Can I Break My Lease If . . .?

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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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  1. Rob McCance says:

    Good post. Just had a related conversation with one of my agents today, in fact.

    She wanted to know if her lease client could get out of his upcoming lease prior to it going 12 months.

    I told her YES, but it ALL has to be negotiated and IN the contract PRIOR to everyone signing.

    Other than that, your Leasee will be on the hook for the 12 payments, regardless if he leaves early.

  2. Jim Zirbes says:

    Excellent post Jay.

    As I tell folks to this kind of question (and many types) “You (or they) can do most anything you (they) want. We all have free will.”

    This reply also works well when someone is asking “How can they get away with that?”

    And then follwed up with “There can be consequences of any action”.

    Oh, you mean “Can they LEGALLY do that?” Wow. Sounds like a question for a subject matter expert attorney. And here is a copy of the (fill in the blank here…contract, law, etc) and you can read what it says.

    In this specific situation, there is also the Greater Phoenix, AZ area “Break your Lease Legally” service who can be consulted. See: http://www.ArizonaTenants.com/breaklease.htm

  3. Jim Zirbes says:

    Sorry on the double of the same post Jay. Just my over-active submit button syndrome showing itself again. Feel free to deleted the bonus one.

  4. Great Post! I have 20 rental properties I own and manage myself and I have learned a lot over the years. Generally, everything boils down to the lease. However, you must always follow the laws set forth in your state and ask a real estate attorney if you every have specific questions you can’t find the answers to.

    I just stumbled upon your blog and I have stickied it. Will check back soon!

  5. Ryan says:

    Thanks for the information. I make sure that all of my home buyers are aware of the aspects of breaking a lease before they take that chance. The one thing that many people don’t realize is that many times if they take a little time and work with the companies in advance, it is much easier to work out an arrangement. With all of the foreclosures and renting on the rise, now is a great time to buy, and making sure that your not breaking a lease in the process is one of the first things that needs to be taken care.

  6. This is a great post! My in-laws used to manage quite a bit of properties and learned quite a bit over the years on leasing contracts, etc. They eventually sold the properties due to the headaches, but it was a great source of income.

    As for the contracts portion – everyone should read their contracts. With landlords with minimal properties, they’ll probably be more open to slightly changing the wording to allow it to work in your advantage to break it early. Of course,..all depends on the landlord.

  7. Morris says:

    <a href="http://www.propertyleo.com/Residential/&quot;
    Street-level real estate knowledge is irreplaceable. No matter how many charts and graphs you can get online, there’s nothing more valuable than a well-informed opinion from a professional with experience in your neighborhood or on your street….If you give people what you know they want how they want it… well, that’s not just good marketing – it’s also great branding.

  8. Ashley says:

    What’s even more shocking is that this goes for any contract we enter into. It seems that more and more people in general think that an agreement can be forgotten simply and easily. Life surprises us sometimes though, and this can mean a need to break a lease early, but this can only be done with the owner’s consent and possibly a great deal of red tape. If possible emergencies are suspected (or expected) then arrangements need to be made before the terms are agreed upon to make a break in lease amiable to both parties.

  9. Liz Benitez says:

    Well that about said it all. Next time I get the questions I’ll quote you.

  10. Great post and Thanks for that! i am in the field of real estate investment for years now and i have several different rental properties that i manage myself. Yes, i do agree wit the fact that everything comes to lease However, it is highly advisable to follow the laws set forth in your state and ask a real estate attorney if you every have specific questions you can’t find the answers to.

  11. Ben Fisher says:

    Great post here Jay. Thanks!

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