A month-to-month tenancy renews (sometimes termed "rolls over") every 30 days. This means that if no one says anything about leaving, you could theoretically stay forever. But if your landlord wants you out, do you get any advance warning? And what are your obligations if you decide to end the tenancy?
One of the reasons landlords choose to offer month-to-month tenancies is the flexibility it gives them to end a tenancy on fairly short notice (in most areas).
In most places, a landlord doesn't need to give a reason for ending a month-to-month tenancy. However, in states and cities with rent control, landlords might be prohibited from ending month-to-month tenancies without a legally recognized reason ("just cause"). If you live in an area with rent control, you'll need to check the laws where you live to find out if your landlord needs to have just cause to end your tenancy.
In all areas, landlords can't end a month-to-month tenancy without giving the tenant written notice. Most states require 30-day notices, but check your state law for the specific requirements. Unless the rental agreement specifies otherwise, you can give notice on any day of the month—you don't have to wait until the beginning of a month. If notice is given midterm, then your tenancy will run out in the middle of the next month.
All states, and even some cities (typically those with rent control), have their own very detailed rules and procedures for how landlords must prepare and serve termination notices. For example, some states specify that the notice must be printed in a certain size or style of typeface or delivered a certain way. If your landlord doesn't follow these procedures, the notice terminating your tenancy might be invalid. But once you point out the mistake, either informally or as a legal defense to an eviction lawsuit, your landlord will probably simply correct their mistake and do it right the next time.
If your landlord attempts to terminate your tenancy without giving proper notice, you could decide to stay, wait for the eviction lawsuit to be filed against you, and fight it with the defense that the notice was defective. You'll probably win the eviction lawsuit if the notice truly is defective, but it might not be worth your efforts—the landlord can simply start the process all over again. Even if you win, the most you'll gain is a few additional weeks at your rental. In the meantime, you'll spend a lot of time (and possibly money) in court.
Most month-to-month renters find that it's best to simply find a new place to live when they're served with a termination notice. However, it might be possible to ask your landlord for a bit more time if you need it.
If you need a few extra days, or even a week or two before moving, ask the landlord to extend your tenancy. In exchange, promise to go quietly at the appointed time. From the landlord's point of view, unless you're a troublemaker or your landlord desperately needs the unit for some other reason, it's far more efficient to strike a deal than go through the expense and hassle of going to court. Putting your offer in writing will assure the landlord of your good intentions—but make sure you're truly ready to move out on the date you've offered in writing. If you don't leave as promised, it will be devastating evidence against you in court if the landlord has to file an eviction to get you out.
A landlord who claims you've violated the rental agreement—such as by failing to pay the rent—can move quickly to terminate your tenancy and evict you. Notice periods for these situations are often much shorter, usually three to five days to pay up or move. And, sometimes, laws allow landlords to end a tenancy without giving the tenant a chance to fix (or "cure") the problem. Instead, the tenant must move out by the deadline in the notice or face an eviction lawsuit.
It's equally easy for tenants to get out of a month-to-month rental agreement. Just give the required amount of notice to your landlord. If you mail the notice, be sure to take into account the amount of time your notice will spend in transit. To be safe, assume that the time begins running when you mailed the notice—the landlord might be counting from the date of mailing, and might have already found a new tenant to move in immediately based on that date. Contact the landlord and make sure you both agree as to which day will be your last.
Usually you can send in your termination midterm, as can your landlord. But check your rental agreement—some landlords, anxious to avoid the hassles of being left with partial months, insist that notice be given on the day rent is due so that tenants move out at the end of a full rental period. This means that if rent is due on the first, but you decide on the second that you want to move, you'll have to wait until the start of the next month before giving notice. In other words, if your rental agreement requires you to give notice on the first day of the month, and you give notice on any other day, in the eyes if the law it hasn't been given until the first day of the next month, and your tenancy won't end until one month after that.
Also, check to see if your rental agreement lengthens your notice period and shortens your landlord's. Some rental agreements establish a notice period for tenants that is longer than the one specified by state law for terminating a tenancy. Or, a landlord might attempt to shorten their own notice period. Both moves are designed to give the landlord more flexibility and you less. In some states, putting these alternative dates in the rental agreement is legal—but in others, the practice isn't allowed. Check your state statute and, if the issue isn't addressed there, contact your state's consumer protection agency. Valid or not, be advised that a landlord who expects tenants to be bound by short notice periods is probably one to avoid.
What happens if you give less than the required amount of notice? It's simple: You can leave, but you pay rent for that period, anyway. For example, if you suddenly move out of a month-to-month unit where 30 days' notice is required, the landlord will probably simply deduct from your security deposit the amount of rent you would have paid if you had delivered the required notice.
Notice is notice—there's no retraction period. Once you have delivered your termination notice, that's it. Your landlord is entitled to hold you to it and need not even listen to you as you attempt to explain why circumstances now make it impossible or unwise for you to move.
If you decide to stay put and hope that this business of moving will just blow over, think carefully. If your landlord has rented your place to someone else after you've given notice, but then you decide to stay on ("hold over"), there's the problem of the tenant who expected to take your place. You can be liable to this tenant for their temporary housing costs incurred while the landlord evicts you, or while the disappointed tenant resumes their own housing search.
There's more. If the disappointed tenant walks away in disgust, your landlord will have a pile of rental expenses occasioned by your expected departure (advertisements, applicant screening costs, time spent showing your unit) that now appear to be a waste of time and money. Your landlord will have an easy time deducting these expenses from your security deposit and then suing you in small claims court if you don't replenish the deposit. In short, don't announce that you're leaving until you're really sure.
If your landlord seriously violates the rental agreement or fails to fulfill their legal responsibilities—for example, by failing to correct serious health or safety problems—you might be able to move out legally without waiting for the clock to terminate your tenancy. You can leave with no written notice or by giving less notice than is otherwise required. Called a "constructive eviction," this doctrine typically applies only when living conditions are intolerable—for example, if you've had no heat for an extended period in the winter.
The conditions that will justify a constructive eviction vary slightly under the laws of different states. Generally, if the landlord is on notice that a rental unit has serious habitability problems for an extended time, you're entitled to move out on short notice or, in extreme cases, without giving notice.