How to Handle Breaking a Lease (Without Losing Your Landlord Reference)

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When you first sign your lease, you probably aren’t thinking about the possibility of someday breaking your lease. And why would you? Breaking your lease is an expensive, legal-filled journey that could result in severing an otherwise positive relationship with your landlord. So if the time comes that you do need to break your lease, you’re understandably not looking forwarding to it. While you may be doing it for a good reason, your landlord doesn’t know that. Getting your landlord on your side so they’ll allow you to break the lease and still let you use them as a positive reference for future rental applications can be a challenge.

So how do you tell a landlord you’re breaking the lease and keep their opinion of you positive? Follow these tips to navigate the tricky waters of breaking your lease and keeping your landlord on your side.

Understand the Implications of Breaking Your Lease

You probably know that breaking your lease is going to cost you, but you may not know the reason why: it will cost your landlord even more. In addition to losing out on your rent (for however many months were left on your lease), your landlord is about to sink a large amount of money into finding a new tenant. That means placing ads, hosting open houses, taking prospective renters on tours, etc. So when you break your lease, it’s in your landlord’s best financial interests to make you pay (literally).

Just how much is your landlord going to charge you? It depends on the terms of your lease, where the terms of breaking a lease and its consequences should be well-defined. In many instances, you’ll be asked to pay a fee in addition to another month’s rent when breaking your lease. You also may forfeit certain rights when breaking a lease, depending on the terms. The easiest way to find out what breaking your lease costs is by reading this clause in your lease carefully. If any language is unclear, contact a lawyer. 

See if You Can Move Out Without Breaking the Lease

If you need to move out, but don’t have the cash to pay for breaking the lease, there are other options you can pursue. Not every landlord will allow these, but they’re often worth exploring to maintain a positive relationship with your landlord and avoid extra rent fees. 

Option 1: Lease Takeover

If your landlord allows lease takeovers (and that is a big if), it’s an option worth pursuing. In a lease takeover, the lease doesn’t end, but your responsibility for it does, as someone else takes over as the tenant of the lease. You’re responsible for finding the tenant who will replace you, meaning you’ll need to find someone interested in the terms of the (remaining months of the) lease who also fits your landlord’s criteria. If they qualify and the landlord okays them, they’ll be responsible for the rest of your lease, will put down their own security deposit, and will pay rent directly to your landlord. Basically, you’ll be off the hook for the lease, get your security deposit back, and the new tenant will take your place.

Keep in mind that while lease takeovers are convenient, landlords rarely allow them. Whether a lease takeover is permitted is at the landlord’s discretion, so before you place any Craigslist postings looking for a renter, ask your landlord directly if they’ll consider a lease takeover. 

Option 2: Sublet Your Unit

Another option that some landlords allow is subletting, often called subleasing. This is another option that not all landlords allow, as it can create more complexity for all parties. In a sublease, you’re still responsible for all parts of the lease, but someone else is living in your space and paying rent to you.

Keep in mind that there’s a right and wrong way to sublease, so if you’re considering it, read our complete guide to subletting.

While subleasing and organizing a lease takeover are both convenient options, they’re not always permitted, and they’re not always easy for you or your landlord. Talk to your landlord and review your lease terms before pursuing either one. 

Be Cautious of How Much Notice is Necessary

Timing is important when you’re moving out. That’s why your landlord contacts you a month (or earlier, depending on your state) before your lease expires to see if you’ll be renewing. Most cities and states have requirements for how much notice you have to give to your landlord before your move-out. Even if you found the perfect new place to live, you can’t just terminate your lease the next day. 

Most rentals require 30 days notice that you’re breaking a lease (this varies by state and sometimes even by city). While you can move out anytime within or before that 30-day notice window, you’ll be held responsible for the lease for the 30 days after you give your notice. There is an upside to that: you get to keep the apartment for the duration of the notice period, so you have comfortable time to move to your new place, or can stay in your current apartment a little longer. 

Give Notice in Writing and the Lease-Dictated Format

When you’re ready to give notice, it’s not just about what you say in your notice to vacate, it’s about where you say it. Namely, put it in writing.

Your lease may have specific requirements on how to do this. You may need to meet with the landlord in-person to discuss the terms, or fill out an online form. But no matter what the lease dictates, it is best for your own protection to send written, dated notice of your intention to break the lease. An email will suffice, or if your landlord is more old-fashioned, a letter works, too. Make sure to include not just the date you send it, but the date you intend to move out. Retain a copy for your records in case of any legal troubles.

Write a Professional Notice to Vacate Letter

There’s a fine art to writing a professional, legally-binding notice to vacate letter, which is why we put together a sample letter to use as your own notice to vacate. If you live in a building that requires reservations to use building parking, elevators, or the loading dock, mention in the letter when you would like to use these so your landlord can contact you to schedule this. 

If you do choose to explain why you’re leaving your current rental, give a short, diplomatic explanation. It helps your landlord to know that you’re relocating for a new job, but they don’t need to know all the details of the new position. If they want to know more, they can always ask. 

Be Friendly and Accommodating in Your Final Days as a Tenant

At this point, you’ve done everything right. All that’s left is to be a good tenant in the remaining days of your lease. That means moving out on time, gathering up all your keys and returning them to your landlord, and not scratching walls on the way out. One big no-no: leaving your unwanted furniture by the building dumpster. If you need help moving your furniture–whether it be to your new place or the dump–book a Dolly to get on-demand moving day help. Our Helpers can handle all the heavy lifting and transportation of your pieces, no matter where they’re going. 

Send a Thank You Email to Your Landlord After Move-Out

Assuming your move-out went smoothly, there’s no harm in sending a short thank you note after you move into your new place. It’s also a great time to ask if you can use your landlord as a reference. This thank you note is an easy sign of goodwill that will create a positive impression of you in your landlord’s head. That means they’ll be more likely to say nice things about you when called for references. Your thank you email can simply say:

Dear [Landlord’s name],

Thank you for being accommodating of my move-out last week. I am thankful for the time I spent living in [Name of Building/Complex] and appreciate your flexibility when I needed to break my lease.

If it’s alright with you, I would like to use you as a reference for future rental properties. Can I list your contact information as a rental reference in the future?

Thank you again for making my time living at [Name of Building/Complex] enjoyable.


[Your name]

The note is simple, direct, and will (hopefully) get you a usable reference for the future. If you’ve done everything right until now, there’s no reason for them to say no. 

Breaking your lease can be difficult, but moving out to your new place doesn’t have to be. With Dolly, you can get moving day help whenever you need it for a better price. Breaking your lease is hard enough. Let Dolly handle the heavy lifting. 

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