Rat infestation. Crawling cockroaches. Rising neighborhood crime. Incompetent building managers. Unsavory cooking smells.
No, this is not the beginning of a list of the plagues of apartment living.
Rather, it is a group of reasons told to me by some unhappy residents who want out of their apartment leases. Although they are aware that it's hard to break a lease without major cause, these residents wonder what it takes to exit a situation that they feel they did not sign up for.
The trouble is, they're probably going to have to come up with something better than any of those reasons before successfully terminating their leases -- at least without penalty. Rules for breaking leases vary by state and even within states' local jurisdictions, but generally it is very difficult to walk away from an apartment midway through a lease without any sort of financial or legal battle.
As with most rules, though, there are exceptions, and in this case, usually the only tenants who can leave mid-lease without worry are military employees who have orders to report to active duty in another location. Certain jurisdictions, such as Montgomery and Prince George's counties, will also allow a tenant to terminate if he receives an involuntary change of employment or if there's a reason beyond the tenant's control, such as the death of a major wage earner in the family or an onset of a severe health problem.
"Generally speaking it has to be pretty serious to allow a tenant to terminate the lease," said Kevin B. McParland, a lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant law for Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday LLC in Bethesda.
Buying a condo or a house, even in a real estate market as competitive as today's, is not enough of a reason to break a lease without penalty. Serious concerns, too, such as rodent infestation or dangers in a community are not good enough reasons to slip out of a lease, at least not without taking action first.
Anyone who moves before a lease expires without getting a landlord's consent is responsible for the rent until the lease ends or until the unit is re-rented, whichever comes first.
Landlords are expected to try to re-rent the vacant unit to limit losses. If the landlord does re-rent the apartment, the tenant would be responsible for the rent only until the date the new tenant moves in. But if a landlord has several vacant units -- and he might in this soft rental market -- then he does not have to put a new tenant into the unit vacated by the lease-breaker. In some jurisdictions, a lease-breaker could also be held responsible for the landlord's costs of re-renting, such as advertising the vacancy.
Fed-up tenants who break their leases should not bank on lucky breaks to save them. They should understand what they agreed upon, because a lease is a legal document. Leases carry a lot of weight in court, and tenants should be aware of what they're obligated to do should they violate the terms.
In many cases, people don't really know what they agreed to when they signed their leases. "In reviewing my lease recently, hoping that I could break it with no more penalties than an extra month of rent, I was astonished to find a litany of terms that apparently I had agreed to," said one resident, who preferred not to give her name.
Unhappy with her management, she looked for an early termination clause in her lease and determined that she couldn't afford to break her contract because she had already agreed -- in writing -- to steep penalties for cancellation. If she didn't give management 60 days' notice, she'd have to pay a minimum of an extra month's rent, plus costs for advertising and prepping the apartment for another tenant.
Besides their termination clauses, leases also typically ensure that the property owners will work to make sure their residents live in a safe, habitable place.
"The thing is that a landlord's version of habitability and safety can be a tenant's nightmare," said Jim McGrath, chairman of TENAC, a D.C. tenants' advocacy coalition.
McGrath said tenants can break a lease in three ways: with the landlord's consent, by merely walking away or through legal action.
"A serious code violation is arguably a good reason to want to get out of a lease, but you can't just break a lease," he said.
He says such issues as infestation, peeling paint, crime and even a change for the worse in building management are good enough reasons to take measures to break a lease.
Those measures, McGrath says, start with checking the lease to see what penalties tenants may incur by leaving and then reporting any alleged code violations to the proper people.
That means writing a letter of complaint to the building owner and then filing a complaint with the overseeing regulatory board. Residents who are uncertain how to go about the process of making complaints and requesting a hearing should contact their state or local housing or consumer-affairs department for help or to file complaints. A housing inspector will usually follow up on the complaint, and then the landlord can be fined or found at fault at a hearing.
The theory is that a landlord needs to correct the problems, at least to a certain degree, to hold a resident liable for breaking a lease. As long as the complaining resident keeps a record of all of these actions and can prove that the landlord has not created a safe and habitable atmosphere even after knowing about certain problems, the tenant is likely to be released from further financial obligations.
McGrath says that it's a good idea for residents to tell their landlords that they're taking these actions.
"Oftentimes landlords don't want to deal with that stuff. If they go in front of examiners, they can be fined for other things. They generally have to bring a lawyer down there. So writing a very stiff letter could be a real possible way to get the thing resolved in your favor," McGrath said. Residents who've given landlords enough notice and have taken the proper measures could resort to tough words to get their point across, he added.
"I think they stand a good chance if they say something like 'I've had it up to here living in a hellish situation. If you don't let me out of this lease I am going to go after you seriously before a rental-housing commission and demand a legal remedy.' "
But tough talk is something residents should resort to only after taking measures to change what is bothering them.
Where safety is concerned, landlords can't be held responsible for neighborhood crime because they cannot control what goes on outside of their property. But if, for example, there were criminal activity within the building because a landlord didn't get around to fixing locks, then the landlord would be at fault.
The key is that a landlord can be held liable only for code violations that he or she has not made a good effort to fix. And even then, tenants will need to prove these things if a landlord doesn't willingly release them from the rental agreement.
Understanding the terms of a lease before signing it is a really important part of apartment living. Prospective residents don't have to feel under pressure to sign a lease on the spot, and they can even try to negotiate lease terms, such as adding a clause that allows for early termination under special circumstances.
People who've been dismayed by cockroach sightings and even potent, unsavory smells in their building often wish, in retrospect, that they had entered into a short-term lease to give a building a test run, especially when they have to wait it out or pay up.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor. The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.