Can a Landlord Cancel a Lease After Signing? A Guide

This guide provides an in-depth look at the conditions under which landlords and tenants can legally break a lease, covering scenarios such as non-payment of rent, property sale, and lease violations. It also offers practical advice on how to navigate these situations, emphasizing the importance of understanding lease clauses, adhering to local laws, and maintaining open communication.

By
Nichole Stohler
|
Last Updated
December 6, 2023
Can a Landlord Cancel a Lease After Signing? A Guide

Have you ever wondered what happens if a landlord or tenant needs to break a lease early? Prematurely ending rental agreements can create confusion around rights, notices, and consequences. 

In this article, landlords will learn qualifying scenarios for legally breaking a lease, renters will uncover circumstances that may permit the cancelation of an existing lease, and both landlords and renters will learn next steps they can take if they find themselves in a lease cancellation situation.

Whether you feel unsure about justified reasons, documentation requirements, providing notices, or handling exits, this guide clarifies best practices for breaking a lease from all sides. Master proper protocols, avoid common pitfalls, and work as partners when navigating tricky early exits.

When can landlords terminate agreements?

Once a lease agreement is signed, it generally establishes a legally binding contract between the landlord and tenant, outlining their respective rights and obligations.

However, there are circumstances under which a landlord may have the legal authority to break a lease agreement within certain conditions and considerations.

Valid reasons for a landlord breaking lease agreements

For landlords, breaking lease agreements can sometimes be inevitable due to valid reasons. Here are some typical motivations behind a landlord's decision to cancel a lease agreement before its scheduled conclusion:

Non-payment of rent

One of the most common reasons a landlord breaks the lease is when a tenant consistently fails to pay rent. Income from rent is the principal revenue stream for landlords, and when a tenant falls behind on payments, it can create significant financial difficulties.

In such cases, the landlord may consider early lease termination. However, landlords must follow the formal eviction process as outlined by local regulations. It typically involves providing written notice informing the tenant of overdue rent and allowing a grace period to pay before proceeding with eviction filings.

If the tenant does not become current on rent within the notice period, the eviction process may ultimately result in the termination of the lease. Landlords should maintain transparent communication and take reasonable, good-faith actions throughout formal proceedings.

Selling of property

Landlords may decide to sell their rental property during the lease term. Tenants typically have the right to stay until the lease expires, even during a sale. For a landlord to terminate early due to a sale, the lease agreement must contain an early termination clause outlining specific terms and procedures that apply. Without such a clause, a landlord cannot terminate the lease solely due to the sale of the property.

Renovations and repairs 

Sometimes, unforeseen circumstances arise that require urgent repairs or renovations to the rental property to maintain the habitability and safety of the premises.

If your rental property requires urgent repairs that necessitates the displacement of your tenants, check if your lease agreements contain an early termination clause related to necessary repairs or renovations.

Also, research your state and local laws — provisions may allow termination when repairs or renovations make a property uninhabitable. It's important to provide tenants with reasonable notice and alternative accommodations if possible.

Violation of lease

If a tenant consistently violates the terms of the lease agreement, it can create problems for both the landlord and other tenants in the building. Lease violations such as unauthorized pets, subletting without permission, excessive noise, or illegal activities may lead the landlord to terminate the lease early.

How landlords can break a lease

If you're a landlord planning to break a lease early, you can follow this general guide:

  • Review the lease agreement: Carefully review your lease agreement with the tenant to understand any provisions or clauses related to early termination, which will outline any conditions and procedures for breaking the lease.
  • Communicate with the tenant: Initiate open and honest communication with the tenant about your intention to break the lease early. Clearly explain the reasons and discuss possible resolutions. Document all interactions and keep a record for future reference.
  • Offer alternatives: Consider offering alternatives to the tenant, such as allowing them to find a replacement tenant or negotiating a mutually agreeable solution. It can help mitigate any financial burdens on the tenant and maintain a positive landlord-tenant relationship.
  • Follow local laws and regulations: Confirm that you adhere to local laws and regulations regarding lease termination. Some jurisdictions may have specific requirements for providing notice and handling security deposits.
  • Consult with legal counsel: If you encounter challenges or disputes during the process of breaking the lease early, it's advisable to ask for legal advice from an attorney who is an expert in landlord-tenant law. They can provide guidance that fits your specific circumstances and local regulations.

Understanding lease agreement clauses and conditions

The lease contract contains specific clauses and conditions that provide guidance to landlords and tenants on ending leases early. Certain details to look for in a lease agreement include:

  • Termination clauses: Lease agreements often include termination clauses that outline the conditions under which either party can terminate the lease before its intended end date. These clauses may specify situations that would allow the landlord or tenant to cancel the lease and any early termination fees.
  • Notice period: Even if a lease contains termination clauses, landlords and tenants must usually provide proper notice before canceling the lease. The notice period can vary depending on local laws and the specifics of the lease agreement.
  • Special circumstances: Certain leases may incorporate clauses addressing special circumstances that could warrant early termination. Landlords should consider including provisions in the lease agreement that address these special circumstances, like personal emergencies or significant changes in financial situations, outlining the process and any additional requirements for early termination.

How long do tenants have to back out after signing?

The ability to back out of a signed lease depends on state laws and the specific terms in the lease agreement. To determine your specific timeframe, review your lease closely for a post-signing cancellation grace period section — some leases build this in. If such an option exists, follow the steps outlined while within that post-signing window.

If no clause exists, check your state's real estate laws regarding lease cancellations post-signing. A few states do afford tenants 1-2 day cooling off periods, even without a lease clause.

Beyond initial narrow grace periods, formally breaking an executed lease can carry consequences like surrendering deposits or owing rent until the unit is re-rented.

What if the landlord cancels the lease before move-in?

If a landlord cancels your lease before you move in, you have certain rights and options, including:

  • Review your signed lease: Some clauses may allow the landlord to cancel under certain conditions. Understand clearly if the cancellation violates your lease agreement's terms.
  • Request written notice: Ask the landlord to provide formal written notice stating the cancellation and reason, if not due to a lease clause. Retain documentation of this notice for your records.
  • Ask about cancellation fees or penalties: Depending on your jurisdiction, you may be entitled to cancellation fees or penalties from a landlord improperly canceling a signed lease.
  • Request return of your security deposit: If you have paid the security deposit and the landlord cancels the lease before you can move in, send a formal written request for reimbursement.
  • Check deposit regulations: If the landlord does not cooperate with returning your deposit, review your jurisdiction's security deposit regulations, as well as the timeline and processes for recouping deposits. Typically, landlords have a limited window of time before they'll start to owe penalties.
  • Explore legal options: Consult a local tenancy lawyer if the cancellation seems unlawful; you may be able to take legal action.
  • Seek alternative housing: Regardless of legal action, the priority is finding alternative housing right away so you have a place to stay. Tap into any resources that can aid in your rental search.

Valid reasons a tenant might end a lease early

Tenants have the right to terminate a lease early under certain circumstances. These circumstances can vary depending on the state and specific lease agreement.

Here are some typical scenarios where tenants may have early termination rights:

  • Domestic violence:  In some states, tenants who are victims of domestic violence may have the option to terminate their lease before its designated end date. These specific laws are in place to offer protection and assistance to individuals who find themselves in abusive situations.
  • Uninhabitable conditions: If the rental unit should happen to be unlivable due to severe maintenance problems or health risks, tenants may have the option to terminate the lease early. The absence of proper heating, significant water damage, and harmful substances can all render a unit uninhabitable.
  • Military service: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) grants active-duty military personnel the ability to terminate their lease when they receive a call to serve. This important legislation recognizes and addresses the unique challenges faced by military members, confirming that they have flexibility in their housing arrangements.
  • Mutual agreement: Discuss your situation with your landlord — while not required, they may allow you to break the lease or to sublet your apartment if another tenant is lined up.
  • Landlord breach of contract:  If a landlord fails to fulfill their responsibilities as stated in the lease agreement, tenants may be able to terminate the lease early. Some examples of landlord breaches include neglecting important repairs, invading a tenant's privacy, or participating in illegal activities on the property.

How a tenant can break a lease early

If tenants find themselves facing situations that may legally warrant early lease termination of their rental agreement, like safety issues or military deployment, follow these guidelines:

  1. Notify the landlord in writing, stating your situation and intention to terminate early. Send a printed letter or email clearly conveying that you need to end the lease early due to a specific lawful situation (military deployment, domestic abuse protection order, etc.)
  2. Provide any required documentation. Attach copies of documents like deployment orders or court rulings supporting the need to exit early. This evidence should align with local early lease termination statutes.
  3. Continue paying rent on schedule through existing channels (online portal, check etc.) until the termination is finalized.
  4. Have a formal early termination agreement signed by the landlord. Request or provide a lease termination addendum or modification form stipulating the early end date terms, which you and the landlord must both sign.

What tenants can do if a landlord breaches the lease agreement

When a landlord breaks the lease agreement by failing to fulfill their obligations, tenants have several options to address the situation.

  • Talk to the landlord: It is often beneficial for tenants to initiate a conversation with their landlord about the broken lease agreement. Communicating in writing allows tenants to clearly outline the specific issues and how those issues affect their tenancy.
  • Know the laws: Tenants should take the time to research and understand the tenant laws and regulations applicable to their jurisdiction. Each region may have specific statutes and regulations that govern landlord-tenant relationships and provide tenants with rights and remedies in case of a breach.
  • Seek mediation or arbitration: If direct communication with the landlord does not yield a satisfactory resolution, tenants can consider seeking mediation or arbitration to facilitate communication between the tenant and the landlord.
  • Report serious problems: In cases where the breach of the lease agreement involves severe health or safety violations that directly impact the tenant's well-being, it may be necessary to report the issue to local housing authorities or code enforcement agencies.

Legal approaches to resolving a breach of contract

When a breach of contract occurs between a landlord and a tenant, it is important to understand the following legal process:

  • Submit a complaint: If you encounter a breach of contract that communication or negotiation cannot resolve, you may need to take legal action by filing a complaint. It's important to consult with an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law to verify that your complaint is properly prepared and filed.
  • Summons to appear in court: After filing a complaint, the court will proceed by issuing a summons. A court summons serves as a legal document that notifies the landlord or tenant about the lawsuit and informs them of their legal obligations.
  • Court hearing proceedings: During the court hearing, both parties involved can present their case and provide evidence supporting their claims.
  • Judicial ruling: Following the court hearing, the judge will consider the evidence presented and make a judgment regarding the breach of contract. The court judgment may include remedies such as monetary damages or termination of the lease agreement.

Can a landlord break a signed lease?

Both landlords and tenants should understand when leases can legally end early. Local landlord-tenant laws list specific reasons for allowing early termination and the steps that must be followed.

Terminating a lease without valid justification can result in legal consequences, potentially leading to lawsuits and financial liabilities. Both landlords and tenants should engage in effective communication and explore alternative solutions before considering lease termination.

By adhering to legal requirements and proactively addressing issues, landlords and tenants can responsibly manage lease agreement situations while preserving positive relationships.

Can a landlord cancel a lease after signing? FAQs

How much notice does a landlord need to give to cancel a lease?

The notice period a landlord needs to give to cancel a lease can differ depending on the jurisdiction and lease agreement terms. In many cases, landlords must provide a 30-day notice to terminate a month-to-month lease.

Can a landlord cancel a lease without any reason?

No, landlords cannot cancel a lease without a valid reason. Lease agreements provide the landlord and tenant with specific rights and obligations, and breaking the lease without justification can lead to legal consequences.

Can a landlord cancel a lease if they want to move into the property themselves?

In some jurisdictions, a landlord might be allowed to break a lease if they intend to move into the property. This is referred to as "owner move-in" or "landlord's personal use" termination.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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