3 Steps to Legally Breaking a Lease

Most people assume that breaking a lease is either illegal or expensive. A lot of people also think that subletting is out-of-bounds. THEY ARE WRONG. We’ve consulted with many lawyers, spent way too much time on websites built in 1998 and done lots of phrase searches on Google Books. You can trust us.

If you read none of the below, exhaustively researched, state-by-state guidance just remember this:

as long as you find someone as qualified as you are who wants to live in your place, you will find freedom.

That said, your state’s laws and the specific terms of your lease will affect your flexibility. Here are the 3 things you can do to free yourself from your lease without getting fined or taken to court.

1 . Send a written request for approval to sublet or assign your lease

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Most likely your lease has a clause which requires you to obtain written consent from your landlord prior to subletting or assigning. Go check. We’ll wait. If your lease does not mention or prohibit subletting then you are in the clear and free to do so. If this is not the case, then it’s time to contact your landlord and ask for her written consent.

You should send a letter to your landlord via certified mail, return-reciept requested, and save a copy of the document for your own records. Certified mail is the only proof of delivery that most courts will accept and thus is the best way to protect yourself. The letter should clearly outline the terms of the agreement and include the following information:

  1. The term (starting and end dates) of the sublet or the date of the proposed assignment (30 days from when you sent the letter)
  2. The name of the proposed subtenant or assignee
  3. The permanent home address of the proposed subtenant or assignee
  4. Your reason for subletting or leaving permanently
  5. Your new address during the sublease if applicable
  6. The written consent of any co‑tenant
  7. A copy of the proposed sublease

If you don’t feel like drafting your own agreement, we’ve got you covered.

Within thirty days of mailing the initial notice your landlord must respond to your inquiry. If the landlord doesn’t respond then her consent is assumed and you are free to sublet.

2. Understand a landlord’s obligation to say ‘yes’

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Although landlords are not required to consent to the assignment of a lease, in most cases landlords cannot “unreasonably” withhold consent and need a valid reason for refusal. What is considered reasonable varies, but generally a landlord can deny a sublet or assignment if you failed to follow proper procedure for requesting permission or if the proposed assignee is unqualified.

Most landlords are required to say yes by the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA). The URLTA applies in 21 states* and codifies a landlord’s “obligation to mitigate damages.” By presenting a landlord with an assignee you are helping her to avoid financial loss and she is obligated to minimize her losses. The only way a landlord can refuse your sublet request, is if the proposed assignee could adversely affect her business. If she rejects someone without reasonable cause, you can sue her for his refusal to minimize his losses AKA “mitigate damages.”

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*If you are in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia or Washington the URLTA applies.

Although the URLTA has only been adopted in 21 states many other states were influenced by it and created their own versions of the law.

States that have adopted similar policies to the URLTA include: California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Yes — we stand behind those links. If you live in one of those states, use that link to let your landlord know that you understand her duty to mitigate.

Unfortunately there are a handful of states which favor the landlord and do not require her to “mitigate damages.” These states include: Arkansas, DC, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia.

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Bonus: if you live in Chicago your situation is the best — the legislation is even more tenant-friendly than in the URLTA. The Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO) states that landlords must allow their tenants to sublease. You should still ask your landlord for permission, but just like in other scenarios, she cannot unreasonably withhold permission and she cannot impose additional fees or charges. Actually, if you terminate a rental agreement, the landlord must make a good faith effort to sublease the unit. Only if the landlord fails to sublease the unit, are you liable for the remaining rent due.

3. Find a new tenant that the landlord can’t “reasonably refuse”

Finding a tenant might be the most important step in legally breaking a lease. Choose carefully, because the new tenant will ensure your legal safety. A landlord can reasonably refuse your request to sublet or assign if the new tenant does not qualify because he has poor credit history, a criminal record, insufficient or unstable income or a history or evictions.

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Moreover you remain responsible for the full rent of the unit if the assignee fails to pay it and culpable for any damages the new tenant causes. In order to avoid these risks, be extra careful to screen your new tenant and choose someone you trust.

Follow these 3 steps and you are on your way to leasing flexibly and legally.

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