When Can a Tenant Legally Break a Rental Lease?

There are a handful of ways a renter can get out of a lease without paying

Two prospective tenants reviewing a contract as a rental agent stands nearby.

Roberto Westbrook / Getty Images

There are a few instances when a renter can legally break a lease. If the property is uninhabitable or illegal, the landlord harasses the tenant, the tenant is active duty military, or if the tenant is a victim of domestic violence, then the tenant can legally break the rental lease.

We'll go into more detail about each reason, and show you what landlords can do to avoid broken lease agreements.

Key Takeaways

  • Tenants may be able to legally break a lease if the apartment violates habitability standards, if the landlord harasses the tenant, if the tenant receives change in military station orders, if the tenant is a victim of domestic violence, or if the apartment is illegal.
  • As a landlord, you can avoid broken leases by keeping the property in good shape and treating your tenants with respect.
  • You should also make sure you understand the law, so you don't enter the premises illegally, which could lead to a lawsuit in addition to a broken lease.

Property Is in Violation of Habitability Standards

The law requires landlords to maintain the property in a fit and habitable condition. This can include:

  • Ensuring tenants have access to running water at all times
  • Providing proper trash bins for garbage
  • Keeping the common areas clean
  • Performing repairs
  • Following health and safety codes

The tenant can file a health or safety complaint if the property is not kept up.

If the tenant chooses to file a complaint to the city's health or safety group, an inspector will come to the property to see if the complaint has any merit. If the inspector decides the claim is valid, the landlord will be sent a violation notice, stating that you must fix the problem within a certain number of days.

The tenant could choose to file a complaint directly with the landlord instead by providing written notice stating that there is a health or safety violation that needs to be repaired. State laws will vary on how long you have to respond to and fix the violation.


In most states, if the landlord fails to fix a significant health or safety violation (more than just a simple repair), the tenant may be legally allowed to break the lease agreement.

To break the lease for habitability reasons, the tenant must provide written notice of their intention to terminate the agreement. Depending on state law, the tenant has to wait a certain number of days after giving notice before they could move out unless the health or safety violation is so severe that it requires the tenant to move out immediately.

Landlord Violates Rules of Entry or Harasses Tenant

A landlord must usually give at least 24 hours’ notice before they have the right to enter the tenant’s rental unit. In addition, you must have a legal reason to enter the apartment, such as:

  • To inspect the unit
  • To make repairs
  • To show the unit to prospective tenants

The tenant may have the right to break the lease if:

  • The landlord tries to enter the tenant’s rental for reasons that are not legally allowed
  • You make continued attempts to enter the tenant’s unit without proper notice
  • The landlord harasses the tenant

The tenant must usually obtain a court order to get the landlord to stop the behavior. If the landlord violates the court order and refuses to quit the behavior, then the tenant can provide notice that they will terminate the lease.

Tenant Is Active Duty Military

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, otherwise known as SCRA, offers certain protections for active duty military members. These members are protected when they receive change of station orders.

If a service member signs a lease and then receives orders that require the member to relocate for a period of at least 90 days, the tenant can provide the landlord with written notice of their need to terminate the lease agreement. This notice must usually be made at least 30 days before the desired date of termination. The tenant should also provide proof, such as a copy of the change of station orders or military deployment.

Renter Is a Survivor of Domestic Violence

Many states include protections for victims of domestic violence in their landlord-tenant laws. Tenants who have been victims of domestic violence may have the right to terminate their lease agreement without penalty. Usually, the act of violence must have occurred in the recent past, typically within the last three to six months.

To take advantage of these protections, the tenant must:

  • Provide the landlord with written notice of their desire to break the lease due to domestic violence
  • Give this notice at least 30 days prior to the desired date of termination (some states require more than 30 days' notice)
  • Pay rent only up until the date of lease termination

A landlord has the right to request proof of an act of domestic violence.


Acceptable forms of proof of domestic violence usually include a copy of an order of protection or a police report which documents the incident.

The Rental Property Is Illegal

If it turns out that the apartment a tenant is renting is not a legal rental unit, the tenant can terminate the lease agreement without penalty. State laws will vary, but the tenant is often entitled to the return of at least a portion of the rent they have paid over the life of their lease. They may even be entitled to additional money from the landlord to assist them in finding another apartment to rent.

What Happens When a Renter Breaks a Lease Illegally?

A lease is a binding contract between landlord and tenant. Except for the reasons noted above, if a tenant breaks this contract, they could face serious legal consequences.

For instance, you could sue the tenant for any rent owed. You might also sue for breach of contract and damages. The tenant could have an eviction on their record, which could negatively affect their credit history. With an eviction record and poor credit, the tenant could find it difficult to rent another apartment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How does breaking a lease affect rental history?

If a tenant breaks a lease or fails to pay rent, the landlord might record these events in their rental history. Future landlords could pull up the tenant's rental history, see these reports, and decide they don't qualify as a renter for their property.

What is the penalty for breaking a rental lease?

The penalty for breaking a rental lease may be called an early termination fee, and is often the equivalent of two or three months' rent. Sometimes breaking the lease will also result in losing the security deposit. Landlords might even require tenants who break a lease or fail to give advance notice to pay rent until another renter is found.

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  1. City and County of Denver. "Residential Landlord Tenant Guide," Page 14.

  2. Minnesota State Legislature. "Landlord and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities," Page 14.

  3. Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project. "When to Take Your Landlord to Court," Pages 310-311.

  4. Los Angeles County, Consumer and Business Affairs. "Landlord Entering Your Unit."

  5. State of California, Department of Consumer Affairs. "California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights And Responsibilities," Pages 44-45.

  6. New York State Attorney General. "Tenants' Rights Guide," Page 27.

  7. Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project. "When To Take Your Landlord to Court," Page 308.

  8. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Landlord/Tenant Law in Florida."

  9. U.S. Department of Justice. "The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)."

  10. Washington State Legislature. "RCW 59.18.575 Victim Protection—Notice to Landlord—Termination of Rental Agreement—Procedures."

  11. New Jersey, Department of Community Affairs. "Truth in Renting," Pages 8-9.

  12. New York State Unified Court System. "Landlord/Tenant Answer in Person Fact Sheet (CIV-LT-91) #12: Illegal Apartment," Page 1.

  13. New York State Unified Court System. "Landlord/Tenant Answer in Person Fact Sheet (CIV-LT-91) #10: Warranty of Habitability," Page 4.

  14. California Courts. "Security Deposits." 

  15. Experian. "How Does an Eviction Affect Your Credit?"

  16. Howard County, Maryland. "Guide for Landlords and Tenants," Page 15.

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