The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to break your lease easily — and minimize fees

Lucas Hall, who owns rental properties in the D.C. area, says most landlords are willing to work with tenants who need to get out of a lease. (Jason Hornick/For Express)
Placeholder while article actions load

Kate Donovan considers herself lucky to have had an understanding landlord. When a job in her field — special education — became available in New York, she had to leave D.C. before her lease was up. Her landlord, however, gave her an easy out: subletting.

“If being able to sublet wasn’t in the lease, I don’t know what would have happened,” Donovan, 26, says.

A job change or family emergency can arise unexpectedly, and the timing may not coincide with the end of that year-long lease you’ve signed. But if moving out of your rental is a must, odds are you can get out of your lease without facing a hefty penalty or legal troubles — as long as you act carefully.

Be honest
“Most landlords are willing to work with tenants. I know I am; it’s just good business,” says Donovan’s former landlord, Lucas Hall, who owns four rental properties in the D.C. area and is the founder of Landlordology, a website for independent landlords.

Hall recommends that tenants be upfront and honest when they need to break their lease. “The best solution is when the landlord and tenant work together and figure out what to do,” he says. “When it gets messy is when a tenant tries to force something on a landlord.”

That’s because there are very few instances when a landlord is required by law to let a tenant out of a lease — military orders, such as a deployment, are an example.

“Even if it’s a legitimate reason, it’s usually not a legal reason to break the contract,” says attorney Aaron Sokolow, who specializes in landlord-tenant and real estate cases at D.C. law firm Battino & Sokolow (202-269-3333).

Find a replacement
Presenting your landlord with potential replacement tenants usually helps.

“In my experience, a landlord is more willing to let an existing tenant out of their lease if they have a new tenant right there and then,” Sokolow says.

In that case, the departing tenant has done all of the legwork to market and re-occupy the place. This is especially appreciated at times of the year (like winter) when it’s harder to find renters.

Independent landlords are often easier to negotiate with than a management company, which might lack flexibility on matters like subletting.

Know your lease
Read your lease closely, ideally before signing, “so you know that in case of an emergency, you have certain options,” says Eric Suissa, director of sales at apartment locator firm the D.C. Apartment Co. (202-600-9500). “When it’s an emergency, it’s often too late to do something.”

Hall’s leases contain a one-time $500 fee to activate the subletting clause, which Donovan passed on to her subletter.

Other leases might include an early termination fee, which is often one or two months’ worth of rent.

“For tenants moving for a job change, their company will sometimes pay that,” Hall says. “When money’s no object, that’s the quickest way to deal with it.”

Be prepared to pay up
If you don’t work something out with your landlord, expect to pay a price for walking away.

“If you just leave overnight and don’t pay your rent, you’re probably going to find yourself being the defendant in a court case,” Sokolow says.

You’re technically responsible for any rent owed until your landlord can find a new tenant. And if they need to charge a lower rent to fill the vacancy, you could also have to pay the difference for the remainder of the lease.

Get off the lease
Have roommates? Every name on the lease is responsible for the total rent owed, so think twice before leaving them high and dry. “If you want your name off the lease, you have to get released from it by your landlord or have the remaining roommates sign a new lease without your name on it,” Suissa says.

Negotiating is really the only smart approach. “You have to come to an agreement with your landlord,” Hall says.

How secure is your security deposit?

What happens to your security deposit when you break your lease? If you’ve worked out a departure plan with your landlord and kept your apartment in good shape, you’ll likely get your deposit back. But if you walk away from your lease and just stop paying rent, don’t expect to see that deposit again.

Most leases define the reasons why a landlord can keep a security deposit, according to attorney Aaron Sokolow, who specializes in landlord-tenant cases and real estate cases. Those can include more than just damage to the rental; a security deposit can be applied to cover unpaid rent.

Sokolow advises tenants to check their lease document for the stipulations regarding their security deposit.