Breaking a Lease

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Tenants frequently desire or need to break a lease.  Breaking a lease means to end a lease prior to its termination date.  Leases are binding contracts between the landlord(s) and the tenant(s).  Maryland law imposes certain conditions on that contract such as limiting late fees to 5% of a monthly rental payment, but in areas where the law does not impose limits, the landlord(s) and tenant(s) are free to negotiate their own agreement.  This is true as to the early termination of a lease agreement.

Some written leases have a clause which provides a mechanism for tenants to cancel the lease.  For example, some leases contain a clause indicating that a tenant who wants to terminate the lease before the end of the lease term may pay the equivalent of two months rent in advance of moving, give sixty days written notice of the moving date, and then the lease will be terminated.

If a tenant wants to break a lease that does not have a cancellation provision, he/she should be aware that Maryland law permits early termination of a lease under certain circumstances.  These include situations when conditions are so severe that continuation of the tenancy becomes untenable, and when a person has been called to military duty.  Maryland law also limits a tenant's liability under certain medical circumstances, with a doctor's certification.  If you do not meet any of these conditions, you may try to negotiate an early termination agreement with your landlord. 

Q -“I signed a lease in the morning.  That afternoon, I asked that the lease be canceled.  The landlord refused.  Doesn’t the law give me time to change my mind?”

A - No.  The law does not give you time to change your mind.  [Maryland law allowing for a three day contract cancellation period only covers activities of door-to-door salespeople, health club memberships and certain credit transactions.]

Q - “The landlord and I signed the lease, but I haven’t moved in yet.  The landlord has found someone who is willing to pay more rent and has told me I can get my money back, but I can’t move in.  Can the landlord do this to me?”

A -No.  The landlord would be breaching his/her obligations to you under the lease.  If the landlord refuse to let you into the property, you could sue for a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment and obtain damages including the difference in what you will pay in rent and what you would have paid in rent under the lease.

Q -“Can I break the lease if management doesn’t properly maintain the property?”

A -The answer is that it depends.  If the property is so poorly maintained that it is no longer tenable to live there, a tenant may be able to go into District Court under the Rent Escrow Law (and in Baltimore City, under the Warranty of Habitability) and have a judge void the lease.  In addition, if a tenant vacates a property because of the severity of the conditions, the tenant may be able to sue the landlord for constructive eviction and have the court void the lease and give the tenant money damages.  The remedies of Rent Escrow, Warranty of Habitability and Constructive Eviction are somewhat complicated and it is advisable to seek assistance before  proceeding.  BNI, the Legal Aid Bureau (for income eligible clients), Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (for income eligible clients), or a private attorney may be able to provide you with more detailed information tailored to your particular situation.  [Normally, the remedy for poor maintenance is to file a complaint with the local housing inspectors and/or to send a letter by certified mail to the landlord noting the items you want repaired.  Then, if the landlord has not complied with the violation notice or repaired the property within a reasonable time, and if the repairs needed are substantial, it is possible to petition the court, in a rent escrow process, (and/or warranty of habitability process in Baltimore City) to have the rent money placed into an escrow account until all repairs are completed.]

Q -“I am continually disturbed by noisy tenants, and the landlord refuses to remedy the situation.  Is this grounds for me to break the lease?” 

A - It may be grounds to break the lease if you have given your landlord notice of the problem, an opportunity to remedy the problem, and the problem still continues.  In all Maryland leases, the landlord covenants the quiet enjoyment of his/her rental property.  If other tenants are disturbing you by their noise, you should contact your landlord in writing about the situation specifying when the tenants have disturbed you and the nature of the disturbances.  Then, you must give the landlord a reasonable time to remedy the situation.  If the landlord contacts the tenants about the noise, but the tenants do not voluntarily stop disturbing you, the landlord may be obligated to send the tenants a notice to vacate for breach of the lease.  If the tenants do not vacate and do not stop disturbing you, the landlord would then have to take the tenants to court for breach of the lease.  This process could take several months.  You must give the landlord at least that much time to remedy the situation.  If however, after a reasonable time has passed, the landlord has not moved to have the tenants vacate, you  may file an action in District Court for the landlord’s failure to assure quiet enjoyment of the premises.  The tenant can then decide to stay in the property and get money damages or the tenant can ask the court to end the lease and award damages to cover moving expenses.  Obviously, the outcome of the case will depend upon the tenant’s ability to prove the situation.  This is certainly a less risky procedure than moving and then arguing constructive eviction either in a suit you bring against the landlord or as a defense against the landlord’s suit for lost rent.  However, if you find it impossible to continue your tenancy because of conditions in the property or because of a breach of your quiet enjoyment, you may move and argue that you were constructively evicted.

Q -“I have been transferred some distance away and it takes too long to commute.  Does the law allow me to break the lease?” 

A -Unfortunately, you are still bound by the lease unless your lease provides for early termination because of job dislocation or under certain circumstances, if you are in the military.  Some leases have a specific clause which addresses this issue, but many do not.  For example, some leases will allow for termination of the lease if you change jobs to a location more than fifty miles away.

Q -“I am in the military and have been stationed in another part of the country.  May I break my lease?

A -Maryland law does allow a person on active military duty who has received a temporary duty order for a period of more than three months or an order for permanent change of station to end a lease by providing written notice and proof of assignment.  The tenant who provides the proper notice will be responsible for no more than 30 days rent and the cost of repairing any damage to the premises caused by the tenant.

Q -“I am buying a house.  Can I break the lease?” 

A - You may still be obligated for lost rent.  Because few tenants are able to make the ending of the lease coincide with the purchase of a house, unless you reach an agreement with your landlord or there is a cancellation clause in your lease or a clause in your lease which provides for this contingency (which is unlikely), you will be responsible for the rent which is due for the remainder of the lease.  However, the landlord will be obligated to make a good faith effort to rerent the property after you leave, thereby mitigating your damages.  If the landlord rerents the property after you leave and before your lease term expires, you will be responsible for the rent up until the time of rerental and any costs the landlord sustained in having to rerent.  Those costs may include the cost of advertising, for example.  In addition, if the new tenants do not pay their rent during the time your lease would be in effect, you may also be responsible for this lost rent. You may wish to view the breaking of your lease as a  cost of buying a house

Q -“I need to break my lease in order to find a cheaper apartment.  I have lost my job and simply cannot afford to stay in the apartment.  What will happen?”

A - You may have trouble obtaining another apartment if your proposed new landlord checks with your current landlord.  Since your landlord can hold you responsible for payments due under the lease until he rerents the property, a prospective landlord may question whether you can afford to pay both the old rent and the new.  Even if you find a new rental, the original landlord can sue you for lost rent, as well as the costs of  rerenting the property.  Furthermore, a judgment against you may be reported to a credit agency.  If you are working, or when you get a job, the landlord who has a judgment against you may be able to garnish your wages.  However, if you can no longer afford to pay the rent, you can try to negotiate with your landlord, a cancellation of the lease agreement.

Q -“What is the responsibility of the landlord when a lease is broken?” 

A - The landlord must make a reasonable effort to mitigate his damages by trying to rent the apartment as soon as possible.  He can’t hide the fact that your apartment is now available, but he doesn’t have to put your apartment ahead of other vacancies. The landlord has a duty to mitigate the damages if the damages result from the landlord's or tenant's:

  1. Failure to supply possession of the leased premises; or
  2. Failure or refusal to take possession at the beginning of thelease term; or
  3. Termination of occupancy before the end of the term.

A landlord is not required to show or lease a prematurely vacted dwelling unit in preference to other units he is offering. Read the law: MD Code Real Prop. § 8–207

Q -“May the landlord refuse to allow me to sublet the property?” 

A - A landlord does not have to allow subletting to anyone who is not qualified, but in general, a landlord cannot arbitrarily refuse to allow subletting or leasing to another qualified tenant.  If he did this, he would not be mitigating his damages.

Q - “What if I become ill and have to move to a nursing home or relative’s house?”

A - If you give your landlord the required doctor's certification and notice of termination before you leave the property, the landlord cannot charge you for more than two months' rent after the date you leave.  This provision does not apply if your contract already allows you to terminate the lease with written notice of one month or less, and limits your liability to two months' rent or less after the date you leave.
Read the law: MD Code Real Prop. § 8–212.2

Q -“What if the landlord sells the property during the term of my lease?”

A -The new owner takes over all the rights and responsibilities of the former owner under the lease agreement. 

Q -“What happens if a tenant or landlord dies?” 

A -Unless the lease provides otherwise, the death of a tenant or landlord does not terminate the lease and does not terminate the responsibilities under the lease.  Thus, the landlord’s successor continues as landlord and a tenant’s estate becomes responsible for lost rent if the tenant’s heirs end the lease.

Additional Resources:

The following books may be available at a public Circuit Court Law Library or municipal public library.

Trevor Rhodes & Nicole Février, American Landlord Law : Everything U Need to Know about Landlord-Tenant Laws, New York: McGraw-Hill (2009)

Janet Portman & Marcia Stewart, Every Tenant's Legal Guide, Berkeley, Calif. : Nolo Press (6th ed. 2009)

Source: 

BNI, updated by Rudi Lamy, Maryland State Law Library
Is this legal advice?

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