No matter in which state an individual rents an apartment or house, the rules relating to the rental are a mix of contract law and state or municipal landlord-tenant laws. These can include rent control provisions put in place to protect tenants. Most of the rules about terminating or breaking a rental contract rely on contract terms themselves. However, state law does provide a skeletal framework of the rules surrounding property management.
Written Lease vs. Month-to-Month Rental
What does it mean in Texas to break a lease? To get an understanding of the law in the state of Texas, it is important to understand the difference between a lease and a periodic rental contract. The rules in Texas, as in every other state, treat the two types of contracts differently.
If a tenant agrees to lease a residential rental property, that means that they and the landlord have agreed that the tenant will lease the dwelling and live there for a set period of time. Residential leases in Texas are often for one year and, if for one year or longer, must be in writing under the statute of frauds. The contract specifies the length of the lease as well as the monthly lease payments and, often, other particulars regulating landlord and tenant responsibilities.
A periodic rental contract in Texas is usually a month-to-month agreement. The tenant prepays rent every month for the continued right to live there. There is no set ending to the periodic tenancy, and it continues until one party or the other ends it.
Breaking vs. Terminating a Lease
It's easy to confuse rules about terminating a lease or a rental contract with "breaking" the agreement. When a landlord or a tenant terminates a lease, they take action to end it that is legal and consistent with the terms of the contract and the law.
When a landlord or tenant "breaks" a lease or rental agreement, they end it outside the permitted legal procedures for terminating it. When either party acts in this way, they are subject to legal liability and can be taken to court. Landlords who actually break a lease or rental agreement can be sued for damages. Note that Texas law does not allow tenants to withhold rent when a landlord fails to live up to the terms of the agreement.
Terminating a Lease Contract
A lease contract is for a set term in Texas and it automatically terminates as the bells ring out midnight on the last day of the lease term. Neither the landlord nor the tenant need take any action. If the parties agree that the tenant will continue to live in the premises after the lease term expires, they can sign a new lease for another set period or else transform the agreement into a month-to-month rental.
A landlord also has the authority under Texas state law to terminate a lease contract early if the tenant has broken the terms of the lease. For example, if a tenant fails to pay the monthly lease amount under the contract, violates the lease in some other way, or does illegal acts on the premises, the landlord has legal authority to give them notice of the contract breach and their intent to terminate the contract. This is standard contract law, and Texas statutes add little protection for the renter here. They do not even specify how much notice a landlord must give in this situation.
On the other hand, under the statutes, a Texas landlord is not permitted to terminate a lease during its term without cause. That means that if a tenant with a set-term lease lives up to their end of the lease agreement, the landlord generally cannot terminate the lease during this period.
Terminating a Month-to-Month Lease
Texas rules about terminating a periodic tenancy are very different from those for terminating a lease. A periodic tenancy can be terminated by either party for any reason at all simply by giving the other party written notice that they will terminate. The notice must be given in advance for the length of the periodic rental period – 30 days for a month-to-month. The landlord also retains the authority to evict if the tenant breaks any of the terms of the agreement.
For example, where a tenant fails to pay rent, the landlord can provide a 72-hour notice of termination of the rental agreement. If the agreement terms provide a shorter period, the landlord can rely on those terms to shorten the notice period. Once the notice period has passed, the landlord can proceed with an eviction proceeding court.
Early Termination of a Lease in Texas
Texas law does specify a few situations where one of the parties to a lease can end it early without consequences. Most are situations that permit a Texas tenant to terminate, but a few allow a landlord to terminate:
- A landlord can terminate a lease if the tenant has been convicted of a public indecency offense and has exhausted their appeals.
- A tenant can terminate a lease if they are a survivor of family or domestic violence and give the landlord proof and 30 days' notice.
- A tenant who is a survivor, or the parent of a survivor, of specified sex offenses or stalking can terminate a lease by giving the landlord proof of the offenses and 30 days' notice.
- The family of a deceased tenant can terminate the lease by giving the landlord notice.
- Active military service members and/or their dependents can terminate a lease early if they receive orders to be stationed elsewhere.
Note that other reasons to terminate a lease or rental agreement may be found in the written agreement itself. Likewise, the amount of notice that must be given can be changed if the written, signed agreement gives different notice periods, or no notice at all.
The language of the agreement is almost always controlling, although there are some exceptions. For example, courts are likely to uphold agreement terms that state that the rental unit is nonsmoking and that if anyone smokes any type of cigarette or drug there, the landlord can evict. On the other hand, even if it says it differently in the lease, a tenant cannot be evicted for bringing code violations to the attention of the authorities.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.