Many tenants who sign a lease for their apartment or rental unit plan to stay for the full amount of time required in the lease, such as one year. But, despite your best intentions, you might want (or need) to leave before your lease is up—for example, if you’re a student at CU Boulder and only want to stay in your apartment for the period of time that school is in session. Or perhaps you’re moving in with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, you might need to move in order to be closer to your new job or an elderly parent who needs your help.
Leaving before a fixed-term lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent due under the lease is called breaking the lease. Here’s a brief review of Colorado tenants' rights to break a lease without further liability for the rent.
A lease obligates both you and your landlord for a set period of time, usually a year. Under a typical lease, a landlord can’t raise the rent or change the lease until the lease ends (unless the lease itself provides for a change, such as a rent increase mid-lease). A landlord can’t force you to move out before the lease ends, unless you fail to pay the rent or violate another significant lease term, such as repeatedly throwing large and noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in Colorado must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you three days’ notice to pay the rent or leave before filing an eviction lawsuit. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-40-104(1)(d).) If you have repeatedly violated any clause in the lease, your landlord may give you an unconditional quit notice (a notice without any chance to remedy the violation) that requires that you move out within three days. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-40-104(1)(e.5).)
Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term whether or not they actually live in the rental unit—with some exceptions, as follows.
There are some important exceptions to the blanket rule that a tenant who breaks a lease owes the rent for the entire lease term. You might be able to legally move out before the lease term ends in the following situations.
If you enter active military service after signing a lease, you have a right to break the lease under federal law. (War and National Defense Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 App. U.S.C.A. § § 501 and following.) You must be part of the “uniformed services,” which includes the armed forces, commissioned corps of the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard. You must give your landlord written notice of your intent to terminate your tenancy for military reasons. Once the notice is mailed or delivered, your tenancy will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months before your lease expires.
Colorado law provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of domestic violence, so long as specified conditions are met (such as the tenant providing a copy of a police report). (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-12-402.)
If your landlord does not provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes, a court might conclude that you have been “constructively evicted.” This means that the landlord, by supplying unlivable housing, has for all practical purposes “evicted” you, so you have no further responsibility for the rent. Colorado law sets specific requirements for the procedures tenants must follow before moving out because of a major repair problem. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-12-507.) The problem must be truly serious, such as the lack of heat or other essential service.
There is no state law in Colorado that specifies the amount of notice a landlord must give a tenant before entering a rental property. If your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy, or does things like removing windows or doors, turning off your utilities, or changing the locks, a court might consider you to be “constructively evicted,” as described above; this would usually justify you breaking the lease without further rent obligation.
Landlords in most states (for example, Arizona) must make a reasonable effort to rerent their units when a tenant breaks a lease, rather than charge the tenant for the total remaining rent due under the lease. In Colorado, an old case imposes this duty on commercial landlords (Schneiker v. Gordon, 732 P.2d 603 (Colo. 1987)), but did not specifically extend the duty to landlords renting residential property. However, the case strongly suggested that such a duty would be fair and appropriate, and over the years, courts in many counties and cities have apparently taken the hint and required landlords to “mitigate damages” by trying to rent their property reasonably quickly, keeping their losses to a minimum. Unless you're advised differently by a local lawyer, you should assume that the duty to mitigate will apply to your landlord.
If you break your lease and move out without a legal justification (described above), try to work something out with your landlord. Don’t just move out and hope your landlord gets a new tenant quickly and doesn’t charge you for the remaining time on your lease. Provide your landlord as much notice as possible and write a sincere letter explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally, you can offer your landlord a qualified replacement tenant with good credit and references, to sign a new lease.
But keep in mind that if the landlord doesn’t agree to let you off the hook, you will be liable for paying rent until the landlord, using reasonable efforts, rerents the unit. This could be a substantial amount of money if you leave several months before your lease ends, or if the market is cold (there's lots of competitive units out there, unrented). Your landlord will probably first use your security deposit to cover the amount you owe. But if your deposit is not sufficient, your landlord may sue you, probably in small claims court where the limit is $7,500 in Colorado.
If you want to leave early, and you don’t have legal justification to do so, there are better options than just moving out and hoping your landlord gets a new tenant quickly. There’s a lot you can do to limit the amount of money you need to pay your landlord—and help ensure a good reference from the landlord when you’re looking for your next place to live.
You can help the situation a lot by providing as much notice as possible and writing a sincere letter to your landlord explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally you can offer your landlord a qualified replacement tenant, someone with good credit and excellent references, to sign a new lease with your landlord.
Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo) provides extensive legal and practical advice that every tenant needs, from move in to move out, including how to get your landlord to cancel your lease, plus dozens of forms and sample letters.
To learn more about landlord-tenant laws in your state, see the State Landlord-Tenant Laws section of the Nolo site.