Question: I am not sure, but there is a strong possibility that I may be in a position to buy a house in nine to 12 months. I am worried that my lease is coming up for renewal in a few months and my landlord requires a 12-month lease. There is no clause that would allow me to break the lease due to my home purchase. Can you tell me how can I legally break my lease, considering I’m going to be a homeowner?

Tenant’s attorney Kellman replies:

Buying a home is a significant financial commitment. Also, this may be where you will live for many years and you may wind up keeping the property as a lifetime investment. Therefore, do not let the matter of a rental lease disturb your home-buying plans. Leases can be broken for many reasons where the landlord is at some fault with no cost or penalty to the tenant. However, if you want to break a lease based on your personal plans or needs, like buying a home, you may be held liable unless you take proper steps to protect yourself.

First, you should seek a short-term or a month-to-month rental agreement since you plan to move shortly after your present lease would expire. If you are forced to sign that new lease and then need to vacate early, you should give the landlord as much notice as possible. Lost rent or other costs can be avoided if you act promptly and properly. Many so-called lease break penalties included in some leases are not valid even though you signed the lease. Other leases have lease-break options that are just extra profit for the landlord. Therefore, do not sign any early-vacate or lease-break documents provided by the landlord without first having them reviewed by a professional, since you can easily sign away valuable rights. Remember, documents prepared by the landlord are for his or her best interests, not yours. When it comes to breaking leases, you should first seek legal counsel before taking any action.

Question: At the end of this month we will have completed our one-year lease of the condo we rent. I’ve already informed the owner that we do not plan to renew our contract and he has requested we have the carpet cleaned so that we can get back our deposit. What else can the owner legally request we do (paint, remove nails from the walls, clean windows, etc.) in order to get our full deposit?

Tenant’s attorney Kellman replies:

You should leave the unit as you found it, less ordinary wear and tear. You should have the place professionally cleaned so there is no doubt on the cleanliness. I agree that having the carpets professionally cleaned is a good idea. Under most circumstances unless you damaged, marked-up, or stained the walls, no painting should be necessary. If painting is necessary, get together with the landlord to agree on how that should be done so you do not paint or touch-up improperly, giving an excuse to the landlord to repaint at your expense. A pre-move out walk-through would be helpful to identify any last-minute areas that need attention. You can probably take care of any items that are your responsibility at a much lower cost than if the landlord does it. Take photos on the way out showing how nice the condo was when you moved. If the landlord was impressed with how clean you left the unit, ask for a letter of reference. It will be of value when you apply for future rentals.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies,” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.”

Email your questions to Rental Q&A at

Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.


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