Many tenants who sign a lease for their rental unit plan to stay for the full term of the lease, such as one year. But despite your best intentions, you may want (or need) to leave before your lease is up—for example, if you're a student at American University and only want to stay in your apartment while school is in session. Or perhaps you're moving in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or need to move closer to a new job or to care for an elderly parent.
Leaving before a fixed-term lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent due is called breaking the lease. Here's a brief review of tenant rights in District of Columbia 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 other terms until the lease runs out (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 term, such as repeatedly throwing large and noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in District of Columbia must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you five days' notice to pay the rent or leave (District of Columbia Rev. Stat. § 33-1368) before filing an eviction lawsuit. If a court determines that an illegal act was performed within the rental unit, your landlord may give you an unconditional quit notice, giving you 30 days to move out. (District of Columbia Rev. Stat. § 42-3505.01).
As a tenant, you are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term whether or not you continue to live in the rental unit—with some exceptions, as follows.
There are important exceptions to the rule that a tenant who breaks a lease owes the rent for the entire lease term. You may be able to legally move out before the 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.
The law in the District of Columbia (District of Columbia Rev. Stat. §§ 42-3505.07, 42-3505-08) provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of an intrafamily domestic violence, provided specified conditions are met (such as the tenant filing a police report).
If your landlord does not provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes, a court would probably conclude that you have been "constructively evicted;" this means the landlord, by supplying unlivable housing, has for all practical purposes "evicted" you and relieved you of further responsibility for the rent. District of Columbia law (Javins v. First Nat'l Realty Corp., 428 F.2d 1071 (D.C. Cir. 1970) sets specific requirements you must meet before moving out because of a major repair problem. The problem must be truly serious, such as the lack of heat or other essential service.
Absent an emergency or an agreement otherwise, your landlord must provide reasonable notice before entering your unit. "Reasonable notice" is generally considered at least 48 hours, and the entry must also be during reasonable daytime hours for a reasonable purpose. (District of Columbia Rev. Stat. § 42-3505.51) 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, you could generally be considered "constructively evicted," as described above and justified in breaking the lease without further rent obligation.
Landlords must make reasonable efforts to re-rent their units when tenants break leases, rather than sitting back and charging tenants the total remaining rent due. If you move before your lease ends, D.C. law requires your landlord to "mitigate damages" by trying to rent the property reasonably quickly and to keep losses to a minimum. (D.C. Code Ann. § 42-3505.52.) The key word is "reasonable," meaning your landlord is not required to accept risky replacement tenants or take extraordinary efforts to rent the unit.
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 quickly replaces you and doesn't charge for the remaining time on your lease. Give 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 and can't find a suitable replacement tenant, you may be liable for paying rent for the remainder of your lease. This could be a substantial amount if you leave several months before your lease ends. 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 $5,000 in the District of Columbia.
If you want to leave early without legal justification, there are better options than suddenly moving out and hoping your landlord quickly finds a new tenant. Instead, provide as much notice as possible and write a sincere letter to your landlord explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally, offer a qualified replacement tenant with good credit and excellent references to sign a new lease with your landlord. Taking these steps may limit the amount of money you need to pay your landlord—and help ensure a good reference when you're looking for your next place to live.
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.