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.
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 when a Texas tenant can break a lease without further liability for the rent—and what can happen when a tenant illegally breaks a lease.
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 lease term, such as repeatedly throwing noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in Texas must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you three days' notice (unless the lease specifies a shorter or longer time) to pay the rent or leave before filing an eviction lawsuit. (Tex. Prop. Code § 24.005 (2023).)
Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term, regardless of whether they continue to 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.
Texas state law also provides early termination rights when a tenant enters military service or receives military orders. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.017 (2023).)
Texas law provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of (or who are the parents or guardians of a victim of) sexual assault or stalking within the past six months on the premises or at any dwelling on the premises. The tenant must provide notice to the landlord as well as documentation of the events. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.0161 (2023).)
Texas law defines "family violence" as an act by a member of a family or household against another member of the family or household that's intended to result in physical harm or reasonably places the person in fear of imminent physical harm. The definition also includes abuse and dating violence. (Tex. Fam. Code § 71.004 (2023).)
If you are a victim of family violence in Texas, you have the right to break your lease and leave early if you provide your landlord with documentation of the family violence. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.016 (2023).)
If your landlord doesn't provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes, a court might conclude that you've been "constructively evicted." This means that the landlord, by supplying unlivable housing, has for all practical purposes "evicted" you—forced you to move out—so you have no further responsibility for the rent.
Texas law sets specific procedures you must follow 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. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.056 (2023).)
Texas doesn't have a state law that specifies the amount of notice your landlord must give you to enter your rental. However, if your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy by entering without permission, you might be considered "constructively evicted" (see discussion above). Constructive eviction usually justifies breaking the lease without further rent obligation.
Other actions by your landlord might also allow you to break your lease without penalty. For example, if your landlord wrongfully cuts off your water, wastewater, gas, or electric service, you have the right to terminate your lease. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.008 (2023).) Also, if your landlord wrongfully changes the locks or otherwise prevents you from being in your rental, you have the right to terminate your lease. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.0081 (2023).)
Under Texas law, landlords must install a smoke alarm before you move in. Alternatively, a tenant can provide a landlord a written notice of the need to install, inspect, or repair a smoke alarm. If the landlord doesn't comply with the request within seven days, the tenant can has certain remedies available. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.259 (2023).)
One of the remedies available to the tenant when the landlord fails to adhere to smoke detector laws is to terminate the lease. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.260 (2023).)
Texas landlords must disclose to tenants certain information about the ownership and management of the rental. For example, a landlord must disclose the name and street address of an off-site management company. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.201 (2023).)
If a landlord fails to make the disclosures required by Texas law, one of the tenant's options is to break the lease. (Tex. Prop. Code § 92.205 (2023).)
When you don't have a right to legally break your lease in Texas, the following might happen:
The good news is that a landlord can't just sit back and hold you responsible for all the rent under the lease—the landlord must instead try to find a suitable new tenant as soon as possible. This is called the landlord's "duty to mitigate damages."
Under Texas law, a landlord must make "objectively reasonable efforts" to find a suitable new tenant and minimize the amount of rent you owe when you break your lease. The landlord can't waive this duty in the lease or rental agreement. (Tex. Prop. Code § 91.006 (2023); Austin Hill Country Realty, Inc. v. Palisades Plaza, Inc., 948 S.W.2d 293 (Tex. 1997).)
The landlord doesn't need to relax their rental criteria just to fill the vacancy—for example, the landlord doesn't have to accept an applicant who has a poor credit history. Also, the landlord isn't required to rent the unit for less than fair market value, or to immediately ignore other business and turn their attention to renting your unit. The landlord is also entitled to add legitimate expenses to your bill—for example, the costs of advertising the property.
If your landlord rerents the property quickly (more likely in college towns and similar markets), all you'll be responsible for is the (hopefully brief) amount of time the unit was vacant.
The bad news is that if the landlord tries to rerent your unit but can't find an acceptable tenant, you'll be liable for paying rent for the remainder of your lease term. This could be a substantial amount of money 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 isn't sufficient, your landlord can also sue you.
If the landlord fails to attempt to mitigate their damages and decides to sue you instead, you can use the defense of failure to mitigate damages to offset what you owe. This defense can be tricky, though: You'll have to prove that the landlord didn't make reasonable efforts to rerent, and that the landlord would've been able to find a suitable tenant if they had tried.
If you want to leave early but 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 by:
Every Tenant's Legal Guide (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.