I am a former property management professional with a lot of experience with lease agreements.
The Importance of Understanding Your Lease
As a former property management professional, I've gone over countless lease agreements, and I couldn't tell you how many times, in the midst of all the paperwork, I've heard the crack, "I feel like I'm signing my life away!" Given the pages and pages of legalese and clauses involved in any lease, it's understandable why anyone would feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the agreement being signed.
The truth is, however, if you don't take the time to read and understand your lease, you could very well be signing your life away—or if not your life, then at least some very significant components of it—your money, your credit, and your rights to mobility for the term of the lease. The consequences of breaking or violating a legally binding lease can be dire.
However, the lease contract doesn't exist solely to protect your landlord—your rights as a tenant are a vital part of the lease agreement, as well. Making sure that you read and understand your lease completely is the greatest step you can take to advocate for your rights as a renter.
While property management staff will go over the whole lease with you, they will usually sum up large, complex sections, and skip others altogether. You have the right to request a copy of the lease to read and review prior to signing, and you have the right to a copy of your lease once you've completed the signing process. I suggest you exercise both these rights. Once you put pen to paper and sign your lease contract, you are agreeing to the terms therein and you'll have limited recourse to protest them, so don't sign anything that you don't agree with and can't abide by.
While it would take dozens, maybe hundreds of pages to outline your rights as a tenant, my aim here is to address common issues related to ending your tenancy. Hopefully, armed with my advice, you'll be able to avoid the worst of the sticky situations that can arise during this time.
How to End Your Lease
The number one place I have seen good, honest renters get burned is when it comes to ending their lease. Often, this occurs because they don't give their notice in time.
Rules and policies governing the required notice to end a lease will vary from state to state and from company to company; however, you can expect to always have to give some type of advance written notice. Most leases will have a clause which states that your lease will automatically renew on a month-to-month basis if proper notice is not given. Many companies charge a hefty rent premium for a month-to-month lease, so if you give notice at the last minute, you could find yourself owing up to two extra months of rent plus fees. If you try to avoid the issue by dropping your keys in the rent box and neglecting to leave a forwarding address, you may find yourself getting collection calls for thousands of dollars a couple of months down the road.
To avoid problems at move out, you need to make sure read all the lease ending policies at move in. If you keep a day planner or a wall calendar, flip ahead to your 60-day mark (or however many days notice you are contractually required to give)" and label it in big red letters. You might also program your 60-day mark into your cell phone as an event so it alerts you when that critical day rolls around. It's very easy, when you get involved in the details of day-to-day life, to forget little details like when your lease ends; however, allowing yourself to lose track could translate into big bucks if you don't choose to stay in your dwelling.
On the flip side of this issue, however, there is probably a clause in your lease which requires the landlord to give you written notice of your approaching leasing ending date. For instance, in the standard Texas lease, the landlord must notify the resident no more than 90 days and no fewer than five days prior to the day they are required to give notice. If the landlord fails to do this, then the tenant is only required to give a 30-day written notice.
How to Break Your Lease (With Minimum Damage)
Sometimes, situations arise where a renter has no choice but to break their lease and move out early. If you find yourself in this situation, however, you need to proceed with extreme caution. If not done the right way, a broken lease can affect your ability to rent elsewhere for years to come.
It's important to weigh your options very carefully when choosing to break a lease. Sometimes work transfers or family emergencies necessitate a move that can't be avoided. However, if you have just had it up to here with your next-door neighbors, or you had your car broken into and you don't feel safe, or your AC has broken three times and you've just had enough, think twice before you made a rash decision. Unless your management company has clearly been in breach of their contractual obligations to you, your move will be viewed as a broken lease, and all the good excuses in the world aren't going to help you if that broken lease shows up in your rental history.
The requirements to break a lease will vary depending on where you are renting and from whom. Some companies do not allow lease breakage, period. You'll owe them for the remainder of the lease term whether you live in the apartment or not. Oftentimes, your rental company will require you to pay out the required notice, pay back any concessions ("free rent") you received, and pay a lease breakage fee. This can get very expensive, particularly if you have to move suddenly and can't give the proper notice as required by your lease. Remember, when you signed your lease contract, you agreed to the terms governing lease breakage with your landlord—so your cries of "highway robbery!" will, unfortunately, get you nowhere.
Your best bet, if you find yourself in this predicament, is to see if your management company will set up a payment plan with you. Most rental companies won't hold a broken lease against you if you've paid it off. If you don't, however, the account will get sent to collections, the debt will be added as a negative line item on your credit report, and you can forget about getting approved for an apartment until it's been resolved.
Be sure to speak with your apartment manager about the possibility of your apartment getting rented out again quickly. For instance, if you being held to paying two months' rent after you've already moved out, but the complex turns the apartment and gets a new tenant in after three weeks, then legally you don't owe for the last five weeks of your notice period. It's illegal for a landlord to collect double rent. Don't rely on this too heavily to help you out, however; your complex is going to rent out vacant apartments before they rent one out that is still being paid on.
Move-Out Inspection and Damage Charges
You have the right to be present at your move out inspection, and it's always a good idea to exercise that right. By doing so, you will know if you're being charged for any damages, how much security deposit to expect back, and it will also give you the opportunity to protest any charges you feel are unfair, or to remedy small cleaning or repair issues. Pay close attention to the clause in your lease regarding your move out inspection, as it's likely that you'll be required to schedule the inspection in advance.
Whether or not you are able to be present for your move out inspection, it's vital that you remember to give your forwarding address to the rental office. If you don't, you may never see your security deposit check—or you may be in for a nasty surprise a few months down the road when collections start calling about a balance you weren't aware of because you never received your final account statement.
A Final Word
No matter the circumstances when you move, you will always fare better if you've taken the time to read and be aware of your community's policies and regulations beforehand, and deal with the rental staff in a calm and respectful manner. If issues arise with your management staff, or you feel there's been any breach of contract on management's part, politely but firmly ask to speak to the next level up of management. A negative rental history will stay with you nearly as long as your bad memories of the rental itself, so it's essential to be well informed about the terms of your lease before you enter into a legally binding contract.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
ingrid on March 27, 2016:
I have great rental history. I have been in the same complex for 4 yrs. My lease renewal notification is March 31st as my lease ends June 30th. I received a letter for lease termination on the inside of my door, as well as a registered letter and was told that I need to vacate on or before May 31. I was told that by law they did not have to give me a reason. I have always paid my rent, there are no complaints against me and I have not damaged property. I feel sick ... I have done nothing.
Karlee on April 23, 2015:
Hi Sarah! Great read. I have a situation where I plan on breaking my lease. I put several of work orders in for a problem with pigeon feces on my balcony. How coincidental was it that they enteredy apartment without notice when I was out of town. I came home to my balcony unlocked, alarm turned off, and still pigeon feces on the balcony. I made a comlaint to the managers via website with no response. I called the front office and asked for the manager, but it seems impossible to reach him/her. I felt violated so I decided to look for another place. Where do you think I stand on this being that I will be breaking my lease 2 months early?
megan on May 18, 2012:
so ill try to make this as short as possible my husband and I rented an apartment in norfolk va and had to terminate or lease early which required us to pay two months rent for breaking the lease. my husband and I paid this and then received a few days later the Final Account Statement from the apartment complex which stated we owed an additional 300 dollars which we paid promptly. its now been 6 months and we received a bill in the mail from a debt collectpr stating we owed the apartment complex 111 dollars. Confused by this i went to the apartment building and asked about the letter. The lady there stated they had messed up and added somebody elses bill to our account then removed it and by doing that it left us owing 111. I asked her to explain that as we were up to date on all rent and utility bills upon move out the lady couldn't explain it and said she was confused as well and would call me the next monday... regardless to say i never received a call to explain the extra 111 we SUPPOSEDLY owe, I did however receive another debt collections letter for the same issue. My question is can they demand more money AFTER the Final Account Statement and 6 months later? O I had also asked the apartment why it went straight to collections and not us, and the Lady said well we left a voicemail... I know in the lease in the security deposits section it says land lord must give an itemized list of all charges within 45 days after move out.. so can they legally demand this 111 dollars???
L Butler on April 02, 2012:
on my contract state that we tenant and landlord should give a 2 month notice before moving out of property. i received a letter from my landlord on the 22 of march telling me to move on the 10 of may. what should i do about it?
End of Tenancy Cleaning London on August 18, 2010:
It is really hard to decide hoe to break a lease.
Eva on August 13, 2010:
I would like the same question as Sarah has to be answered.
As a landlord, I have not had tenants present upon move-out. I actually prefer it this way to avoid any confrontations of difficult tenants.
On the tenant(s) side, they should FULLY document everything themselves at move out for their own records if anything arises in question.
Any good landlord who is honest will do the same to be able to prove the case in court if needed.
Do not see this question specified in Texas Property Code 92.
Renter in Houston on June 30, 2009:
Great article! Thanks!
Could you tell me where the law specifies the right (for the Tenant) to be present at the Move-out Inspection? I've been told that, as a Tenant, the Landlord does not have to let me attend the Move-out Inspection.
Renter in Houston
Dina on June 04, 2009:
Very Good advice.