Question: My fiancé and I really need to break our lease. We signed a one-year lease in August last year, and since then we’ve had nothing but issues.
Not even two weeks after moving in, someone broke into our car and stole our radio and damaged the dashboard. My downstairs neighbors gave us fleas, which they did spray for, and never cleaned up the cat feces, for which they were evicted. Our new downstairs neighbors have been very loud and kept us up at night, and I have had to go downstairs to ask them to keep it down several times. My upstairs neighbors have a habit of turning their music up loud, and when I go knock on their door to turn it down they won’t answer and instead turn it up. I have called and complained on them several times and they have failed to do anything about it to make it stop. We have had issues with mold on our windows and one window frame being broken and we had to call maintenance to come fix it.
Then there are also our own reasons. After we moved in we found out I am expecting another child and am due in May. A small two-bedroom apartment for all five of us isn’t enough room. My fiancé and I will be getting married this month as well. Is there anything I can do to get out of this without it hurting our credit?
James McKinley, an attorney for landlords, replies:
Since you and your fiancé signed a lease, which is a contract, you are both legally obligated to perform your obligations under the contract. While you may have personal reasons for wanting to break the lease, there does not appear to be any valid legal reason for you and your fiancé to be relieved from these lease obligations. You have listed many minor inconveniences one will experience living in an apartment complex with many people living in close proximity; however, you have not stated a valid legal reason to break the lease. In fact, it appears that the landlord has responded to your complaints about the neighbors and conditions in the apartment in a timely manner. Your landlord is not responsible for the criminal acts of third parties, and has apparently performed his obligations under the contract. It appears that the real reason you want to move is to rent a bigger apartment.
Under the law in most jurisdictions, if you and your fiancé were to break the lease, you both would be responsible for the rent until the lease expired or the landlord found a new tenant, whichever came first. If you failed to pay the rent, your landlord could pursue a judgment through small claims court, or collections through a collection agency, either of which would negatively affect your credit. Your best option would be to negotiate an early termination of the tenancy and lease with the landlord. Many landlords have a policy regarding early termination of leases involving a fee to cover the costs of lost rent, advertising and cleaning.
Steven Kellman, an attorney for tenants, replies:
Leases, like some rules, seem like a good idea at some point but often there is someone out there just waiting to break one of them. Of course, rules or leases are better broken when you have a good reason. I would call what you have endured a major disruption to your lives. You suffered vandalism (lack of security), insect infestation, broken windows and mold (lack of maintenance), and excessive noise from neighbors (lack of enforcing rental agreements). These are not minor inconveniences. Anyone dealing with these things on a routine basis would be understandably upset and ready to move out. You are not prisoners and may move if it is just not livable there. The law allows you, under certain conditions rendering the unit significantly uninhabitable, to vacate and be relieved from the obligation to pay any further rent. In this situation, and under certain conditions, the lease could be “broken” with no penalty and no minimum notice would be needed.
Now, if you really feel you need to move because you simply need a bigger place, then your termination of the lease is without legal grounds, and you could be responsible for lost rent and advertising costs. You can protect your credit simply by arranging an agreed-upon move-out date with the landlord and co-operating with the re-renting process. Your liability could then be kept to a minimum and your credit left intact. Remember to seek legal counsel before breaking any lease.
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 James McKinley, principal in a law firm representing landlords.
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