Breaking a Lease

Breaking a Lease: The Legal Consequences and Potential Exemptions

A lease is a legally binding contract that outlines the responsibilities and rights of both the tenant and the landlord. Most tenants who sign a lease intend to stay out the entirety of their lease term, but life happens—and when the unexpected happens, breaking a lease may be the only option available. Leaving before your lease is up does come with financial and legal consequences, and it’s important to understand what may happen after you give your notice to your landlord.

Rights and Obligations

When you sign a lease—generally for six months or a year, but there are college towns that have nine-month leases—you are expected to fulfill the terms of the contract until the end of the lease. It’s fairly uncommon for leases to allow for changes partway through the lease, and the terms of the lease do not supersede Maryland rental laws

Your rights? Your landlord cannot force you out simply because they don’t want you there; they must have proof that you have failed to pay rent or otherwise violated the terms of the lease. You are also entitled to quiet enjoyment of the property. Your obligations include paying the rent in full and on time. This is true even if you decide to move out prior to the end of the lease.

Legal Ramifications for Breaking a Lease

If you decide to break your lease, you are expected to continue to pay rent until the end of the lease term if your landlord is unable to re-rent your unit. That last part is key—your landlord cannot simply let your unit sit empty and continue to collect rent from you until your lease ends. Nor can they let the unit sit empty and then sue you for unpaid rent at the end of the term. They must take reasonable steps to mitigate their losses. This means advertising the unit and attempting to re-rent it to a suitable tenant. 

Note that they do not have to take whoever applies or relax their standards just to get you out of your lease sooner. They are permitted to look for a tenant who fits the rental standards of the building.

Should your landlord be successful in re-renting the unit, you are only responsible for rent for the period of time in which they do not have a new tenant. Let’s say you move out in January and they successfully re-rent the unit for April 1. You will still pay February and March rent, but after that, you are released from the terms of your lease.

Exemptions and Valid Reasons to Break a Lease

While you are generally legally obligated to fulfill the terms of your lease, there are circumstances that warrant ending a lease early. If you can prove that you fit into one of these categories, you may be able to move out legally without continuing to pay rent until the unit is re-rented. You may need the assistance of a landlord-tenant attorney if your landlord pushes back on your legal lease termination.

If you start active military duty after signing a lease, you can legally break your lease without financial penalty. This isn’t Maryland law; this is federal law. Upon receiving notice of your active duty, you must give written notice to your landlord and specify that you are terminating your lease because of active duty. Your lease ends 30 days after they receive that notice.

Landlords are obligated to provide renters with a safe and habitable rental. If they are incapable of doing so, tenants are allowed to break their lease. Your unit must fit all local and state laws for habitability. If it does not, you are essentially constructively evicted—this means that the landlord has basically evicted you by failing to provide a livable home. However, you can’t just bail at the first sign of repairs. You must go through specific steps before terminating your lease.

You can also terminate your lease early if your landlord violates your privacy rights or harasses you. For example, if they remove your blinds, turn off your utilities, or change the locks while you’re still living there, that is considered constructive eviction.

Finally, you may be able to break your lease early if you are a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. As is the case in the other circumstances listed here, you must provide proper notice.

While breaking your lease can come with financial penalties, it’s important to know your rights and assert them.