deposit

That said, even if you’re giving up your security deposit as part of your move, you still don’t want to give your landlord any more reason to be upset with you breaking your lease. And, if you leave the unit in good condition, you may actually be able to get your deposit back.

Some potential issues to check on when packing and making repairs include:

  • Repair holes from picture hangers
  • Clean the floors—especially carpets
  • Replace any burnt out lightbulbs or dead batteries
  • Clean any appliances, wipe down counters and sinks, and scrub showers and toilets 

When preparing to vacate, don’t leave your landlord with a mess or a bunch of damage to their rental. These things will only cause them headaches and may lengthen the time it takes for them to get a new tenant.

7. Move Out

Once you’ve done all you can to make your move easy and painless for your landlord—given them plenty of notice, helped look for a replacement tenant, packed, and cleaned your rental—it’s time to move out. 

When you move out, you’ll need to do a walk-through with your landlord or their manager, as well as pay any fees or penalties you owe as part of moving out early. This may also be when you get your security deposit back—if your landlord agrees to give it back.

Don’t move out without doing a walk-through or handing your keys over to your landlord or the property manager. That’s the only way you can ensure you don’t get blamed later for damage that you didn’t cause.

How to Break an Apartment Lease Without a Penalty

Breaking a lease early can be tricky, especially if you want to do so without having to pay fees or a big penalty. If you want to break your lease without a penalty, there are some things you can do to make the process as smooth as possible.

Contact Your Landlord Beforehand

If you have to break your lease, you should not just move out and stop paying rent. Rather, if you want or need to move out—and especially if you hope to do so without paying a penalty—you should give your landlord as much notice as possible. And you should work with them to coordinate your move and avoid creating any additional problems.

Negotiate Your Exit

There are two things to balance when moving out of a rental property early: time and money. The important thing is to find the right balance between the two that makes sense for both you and your landlord. This may mean negotiating a fee as part of breaking your lease, or it may mean allowing your landlord to arrange showings before you move out so they can find a new tenant faster. 

Breaking a lease is all about give and take, so figuring out what is important to your landlord will help uncover what you can do to avoid penalties while still moving out early.

Give Up Your Security Deposit

Your lease may require you to pay a fee as a condition of breaking your lease, but  as long as you’re leaving the property in decent shape, you’re likely still entitled to your security deposit. You might still consider volunteering to forfeit your security deposit in lieu of any other fees or penalties. 

Cite Landlord Violations

This is something you only want to do if you’re breaking your lease because your landlord has failed to uphold their obligations under your lease—otherwise, you’ll probably only anger your landlord and cause them to dig in their heels.  

But if your landlord has violated your lease and you feel that you’re within your rights to break your lease early without a penalty, you should clearly spell out what your landlord has done in violation of the lease and why this allows you to break the agreement. 

It’s important to note, though, that whether your landlord really has violated the lease, doing this means that you will likely not be leaving under good terms. Accusing your landlord of violating your rights under the lease will make them more likely to fight over your security deposit, report you to credit bureaus, or try to take legal action. 

The Bottom Line

Breaking a lease is not an easy process—it’s something that needs to be done very carefully to avoid any potential missteps. If you want to break your lease early, be sure to follow these steps, including checking your lease, giving your landlord plenty of notice, and making the process as painless for your landlord as possible. 

If you want to break your lease without paying a penalty, consider volunteering to give up your security deposit or help the landlord find a replacement tenant before you move out. Doing so might not let you break your lease for free, but you can at least avoid negative marks on your credit report or other penalties with lasting consequences.