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Can A Landlord Break A Lease?

Scott Gibson
Scott Gibson Published : September 28, 2021

The question if a landlord can break a lease agreement can be tricky to answer. A rental agreement is a legally binding document that a landlord and tenant must adhere to. Unless there is a serious lease violation, it’s not possible to end a lease early. But certain situations allow a landlord to terminate the agreement to get a tenant out of the property. 

Finding a great tenant who pays rent on time is the goal of every landlord. During the rental application process, you carry out thorough screening to ensure the tenant is a good fit. However, despite the best screening efforts, you sometimes have to deal with a lease violation and consider ending the agreement early.

Before taking steps to terminate a rental agreement early, it’s vital to ensure you have a solid legal basis. The last thing you want is a disgruntled tenant to file a suit against you for a rental lease violation. 

This article looks at the various legal reasons for a landlord to break a lease. For example, maybe you are a tenant and have received a “cure or quit” or a “pay or quit” notice. Then, you should know if your landlord is acting within the law. Or suppose you are a landlord, and you want the tenant out of the rental unit for missing rent payments.

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Please read on to learn when you can get a tenant out before the lease term ends.

Can a Landlord Break a Lease?

A landlord can break a lease for two reasons—a tenant’s lease violation or an early termination clause in the agreement. For example, the landlord can evict a tenant for unpaid rent or breaking another rental lease clause. Also, a landlord can end the lease to sell, renovate, or move into the rental property.

Violation of Lease Agreement

A common reason to break the lease is due to violating the lease conditions. Common lease violations include unpaid rent, having an unapproved pet, breaking occupancy rules, or severe property damage. In some cases, carrying out illegal activity can be a cause to serve an unconditional notice to quit immediately.

If the tenant has violated a clause in the agreement, your first step is to serve a lease violation notice. A notice to “pay rent or quit” or “cure or quit” gives the tenant a specific number of days to resolve the issue. For example, for non-payment of rent, the tenant may have to pay the arrears within a specific time. 

State laws on starting an eviction process vary. So before serving a termination notice, it’s vital to check with local laws before beginning eviction proceedings. This way, you can ensure that you give your delinquent tenant reasonable notice and avoid making a costly eviction mistake. For example, Colorado lease termination laws say that a tenant must pay rent within three days after receiving notice. Many states have similar landlord-tenant laws.

Here is a list of common lease violations that give you cause to break a lease early:

  • Late payments.
  • Pets in the apartment when you have a no pet policy.
  • Long-term guests that become occupants.
  • Significant damage to the property.
  • Carrying out illegal activity.
  • The tenant turns the rental unit into a business location. However, this doesn’t include working from home.

Related reading: How to deal successfully with evictions.

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Lease Termination with Cause

In some cases, you may need to break a lease without cause. This means that you want the tenant out, but there is no lease violation. Reasons to terminate the lease before it ends include selling the property, carrying out extensive renovations, or you want to move into the property yourself. 

Let’s look at the three scenarios when you can break a lease without cause. 

  • Selling the property: If you decide to sell the property, you can require tenants to vacate it before the lease ends. Even if a new landlord buys the property, you can still ask tenants to move out. However, you can only break the lease to sell the rental unit if there is a clause in the rental agreement. Generally, the law gives tenants the right to remain in a property after it’s sold.
  • Extensive renovations: Suppose you need to renovate the property. But the extent of repairs means a tenant can’t live there safely. In that case, you can terminate the agreement. However, you must have a clause in the rental agreement stating this. Additionally, states with rent control regulations may require you to give tenants proper notice. Or you may have to renew the tenancy after the repairs are completed.
  • To move into the property: In most states, an “owner move-in” eviction is legal, as long as the landlord provides proper notice. However, the landlord must live in the property as their primary residence to avoid any legal complications. Failure to do this could allow tenants to sue for wrongful eviction.

What to Break a Lease Early? It Depends on the Clause in the Lease

It is a good idea to include a clause in rental agreements about breaking a lease without cause. If your state laws allow it, you could have an early termination clause for specific situations. Generally, these are if you sell the property, carry out major renovations, or decide to live in the property yourself.

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Month-to-Month Rental Agreements

It is typically easy to end a lease on a month-to-month agreement. Most states require that you give the tenant 30 days’ notice that they must move out. However, you should check landlord-tenant laws in your local area. For example, lease termination laws in Colorado only require 21 days’ notice

Some states stipulate that you can’t break a month-to-month lease so fast. You may have to give 60 or even 90 days’ notice before breaking a month-to-month rental agreement. 

Offering Cash for Keys

A “cash for keys” arrangement could be the best option if it’s impossible to break a lease early. For example, you can offer a tenant cash to move out if there is no termination clause in the lease. Also, offering cash for keys can help you avoid a costly and lengthy eviction process. 

Here are a few scenarios where a “cash for keys” agreement could help you break a lease early. 

Let’s say that you have a tenant who is guilty of noise disturbances and occasionally makes late monthly rent payments. Even though you can serve a “cure or quit” notice, you realize that the eviction will take too long. Also, during the eviction process, the tenant may stop making rental payments altogether. So, you could offer them a month’s rent plus the security deposit. However, depending on the circumstances, you could offer a different sum.

Or maybe you want to sell the rental unit as vacant, without existing tenants. However, there is no clause in the rental agreement for termination without cause. In that case, you could give the tenant a “cash for keys” offer.

Related reading: Cash for keys vs. eviction — which is best?

When using a “cash for keys” arrangement to break a lease early, remember the few things:

  • Put the agreement in writing: Get an attorney to draw up an agreement for you and the tenant to sign.
  • Don’t harass the tenant: It’s vital to remember that you are at the tenant’s mercy. They are under no obligation to accept a “cash for keys” deal.
  • Keep a record: Don’t pay the tenant in cash, but always pay by check or a bank transfer, so you have a record of the transaction.
  • Don’t carry out a self-help eviction: Changing the locks, shutting off utilities, or making the rental unit uninhabitable is illegal and a lease violation. You face an eviction lawsuit if you try a self-help eviction.

Legal Reasons to Break a Lease — In Conclusion

A breach of lease is typically the only reason to break a rental agreement early. When a tenant doesn’t pay rent, damages the property, or violates another part of the rental agreement, you can serve a notice to cure or quit. Suppose you have a clause for early termination. In that case, you could end the tenancy early if you decide to sell, renovate, or move into the property yourself. 

Before taking action to break a lease, it’s always best to consult with a lawyer to ensure you get legal advice applicable to your state and situation.

Topics: eviction, late rent, landlord tenant law, rental lease