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You thought you had the perfect apartment; and then the late-night house parties started upstairs. Or you didn't realize the next-door neighbor's chickens (free eggs!) love to get going promptly at 5 a.m. (free rooster alarm clock!). Or that awesome warehouse loft was just what you wanted when you saw it over the weekend, before you smelled the nearby refinery first thing Monday morning.
Whether it was an unforeseen condition or an unscrupulous landlord, you're already thinking about getting out of your lease. But once you sign on the dotted line, are you locked in for the next six months or *gasp* a whole year?
Don't worry -- there may be ways to get out of your rental lease ... if it's not too late.
Contracts, Breaches, and Bailing on a Lease
As with just about any contract, your lease takes effect as soon as you sign it. So, if you haven't signed a lease or rental agreement yet, good news -- it's not too late to get out of a bad apartment or house. (Oral agreements to rent real estate are generally unenforceable unless you've already begun paying rent and/or moved into the property.) Once you have signed a lease, things get a little more complicated.
Yes, you're contractually obligated to pay rent for the term of the lease. But you should've noticed that your lease also places some legal obligations on your landlord as well. (You did read the lease, before you signed it, right? Please tell us you read the lease.)
Anyway, if you've already signed the lease, you may be able to terminate it early if the landlord violates the terms of the lease. Violations of health and safety codes, like failing to provide water, heat, or other essential elements, can cause a "constructive eviction," giving you no choice but to move out. Your lease also probably includes a "quiet enjoyment" clause, meaning the landlord must make sure other tenants aren't being too noisy or otherwise impeding upon other your quiet enjoyment rights. A landlord's breach of this duty could also be grounds for a tenant to break her lease.
Statutory Tenant Safeguards
There could also be statutes that allow you to leave early without penalty. Military personnel are usually permitted to break a lease if their called to active duty. State or local statutes can also provide legal protection if your rental property becomes uninhabitable due to a natural disaster. Finally, if you're able to find someone to whom to sublet or who will assume the same terms of the lease, local housing ordinances generally require landlords to accept the new tenant, if it's not expressly forbidden in the lease.
If you're wondering if it's too late to get out of a rental lease, start by checking your lease first -- make sure your landlord has lived up to their end of the bargain, determine whether early exit is permitted under the lease, and find out what the penalties for breaching the lease may be. Then talk to an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in your area.