Loopholes for Breaking Your Lease

Last Updated Jul 13, 2009 1:08 PM EDT

Dear Ali;
My hours at my job have been cut back significantly -- I'm not unemployed but it's a struggle to make ends meet. I've heard that you can't break your lease if you lose your job, but are there any loopholes I could take advantage of? I really need to move to a cheaper place.
A: Every lease is an individual contract, so really every one is different. But there are usually only four possible soft spots in a lease:
  1. Military Duty. Members of the armed services often know that they'll get called up at a moment's notice, so sometimes it's written in beforehand that you can break your lease with a month or two notice if you are called. Some states have protections also; for instance, the Maryland People's Law Library notes that there are lease break protections in Maryland.
  2. Domestic Violence. Some municipalities provide that you can break a lease if you have to move out of a violent domestic situation. But the laws can be very specific: filing a police report, for instance, is merely a claim of domestic violence, not proof. You'll usually need a court order of protection as proof. Our friends at the University of Illinois Tenant Union point out that, in Illinois, you also have to send written notice to your landlord three days before you move out.
  3. Covenant of "Quiet Enjoyment." This may be stated in slightly different ways in different states, but generally, when you sign a lease, you're supposed to get quiet use of the leased premises. "In Texas, it's implied in every lease, whether it's in the lease or not," notes Aimee Hess, author of the Texas Attorney Blog, and the president of Law Offices of Aimee Hess, P.C., located in Streetman, Tex. "Say your neighbor's son is forming a punk-rock band in an apartment with thin walls, and they practice every night from 8-2. That's a violation of the covenant of quiet enjoyment."
    However, note that you can't just move out. You need to notify your landlord (and "notify" always means "in writing") and give him the chance to correct the problem.
  4. Implied Warranty of Habitability. "Habitability" means about what you think it means -- an apartment with a gaping hole in the roof, or one that is overrun with mice, is not habitable. Just like with the covenant of quiet enjoyment, though, you have to notify the landlord, and you run the risk that he'll correct the defect. That closes the loophole, and while it makes your apartment better, it means you can't break your lease.
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  • Alison Rogers

    Since graduating from Harvard summa cum laude, Alison Rogers has been a reporter, an editor, a real-estate agent, a Wall Street desk jockey, a columnist, a failed flipper, and a landlady. A member of the National Association of Realtors, she currently sells and rents luxury co-ops in Manhattan for the Chelsea-based firm DG Neary. (If you've got $27,500 a month, the firm has an apartment for you!) Her book, Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, was called "a valuable guide for rookie buyers" by AOL/Walletpop, "beach-read fun" by the New York Observer, and "witty" by Newsweek.

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