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“My tenant wants to break their tenancy – help!!”

Recently, we’ve had an absolute nightmare tenant! We’re not sure just how they managed to slip through the net but one of our tenants wanted to break the lease early. Now what?!

They have signed a legal document that binds them to the terms, including to pay rent through the move-out date you, the landlord, specified. However, as much as the lease serves to protect the landlord, there are laws are in place to protect tenants when they want out. As a property owner, it’s important you know how to handle these situations to make sure you communicate clearly and fairly, follow legal protocol, and ultimately, meet your bottom line.

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Now, in this particular case, the tenant just wasn’t getting on with other house mates, which, in my opinion, isn’t a big enough reason to warrant surrendering the tenancy. However, we allowed them to do so; how many emails / texts / calls / complaints would we receive until we agreed to move them? In this instance, we decided that it would be easier to just allow the tenant to break their lease and find another tenant!

 

What you can do is either have them sign a surrender document, surrendering the tenancy – this usually results in the tenant receiving their full deposit back, alternatively, you can have a separate conversation with the tenant to allow them to break their tenancy but to continue paying rent until you find another tenant to replace them.

Tenants want to break their leases for a bunch of different reasons—personal, professional, or because the landlord breached the lease. Depending on the reason, the landlord might be legally bound to release the tenant without damages (as long as the tenant follows protocol). In other situations, it makes sense to be compassionate and work with the tenant to find a solution.

Military Deployment: If your tenant is called for military or active duty, the Service members Civil Relief Act allows those in the armed forces, National Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Public Health Service the right to break their leases to start active duty or if their orders take them far away (50 miles is the accepted minimum distance). However, the tenant must first give you a 30-day notice, which is effective 30 days after the date the following rent payment is due. Meaning, a soldier could give you notice on July 17, but would still be responsible for paying August’s rent. After 8/31, though, they’re free to go.

Domestic Violence: Landlord-tenant laws allow survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or unlawful harassment to break a lease and move if necessary. If your tenant sends an early termination of lease letter with this as the reason, consult your local laws to see what your obligations are; it’s not advisable to force your tenant to stay in an unsafe situation. 

Job Loss: It makes sense to be compassionate here. If your tenant can no longer supply the income that would allow them to pay rent, it doesn’t make sense for them to continue living in your rental. At this point in their lives, they wouldn’t have been able to pass the screening criteria you set forth when you rented the unit to them. Allowing them out of the lease is much less time consuming, arduous, and expensive than pursuing an eviction or getting a debt collector involved. Work with your tenant(s) to find a solution that works for both of you.

Divorce/Illness: Just like a job loss, a divorce or serious illness can severely impact your renters’ finances. Even though you’re not legally obligated to release your tenants from a lease in these extenuating situations, giving your tenant(s) an out makes a tough situation a little easier for all parties involved. For example, when a couple in your unit decides to split, rental payments could become a major source of contention. Similarly, if a tenant shares with you that they have to vacate because of a death in the family (either a co-tenant or a relative), or because of a serious illness, it’s advisable to be compassionate.

Job Transfer: Your tenants don’t have control over their job transfers, and some state laws allow tenants to break their lease for this reason.

Uninhabitability: As a landlord, you’re obligated to provide a safe and habitable place for your tenants to live. That means working gas, heating, electric, plumbing systems; operational sinks, toilets, showers; non-leaking roofs and walls; freedom from health hazards and pests; etc. If the unit is not livable or you’re unresponsive when a safety issue presents itself, your tenants are legally allowed to break the lease and walk away without covering your damages for loss of rent. After all, you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. 

Intrusiveness: Though you own the property, you don’t have the right to enter it as you please. You must give your tenants a minimum 24-hour notice for entry unless there’s an emergency. Tenants have the right to privacy, and if you violate that, the tenant may break the lease. However, tenants must first give you a formal written warning telling you to stop coming over unannounced. Rarely may tenants break the lease for this reason without a written notice on the books.