VOLUME 3RAvoid Penalties By Ending the Lease the Right WayBy Amanda RazaniWhen tenants enter into a signed rental contract with a landlord, they’re agreeing to a set of terms that include the rental rate, residential rules and the date when the lease ends. But life happens, and sometimes renters may need to break the lease.

Whether it’s to get married and move in with a spouse, caregiving for a family member or a job relocation, ending a lease early may be the easiest way for a tenant to avoid shelling out money that can be used for other expenses. However, Texas and Florida laws don’t list any of these instances above as exemptions for ending a lease early.

Cutting the lease short also leaves a landlord scrambling to find a new tenant to avoid loss of income. And more often than not, the tenant will owe penalties and remaining rent. It’s not always this way though. There are some legally recognized exemptions that allow for tenants to break their contract without being penalized, such as active duty; privacy violations; unsafe living environment; physical or mental harm (i.e., stalking, domestic violence, sexual assault). This post will explore legitimate ways to break a lease and what to do when termination is in that gray area.

Active DutyThe Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) provides protection to active military personnel. Under this federal law, uniformed service members are only required to serve a written break-contract notice 30 days beforehand, and they will not be penalized or charged additional fees. Proof of deployment is required, and some additional papers must be signed. Renters who are protected under SCRA include commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, the armed forces, activated National Guard members, and commissioned corps of the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Privacy ViolationsBoth Texas and Florida require landlords to provide a certain degree of privacy and tenant comfort while renting a property. If a landlord violated those legal rights, according to state laws, tenants can break their contracts on the grounds of being “constructively evicted.”

Although Florida law states, “The tenant shall not unreasonably withhold consent to the landlord to enter the dwelling unit from time to time to inspect the premises; make necessary or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations, or improvements; supply agreed services; or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers, or contractors,” a landlord must still give tenants notice at a reasonable time before entering the rental property.

According to the same law, “Reasonable notice for repair is notice given at least 12 hours prior to the entry, and reasonable time for the purpose of repair shall be between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.”

If this law is broken by a landlord on a continuous basis, tenants have grounds to safely break their leases without penalty.

Texas law doesn’t share specific notice times like Florida does. However, if a landlord repeatedly violates a tenant’s privacy rights, removes doors or windows, changes locks, or cuts off utilities, this same rule of being “constructively evicted” will apply and allow tenants to break their leases without penalties.

In fact, a landlord in Texas is required by law to include specific tenant rights in their rental agreement. These include the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their homes, which signifies that landlords cannot enter tenants’ premises without giving adequate notice.

Combating an Unsafe Living EnvironmentIf lease violations occur, tenants should document them as soon as they happen and clearly communicate their grievances. This includes everything from privacy issues to safe accommodations. If a landlord does not provide safe, proper housing under local and state housing codes within a legally specified timeframe, tenants can break their lease on the grounds of being “constructively evicted.”

For repair issues that are considered critical and violate codes, tenants must follow a series of steps before moving out because of a serious repair issue.

According to Florida law, “When the lease is silent on the procedure to be followed to effect repair or maintenance and the payment of rent relating thereto, yet affirmatively and expressly places the obligation for same upon the landlord, and the landlord has failed or refused to do so, rendering the leased premises wholly untenantable, the tenant may withhold rent after notice to the landlord.”

The tenant is still required to give written notice to the landlord stating the premises is unlivable in its current condition and gives the landlord 20 days to make proper repairs. During this time, the tenant can withhold rent until repairs are made. If repairs are made within the time span, the tenant is then obligated to pay the landlord the withheld rent. If proper repairs are not made within the allotted time frame, a tenant then has the choice to continue withholding rent. Or, abandon the premises and terminate the lease while avoiding any future liability for rent or charges.

Sexual Assault, Stalking or Family ViolenceVictims of family violence, assault or stalking are protected under the Texas Property Code, and given the right to vacate without notice and avoid liability. Landlords who don’t comply with this code are breaking the law, and can be fined and required to pay attorneys’ fees for victims. However, this is not the case in Florida, where there are no specific tenancy laws that stipulate renters can break a lease without penalty under these circumstances.

To break a lease in Texas due to family violence, tenants must give their landlord a legal document that shows proof of the violence within a required time period specified by the state code. This can be in the form of a temporary injunction, a temporary ex parte protective order or a final protective order. Likewise, to break a lease due to sexual assault, tenants must give their landlord documentation from a medical or mental health professional or a legal protective order. To break a lease due to stalking, documentation from a mental or healthcare professional or a legal protective order is needed.

Other CircumstancesIf tenants’ reasons for terminating a lease early do not fall in these above categories, there are still some legal provisions that may allow them financial help in breaking their contracts. Depending on the terms of a tenant’s contract, there might be provisions that allow for subletting in order to fulfill rental duties.

Regardless, tenants should always consult their lease contracts and try to maintain good relations with their landlords. If/when these unexpected circumstances arise, tenants are prepared and can still potentially end their rental agreements amicably.