A lease is a contract, and there are at least two parties to every contract. It sets terms and conditions by which both a landlord and tenant must abide.
It’s common to hear about tenants breaking leases, but landlords can do so, too, by committing – or failing to commit – certain acts. Tenants have options when this happens, just as landlords have options when tenants disregard lease terms, but the rules can vary from state to state.
When Can a Landlord Legally Break a Lease?
Landlords can terminate, or “break,” a lease for a number of reasons if they have cause. In other words, landlords can break a lease if the tenant broke the lease terms first, such as by:
- Failing to pay rent.
- Damaging the property.
- Keeping prohibited pets.
- Committing illegal acts.
- Threatening to damage the property or others.
In most states, a landlord must give the tenant written notice that he’s ending the lease agreement because of a specific violation, and some states can require that he must give the tenant a period of time to “cure” certain problems before taking further steps to evict.
Read More: How to Break a Lease Legally: 5 Ways to Avoid Penalty
When a Landlord Breaks a Lease Illegally
There are also certain things a landlord can’t do, and taking certain actions can be legally construed as illegally breaking the lease. These actions include:
- Attempting to evict the tenant before the lease term is up, such as six months into a yearly lease. This doesn’t usually apply to week-to-week or month-to-month leases, however.
- Failure to make repairs that affect the habitability of the premises.
- Violating the tenant’s privacy by entering the leased property without sufficient notice – usually 24 hours, at least – and without a legally viable reason. Emergencies don’t require notice.
- Failing to provide a service or amenity that’s provided for in the lease such as internet service.
- Failing to maintain the safety of common areas.
A tenant’s options for dealing with a landlord’s lease-breaking actions can depend on what the landlord did.
Reporting the Landlord to Authorities
Landlords have a legal obligation to provide safe and livable housing, so tenants can report them to state or local building inspectors or housing authorities if they fail to maintain the property in habitable condition or if they violate a building code. Sometimes if a tenant simply sends a certified letter to the landlord that warns of his intention to report the situation to government authorities if the problems aren’t fixed, it can remedy the situation. In fact, this is required first in some states.
This option can also address landlords who are repeatedly violating a tenant’s privacy by entering the premises without warning or a valid reason.
Taking the Matter to Court
Some states and counties have dedicated landlord-tenant courts, but tenants might have to file suit in small claims court as well or in lieu of bringing a landlord-tenant action.
Small claims court is usually appropriate if the tenant is seeking monetary damages. This might be the case when tenants are forced to make necessary repairs themselves, and they want reimbursement from the landlord.
The Pros and Cons of Withholding Rent
Tenants might also refuse to pay rent when a landlord’s lease-breaking violations are serious or until repairs are made, but this can be tricky and can depend on state law.
Some states require that the rent be placed in a separate, dedicated bank account if it's not paid to the landlord. Tenants might have to actually make repairs themselves, then effectively reimburse themselves from the withheld rent – and prove the cost.
This option generally isn’t acceptable when the problem is just minor repairs. In this case, it might be more feasible to sue the landlord in small claims court for the cost of repairs.
- FindLaw: What Can I Do If My Landlord Breaks a Lease Agreement?
- Trulia: A Guide to Landlord Tenant Law
- Lawyers.com: How to Terminate a Residential Lease or Rental Agreement
- Justia: Tenant FAQs
- NOLO: Top Ten Legal Mistakes That Can Sink Your Landlord Business
- ApartmentRatings: What to Do When Your Landlord Breaks Your Rental Agreement
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.