Can I Break My Lease If . . .?


for-rent-signWe frequently, and inordinate amount of time I would say, get questions from people asking:

Can I break my lease if…

… I am buying a home?

… I have to move out of town/state?

… my landlord is a jackass?

… I found a better place?

And the list goes on. These are by far the most popular inquires, roughly in order.

Let’s begin with a short discussion of what a lease is.

The book definition is, “A contract granting use or occupation of property during a specified period in exchange for a specified rent.”

I bolded “contract” for a reason. It seems to be what a surprisingly significant portion of people are missing when they think about breaking their lease.

A contract is, “An agreement between two or more parties, especially one that is written and enforceable by law.”

Put those two together, in plain English, and a lease is a legally binding document the requires you to pay your rent for the entire period of the lease. Break it, and you’re probably responsible by law for paying monetary damages.

And there are not many exceptions. So the general answer to the question of, “Can I break my lease if . . .?” is no, you can’t.

The standard Arizona Residential Lease Agreement contains 333 lines of contract language, and with one exception (to be covered momentarily) nary a line mentions any allowable reason to break your lease. This may not seem right or fair to you, but a lease is after all a contractual obligation to pay rent. The contract doesn’t simply terminate when something changes in your life, be that buying a home, finding a better place to live, moving, whatever. You sign a lease, you’re signing a contract to pay.

It really is that simple,  with a few exceptions…

The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act (Rewritten in 2003 to Servicemembers Civil Relief Act)

Lines 217 – 221 of the Arizona Residential Lease Agreement state:

If Tenant enters into military service or is a military service member and receives military orders for a change of permanent station or to deploy with a military unit or as an individual in support of a military operation for a period of 90 days or more, Tenant may terminate this Agreement by delivering written notice and a copy of Tenant’s official military orders to Landlord. In such a case, this Agreement shall terminate 30 days after the next monthly rental payment is due. Military permission for base housing does not constitute a change of permanent station order.

Pretty straightforward. Get transferred or deployed (for 90 days or more) and you can terminate your lease. This makes perfect sense as it would be pretty ridiculous to hold our service men and women to a lease if they are transferred or deployed.

Some have tried though. Which leads us to…

My landlord is a jackass. Can I break my lease?

It depends one where their jackassery stems from. Are they getting twisted out of shape because your rent payment is late? Well… they probably need to make a mortgage payment too. Quite possibly on the very house you’re living in. Consider how you would feel if someone owed you a lot of money and wasn’t paying it. Of course they don’t have to be rude and nasty about it, but a landlord is well within their right to demand payment, charge late fees, etc. After all, you agreed to pay on time and agreed to the late fees when you signed your lease.

Now if the landlord is getting the stink on because you are asking for something to be repaired, then you have certain rights. Not necessarily terminating your lease, but you should know and understand your rights as a  tenant.

Which leads us to…

The Arizona Residential Landlord Tenant Act

There are several provisions in the Arizona Residential Landlord Tenant Act (ARLTA) that provide for early lease termination (by both the tenant and the landlord). I won’t cover them all. If you are a landlord or tenant in the state of Arizona, you really should read and understand the ARLTA. Be sure you’re in a place where you can sleep comfortably, because you will fall asleep reading it.

Some of the highlights:

Domestic violence victims can terminate a lease without penalty, assuming certain conditions are met such as filing a police report, providing a copy of a protective order, etc.  (see §33-1318 of the ARLTA). This too makes perfect sense. If you are a domestic violence victim, it’s probably a good idea to move somewhere the abuser won’t find you. Penalizing such a victim for doing so would be wrong on many levels.

Failure to deliver possession of the property. If you sign a lease and the landlord won’t let you move in, it seems only reasonable you shouldn’t be tied to a lease (§33-1362).

Fire or casualty damage. Another no-brainer, but it’s a good thing no-brainers are codified into law. If the home you are renting burns to the ground, you can get out of your lease (§33-1366).

Interruption of electric, gas, water or other essential services. No, your landlord can’t pull the plug on your house (§33-1367).

Those are the major ones. There may be other allowable reasons for the tenant terminating the lease listed in the ARLTA.

Keep in mind, there are also legal reasons the landlord can terminate your lease. Non-payment of rent is of course the biggie. But don’t build a meth lab in the garage, prevent legal access by the landlord, or fail to comply with the terms of your lease or provisions in the ARLTA or you might just find yourself seeking shelter elsewhere.


IMPORTANT NOTE! I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV or the Interwebs. A Lease is a legal contract, and you should always consult an attorney if you have questions about any contract. And the ARLTA is the ARIZONA RLTA. Your state has different rules and regulations.

Photo Credit: ishane on Flickr. CC Licensed.



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About the Author
Jay Thompson

I'm a real estate broker in Phoenix, Arizona and the publisher of the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog. I tend to drive too fast and scream at the University of Texas and Denver Broncos football teams. My two kids are smarter than most adults I know and my wife is simply amazing.

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