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Terminating a Lease or Rental Agreement: FAQs

The landlord owns the property you rent, but he or she cannot simply kick you out for any reason. State and federal laws, in addition to the terms of the lease agreement, govern how and under what circumstances a landlord may terminate your lease. See FindLaw's Landlord Rights and Tenant Rights sections for related articles and resources. 

Valid Reasons for Terminating a Lease and Evicting a Tenant

In general, most states allow a landlord to terminate a lease or rental agreement if the tenant:

  • Fails to pay rent
  • Violates a clause in the lease or rental agreement, such as a no-pet clause or subleasing without permission
  • Violates a responsibility imposed by law, such as causing serious damage to appliances or the property, participating in illegal activity, or interfering with other tenants' peaceful enjoyment of the property

When terminating a lease or rental agreement, the landlord must send the tenant a notice of termination. Although the names of the notices may vary in each state, termination notices usually order the tenant to do one of the following:

  • Pay Rent or Quit - The tenant must pay rent within a set time (usually three to five days) or vacate the rental unit.
  • Cure or Quit - The tenant must correct a violation of the lease or rental agreement within a certain time.
  • Unconditional Quit - The tenant must vacate the premises without the opportunity to cure the violation or pay the rent.

If the tenant continues to remain in the rental unit after receiving a termination notice, the landlord may file an eviction lawsuit.

How does a landlord evict a tenant?

Eviction is the court-ordered physical removal of the tenant and his or her property through the assistance of a law enforcement officer. Terminating a lease may require the landlord to file an eviction lawsuit, or an unlawful detainer action, if the tenant remains in the rental after receiving a termination notice. To begin the eviction process, the landlord must file a complaint with the court and wait for the tenant's answer. If the landlord prevails, whether based on the merits of the case or because the tenant failed to provide an answer, the landlord is legally entitled to repossess the property. If the tenant refuses to leave after receiving the notice of eviction, a law enforcement officer may remove the tenant.

Under what circumstances can a tenant break a lease and what remedies does a landlord have when a tenant illegally breaks a lease?

When a tenant vacates a rental unit and discontinues paying rent, the tenant has broken the lease. In most cases, a tenant must abide by the terms of a lease until it expires. There are some exceptions, however, including:

  • When terminating a lease early is allowed by federal or state law - Laws vary from state to state, but federal law permits a tenant that enlists in active military service to terminate a tenancy early. In some states, a tenant can legally break a lease if planning to move to an elderly care facility or because of the relocation of a present employer.
  • The landlord violates a term in the lease - In many states, a landlord's violation of health and safety codes that create intolerable living conditions for a tenant amounts to a "constructive eviction." Depending on state law, the tenant may be able to move out without giving notice or by giving less notice than the law requires in typical circumstances.
  • Significant damage to the rental unit prohibits occupancy - A tenant may move out before a lease is up when a natural disaster, or some other occurrence that the tenant bears no responsibility for, destroys or significantly damages the rental property.

When a tenant breaks a lease without a legally protected reason, the landlord may sue the tenant for damages. The landlord, however, must mitigate damages by attempting to re-rent the unit. Most states require the landlord to make a reasonable attempt to find a new tenant. If the landlord incurs damages beyond what remains from the tenant's security deposit, the landlord may sue the tenant for the time the unit remained vacant, for the cost to find a new tenant, and for attorney fees, if provided for in the lease agreement.

What can a landlord use a security deposit to pay for?

Every state allows a landlord to collect a security deposit when a tenant moves into a rental unit. A security deposit is a payment to the landlord to ensure that the tenant pays rent and does not damage the property. State laws regulate the amount a landlord may charge for a security deposit and when the landlord must return a tenant's security deposit.

When a tenant moves out, a landlord may use a security deposit to pay for the following: unpaid rent, wear and tear beyond ordinary use, and for cleaning to restore the rental unit to the same condition it was in prior to the tenant's occupancy. A landlord, however, may not use a security deposit to fix damage that resulted from normal wear and tear. A worn pathway in the carpet or nail holes in the wall, for example, are the result of ordinary use.

In most states, landlord-tenant laws require the landlord to return a security deposit within 30 days, but deadlines range from 14 to 60 days. Within the deadline, a landlord must mail the tenant:

  • The entire security deposit, plus interest if required; or
  • If the landlord used the deposit for unpaid rent, to make repairs, or for cleaning, an itemized statement with a list of deductions, plus the remaining security deposit and interest if required, must be sent to the tenant.

If the landlord fails to return the security deposit, send an itemized statement within the legal time limit, or pay the tenant applicable interest, the tenant may sue the landlord for damages.

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