Dear PoP – Lease Breaking

Photo by PoPville flickr user AWard Tour

“Dear PoP,

Wondering if I could pick your brain (or your readers’ brains if you decide to post this) on lease-breaking in the city? I moved into my apartment just south of Dupont Circle on January 15. I am legally obligated for rent until January 31, 2011.

I’ve recently had a ‘come to Jesus moment,’ and decided that I’m quitting my six figure government job to pursue a writing internship out West. I intend to leave work in September and move on October 1. This would leave 4 months of an unexpired lease for which I am legally obligated. Since I harbor no fantasy of just splitting, what is the likelihood that this can end up a win-win for the landlord and I (for the record, the landlord is corporate, Keener Management, but is managed by a very nice property manager on-site)?

My initial instinct is to simply tell the landlord on July 1, and ask what the win-win solution he recommends is. In this city, is it simply that a) I would need to find someone to fill the remaining 4 months, and then the lease is legally turned over b) that we would need to find someone to sign a full year lease starting in October or c) I need to sub-let and manage it myself?”

I’m guessing if you or the company found someone to take over your lease they wouldn’t have a problem with it. Anyone ever face a situation like this?

35 Comment

  • I left my Philly apartment before the lease ended, and the arrangement I had with the landlords (who were total sh!ts in all other respects) was that I would advertise the apartment on Craigslist, show it myself and direct prospective tenants to fill out applications with the landlord. I found someone in less than 2 days, but then my apartment was below market. The new tenant’s lease started anew…that is, he wasn’t required to complete my lease term.

    Also, this allowed them to jack up the rent on the new tenant, which your landlord will definitely view as a win.

    Good luck!

    • I did the exact same thing for basement apartment in Columbia Heights. Initially my landlord was pissed he had to deal with it, but it worked out for both of us in the end.

  • We specifically asked about this scenario before we moved into our apartment and found during the search that the options varied wildly. Your best case scenario is what we have now, with Borger management, which is they ask us to find a credit qualified person to take over the lease. But at some places that wasn’t an option, and one place expected you to forfeit double the security deposit, which was a key factor in our deciding against it… I would just ask asap, gritting your teeth for the worst-case scenario

  • A good friend faced a similar issue (albeit, with a private landlord and not a management company) and she was able to find someone to take over the rest of her lease. She got this person’s name put on the lease and her name taken off, so it was much easier than worrying about subletting. It seems like you have a more-than reasonable amount of time to do this if the management company will let you. Hopefully everything will work out!

  • can i have your six figure job?!

  • I detest the overused phrase “come to Jesus”.

  • Hey folks – I’m the original poster. Thanks for the advice, and the options sound generally win-win. Another positive caveat here for me is that they did not ask for any security deposit, just a non-refundable move-in fee of $300. I’ve never had to break a lease before, especially not in DC, so this sounds fairly positive.

  • Pursuing a writing internship pretty much establishes severe mental defect and ought to therefore render you legally unable to be held responsible for a lease.

    • I think PoP commenters are what I’ll miss most about the city.

      • i just spit my coffee on my keyboard.

      • It wouldn’t be a PoP comment thread if at least one-third of the people replying weren’t proclaiming you an idiot or otherwise letting you know how superior they are.

        • I almost put a “p.s. – you know I’m being facetious right?” after that post, but then thought – naw – that would insult people’s intelligence. . . Sorry!

        • Victoria is a writer herself. I think she was teasing (and mocking herself, in a way, at the same time).

  • You should read your original lease and see what it says. I also didn’t have a security deposit but paid a $300 move in fee, and hopefully we don’t have the same landlord, because my lease specifically states that I can’t sublet or turn over my lease, and that if I break the lease early, I owe a 2 months’ rent penalty – not ideal. But, their being able to raise the rent on a new tenant is a good point – maybe they won’t hold you to the lease agreement if that’s a reasonable option for them.

  • Like the first poster, I bought a house and closed about 3 months before my 2-year lease ended. I was obligated to pay the full amount of the lease (about an additional $6,600 for the remainder) according to the contract. Thankfully, the private owners (one an attorney even) were ok with me doing the marketing and showing of the place. And if I found a quality new tenant for a new lease, they didn’t have a problem with it. I did and it worked out thankfully. Good luck!

  • I’m sure that the landlord could not care less *who* is in the unit, just that they pay on time and are quiet/clean/etc.

    So, as a small-time landlord myself, I’d have no problems if you brought me a credit-qualified tenant to sign a new lease with.

  • I too left DC in the middle of a lease from a corporate landlord and found it to be rather easy. Little did I know, they had a sublet policy, which worked out well. I (worked it out with my roommate), advertised on CraigsList, found someone, and they just had to jump through the rigorous hoops of fulfilling the rental requirements. There was something like a $150.00 substitution fee, but the management company allowed me to work that out with myself and the new tenant.

    I hope this helps! I too was afraid to discuss it with them, but I was honest and it worked out well in the end!

  • Frame the question to the management as someone starting a new lease, not taking over your old lease. From a landlord’s perspective getting a new 1-year tenant in September or October is much perferable to one in January or February when it is much harder to find tenants.

  • Also, I would advise AGAINST subletting. When you sublet the original person on the lease remains responsible if something happens to the person with the person that is subletting (i.e., they skip town or burn the place down).

    • Which is exactly why the first option the landlord SHOULD consider would be allowing a sublet. If the OP wants a true win-win, the reality is that he/she is going to have to go for something less than her best option. As a landlord, this would be the first thing that I would suggest. Why else would the landlord give up the contractual obligation to the next 4 months of rent? The lease is with the OP, and it’s valid and enforceable (and presumably, there still will be some money to go after from that GS-14 or -15 paycheck).

  • Okay I’ll preface this with the fact that I’m a property manager for a large management company in the area.
    Most management companies do allow people to break their leases, though usually with an expensive penalty (2 months’ rent plus 60 days notice is the standard- so 4 months’ rent total). Some companies will allow someone else to take over the lease if you find them yourself, but even then you may have to pay a lease alteration fee (probably around 150).
    Your best option is to talk with your management company in advance and see what their policies are, as they do vary between companies. Some are more lax than others. If you’re in a building with a high occupancy you may want to consider giving your notice and turn in your keys when you move. While you will still be financially responsible to the end of your lease, your apartment could be rented early and you would not be rent responsible when the next tenant moves in.
    Definitely do not just leave without warning though. You will build up a rent balance that will most likely be sent to a collections agency at the end of your lease term.

    • Thanks.. As far as I can tell, there is usually only occasionally one 1BR available at a time with the occasional studio or 2BR open at the same time (not sure how this affects my situation). And, i wouldn’t even consider just leaving without warning. I’m looking for the best situation possible for all parties here since overall the apartment’s been a fairly pleasant experience.

  • Dan eludes to a critical fact here — there’s a big difference between a corporately owned property like yours and a small time landlord. I’m in the latter group, and I have in the past and would work to find a win-win solution, but the reality is that you’d have a window for a bigger win with me because I don’t have the resources to pursue you for unpaid rent in court — enforcement would probably cost me as much as I’d get back at the end of the day, and it would take a lot of my time and effort to get there. Management company is probably a little different and has this in place, so be mindful of the decreased incentive for them, solely based on the resources and experience they have to deal with a broken lease.

    • My last landlord was a smalltime landlord who screwed me out of $1000 when I left my last apartment two months prior to my lease expiring, having given 30 days notice and arranging for a neighbor to move into my unit the day after I departed. Situations vary by landlord and management company, some people are just jerks.

      • Or they’re sticklers for holding you to your lease agreement. All tenants are not created equal, and the landlord is entitled to the benefit of his original bargain, though as a pragmatic consideration he may not get it in some circumstances. One man’s “I got screwed by that jerk” is another man’s “I’m just sticking to what we agreed.”

      • sounds very familiar. Mine did the very same thing. I was so mad and helpless.

  • Anticipating that you might not like what you hear from a management company on July 1, in your situation, there might be some wisdom in trying for the next two weeks to advertise on Craigslist for sublettor for the four months you won’t use on the lease, and then quietly subletting the place for the duration of the lease. Your lease may not allow subletting, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll at least know if that’s an option before you go in on July 1 and (potentially) hear that you have to pay 2 months’ rent and $400 in lease alteration fees. The friendly property manager might be willing to look the other way, and you’d have a solution in pocket, albeit probably not your most favorable one.

  • What is the landlord’s incentive to work out a win-win situation with you? Isn’t the management company’s ideal situation the fact that they may be legally able to make you pay your rent for the entire 12 months (or pay some ridiculous early termination penalty) and then they can just find someone else to move into your place after you leave? Seems to me that this would maximize their income from your rental unit. I guess they run the risk of having the place be empty for a couple of months, but that’s a risk whether or not they let you get out of the lease early. Why would the landlord agree to work with you on this?

    With that said, I hope this works out for you. I am just playing devils advocate.

  • any decent corporate management company knows that they are probably better off in a direct relationship with a new tenant than dealing with an absent tenant subletting to someone they don’t know (depending on what your lease says about subletting). and much better off than they would be fighting with you about unpaid rent. if you can find someone to sign a new lease with them (or take over yours, whichever), they would probably be relatively content to have you break the lease. If you think they are likely to be relatively friendly, just approach them and ask . . . . It has been a few years since I moved out of a big apartment building, but it went entirely smoothly.

    of course, there are some pretty crappy corporate management companies out there that don’t know a good thing when it happens.

  • I’m a landlord. Find an acceptable replacement and you’re fine by me. Or, sublet for 4 months. Or, walk away and guaranteed that since no landlord can possibly comply with DC’s ridiculous landlord tenant laws, they will break 10 laws and owe you money if they choose to fight you.

  • Sorry grumpy – speaking as a “small” landlord -it does have some financial implications when a tenant breaks the lease early.. we budget and schedule carefully for maintenance etc and vacancies etc. we have been very reasonable with tenants when situations arise but landlords have so few rights in dc that sometimes we just have to enforce the lease. isn’t that what it’s there for?

  • Talk to your landlord and explain the situaton – be up front and figure out what best works for you and abides by your original lease agreement. We ended our lease early in a large building with a management company and while yes we had to pay that last months rent we got almost all of it back since the place was rented and the people moved in a few days into the month. Legally they cannot collect rent from two tenants for the same place for overlapping days.

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