Can I break a lease to take a new job?

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Question:

I'm renting a townhouse with a lease that expires in a few months. However, it looks as if a good job in another state may be available immediately. I heard that I can break a lease if I'm switching jobs. Is this true?

Answer:

Many tenants are under the impression that a job offer constitutes a legal reason to break a lease. Except for a very few situations, the laws on leases are simply not that flexible. A few states have statutes allowing tenants to get out of leases if they're in the military and have received orders posting them more than a certain number of miles away. Under federal law, any serviceperson entering active duty can cancel a lease. And a few states allow elderly tenants to get out of a lease if they're accepted to an assisted-care facility. But that is it.

However, all is not lost for you. When a tenant breaks a lease, most states require the landlord to take reasonable steps to rerent the unit and credit the new rent toward the remainder on the lease. This is known as mitigating the damages -- and it means that the departed tenant will be liable only for the months the unit was vacant. In a tight housing market, this liability should be no more than a month or so. If there are lots of vacancy signs, however, or if your rent was high, it may be harder for the landlord to rerent -- and you may be on the hook for a greater number of months.

If your landlord stands firm but foolish and takes no steps to rerent and then attempts to collect the balance of the rent in a lawsuit, the judge hearing the case will determine when the unit would have been rented had the landlord acted properly and advertised for a new tenant. You'll end up responsible for the months between your departure and that date only. Again, if the housing market is tight, you will have less to lose.

Since you know that you need to leave town early, you have an advantage over tenants who leave on the spur of the moment. Approach the landlord now and explain that you will need to leave early. The landlord might simply say "Okay" and let you out of the lease. At second best, your landlord may be willing to begin advertising your townhome now, before your intended departure. Be accommodating in allowing prospective tenants in to see the place. If someone is available to move in shortly after you leave, you will not be liable for much, if any, rent.

Another tactic is to find a new tenant yourself. A landlord would be hard-pressed or foolhardy to turn away a willing prospect who has all the credit and background plusses that you had.

If all these steps fail, recall that the landlord still must take steps to rerent after you leave. Make sure he or she does so. Ask a friend who lives nearby to monitor the ads and check the signs on the property; ask a neighbor to let you know if the unit is shown to any prospects. Your landlord will not be able to claim reasonable efforts were made to rerent if the classifieds make no mention of your place or if other units in the building get rented, but not yours.

One final thought: Ask your new employer for some help in getting out of your lease. If you are a valued new hire, you may get some assistance -- much the same as for other moving expenses. It is not too cheeky to ask for some money that you can offer your landlord as a buyout from your lease. A smart landlord will jump at this quick and painless way to cover the costs of having to find a new tenant early. Be sure to get a written termination of the lease if you go this route.

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