Dear PoPville – Breaking a Lease

Photo by PoPville flickr user nairdaecartal

“Dear PoPville,

I signed a one year lease a few months ago for a basement apartment. I was moving from out of state and didn’t know too much about the different neighborhoods. I feel as though I have bitten off a bit more of the city life than I can chew and now I want to get out. There was a murder less than 50 yards from me recently, gun shots on a semi-regular basis, weekly robberies, and daily blatant drug deals. I am a single female and I live alone. In order to protect my safety, I often decline invitations to go out with friends at night simply because I am too scared to come home late at night alone. I know many of your readers will simply tell me every variation of “just suck it up” but, I really would like some advice on how, or even if, I can some how get out of this lease.”

I’m very sorry to hear of this situation. Sounds terrible. Unfortunately the only way to get out of your lease is to perhaps find a sub let (find someone to replace you), forfeit your deposit, or possibly talk to your landlord and explain your situation to see if there are any compromises that can be worked out. Any other advice on getting out of a lease?

109 Comment

  • You sound like the woman who rented the basement apartment after I did. Let me guess, is it in Petworth?

  • Can you sublease? According to your lease, is there a penalty for leaving early? I had a lease once that forced me to pay 1 month and give up my security deposit…not too bad if you can’t stand your situation.

  • Safety on the street does not affect the implied warranty of habitability.

    You moved to an area without researching it adequately. Caveat emptor…or in this case, lessee emptor. You’re stuck. Especially now that you admitted you want out for out’s sake.

  • Can the OP provide the location of the property in question? I think we would all be very interested and it might provide some insight for those who have some suggestions.

    • how does the location of the apartment have any impact on suggestions for how to get out of a lease?

    • Disclosing the area would just lead to a slew of comments from very opinionated people as to whether or not the OP has the right to feel unsafe in that neighborhood or not. Commenters too often want to critize and tell people how she should or should not feel. She feels unsafe, that’s all you need to know.

      • I am a man who lives in DC and also don’t go outside most times for fear of death by bullets from children. The violent kids in this town and the constant toleration of their drug slinging, gun play, and overt thuggery worship, and the near constant flow of DYRS ward absconders, makes me stay home after dark too. It sucks big time. Just walk away from your lease, let them keep your deposit, it’s worth it to save your life.

  • Sorry for your troubles. Sucks to not know what you’re getting into. I would echo PoP and suggest you forfeit your deposit. Hopefully it’s not equivalent to one month’s rent.

    • Well, I definitely searched all of the crime statistics and compared them to all of the other options I had. I guess it just seems like a statistic until you’re actually living in it.

      Oh, and it was more than 1 months rent…..(smile)

      • claire

        I’ve actually heard it’s illegal to have a security deposit more than one month’s rent . . .

        • I’ve heard Herman Cain is the Anti-Christ.

        • that’s true (in DC). But landlords can add on “pet deposits” and “move-in fees” and such.

          • no despoits which total more than one month rent are permitted.

          • Pet deposits are actually illegal as well…they can tack on extra rent per month but not an actual pet deposit. didn’t know that until a realtor told us and i wish i’d known earlier to save on up front moving costs.

            all things considered, if it’s that bad for you and is costing you your sanity and social existence definitely weigh your cost benefit in staying and staying miserable or getting out and forfeiting some potential serious cash. Not an easy situation:(

  • jim_ed

    I’d just be upfront with the landlord and say you just can’t stay. You’ll almost certainly lose the security deposit, but it sounds like you value your safety more than ~$1100 or whatever it is.

    Or just lie and say you urgently have to move back home for whatever reason, and say it’s an emergency. But don’t hesitate, just pack up and go. Life’s too short to deal with that kind of mess

    • I agree with Jim – just get out. Call your landlord now and say you can’t afford the rent and are moving in with a friend (by necessity). Offer to help find a new tenant if he/she will consider returning most of your deposit.

  • I posted pictures to Craigslist, explained I needed to break my lease and hosted 2 open houses (accompanied by friends) to find a new tenant. Once there I gave them instructions on how to proceed in taking over my lease.

    I got my apartment rented out in less than 24 hr.

    Worth a shot, but be careful (Have a friend(s) stay with you during the open house).

  • You signed a contract, i.e., the lease. So, look in the contract to see how to break it. It will probably say you can’t break it and can’t sublease, which means you can either:

    1. live there until the lease expires,
    2. move out but continue to pay the rent, or
    3. break the lease illegally and risk being sued.

    That’s a sad truth.

    In reality, most people are somewhat accommodating and I bet a phone call to your landlord would provide a solution.

    • Pretty much. Talking to the landlord would be the best approach. Be prepared to offer money towards finding a new tenant, cleaning the entire apartment afte you move out, etc. Whatever expenses a landlord typically incurs when a rental turns over.

    • Yes. This is as good as it’s going to get. You’re on the hook for the entire period of the lease — if that’s another 8 months, with a straight-up walkaway, you risk being sued and having judgment entered for 8x your monthly rent.

      Your absolute best bet is just to start with a non-hostile conversation with your landlord. See what solutions he/she would recommend. These might include allowing a sublease or allowing you to break the lease if and when you find a replacement tenant. Understand, however, that you’re proposing to break the lease — in other words, it’s on you. Don’t expect your landlord to bend over backwards to accomodate your failure to do due diligence on the neighborhood. And don’t come out of the box accusing your landlord of some breach on his end.

      I can tell you as a landlord that it’s rarely worth the fight and I would much rather work to find a solution that gets you what you want and doesn’t screw me over (meaning I receive rent in the lease amount for all the days under lease from an acceptable-to-me tenant). But ultimately, if I really got screwed by a tenant, my recourse is to the courts.

      • She is not on the hook if they find another tenant during that period. She would only be on the hook for the period it remains vacant during the term she was supposed to lease it.

        • The starting point is that her liability isn’t just for next month’s rent or the deposit. If she just walks away, then the landlord could sue for the remaining rent under the lease. You’re correct that mitigation of those damages would be an issue before any judgment was entered, but the responses that amount to “just lose your deposit” minimize the extent of her possible exposure.

  • Emmaleigh504

    I’ve had good and bad experiences breaking leases. Once I told the management company, they were cool and just let me know when they were going to have people look at the place. I was surprised with my security deposit returned in full a few weeks after I moved.

    The other time I told the management company who kept the deposit, which I was fine with. But then the owner of the unit heard from a neighbor that movers were there and started calling and harassessing me. Luckily, I had caller ID so I quite answering the phone.

    Be prepared to give up the security deposit and maybe you’ldd be surprised and get it back.

  • Offer the landlord two month’s rent to get out of your lease. If you can’t afford that, offer to pay for the background/credit check for new tenant candidates. Sure it sucks to be out the money, but it’s a small price to pay to feel safe in your own home.

  • Finding someone to replace you is probably the easiest way to go. Just let your landlord know that you need to move, and ask if it would be okay if you found someone to either take over the remainder of your lease or to sign a new year lease. There’s a *slight* chance they might say no, but I’ve never encountered a landlord who wasn’t willing to let a tenant out so long as they found a replacement (not saying it’ll never happen, just that it’s unlikely)

    Posting on Craig’s List is a good suggestion (just make SURE you have a friend or two around any time you have someone coming over to look at the apartment)

  • There was a murder less than 50 yards from me recently, gun shots on a semi-regular basis, weekly robberies, and daily blatant drug deals.

    I would love to know where this is. Probably where a number of fellow posters live that own property and defend their hood to the death (pun intended).

    • I’m thinking this has to be near Raymond Rec in Petworth, somewhere near 9th & Quincy NW.

    • Hows that dated 500 square foot condo treating you these days? At least your close to all that bustling activity in Upper NW!!!

      • Sounds like there’s a lot of “bustling activity” in this city that it’s nice not to be near. As for Upper NW, the hate on this site for a large and very nice part of the city is baffling. Jealousy, I guess. After all, it is possible to like your neighborhood and not attack other ‘hoods. That kind of reaction just exposes insecurity.

        • Its not hate. I’d love to live in the Palisades, or Spring Valley, or any of those nice neighborhoods. Actually, I love most of upper NW.

          But spending 300k on a 1br condo, paying 500/month in condo fees, to live in a 70s era, soviet apartment block look alike building hardly seems worth it. Especially since the ONLY benefit is being able to jump on the Internet and brag about how you live in Upper NW. When you buy a multimillion dollar mansion, get back to me..

          • You’re making a lot of (incorrect) assumptions there. I don’t know where you live, and I don’t care, but it must be amazing because you don’t seem to have any sort of chip on your shoulder at all. I suggest you get around the city more often. I think you’d find that DC west of the park is hardly “70s era, soviet apartment block look alike buildings.” After all, everything in Petworth, Bloomingdale, Shaw, etc. isn’t amazing and everything in Glover Park, Cleveland Park, Tenleytown, etc. isn’t boring and ugly. Quite the opposite in many cases on both counts. Be satisfied with your choices in life and stop the hating. It makes you look ridiculous.

          • I’m not talking about the place YOU live. I’m talking about the place that Denizen of Tenallytown lives. Which is why I posted my comments in reply to his. Get it now?

            For the record, there are very few, if any condos in upper NW that compete with the nicest, new condos in the area.

          • But what’s wrong with Tenleytown? Your assertion that there’s nothing to do in Upper Northwest (whatever thet comprises) is ridiculous, as is the idea that the new apartment buildings in the city are better than older ones. Many of the cookie-cutter, cheaply built condo buildings in DC are nothing to get excited about and many of the older ones are architecturally and aeshetically much better. I do “get” is that you dislike people who, to paraphrase your words “brag about living in Upper NW.” I don’t think that objecting to the statement that places in “Upper NW” are boring or ugly is “bragging,” but whatever. Your comments say a lot more about you than about the people you dislike.

          • This really bears repeating. “I’m talking about the place that Denizen of Tenallytown lives.”

            I am not making any generalizations. I am being very specific.

            As for the new vs old condo debate… its pretty telling when 1br condos in many of the highest income areas are going for the same, or lower, price as ones in areas that, as has been noted, are not as safe.

            And, The Heights, since you seem to not follow the comments much, DoT constantly comes on here and ridicules people who live in areas he doesnt find suitably prestigious. You really should read his comments on here, his false sense of snobbery and superiority is astounding. It crops up about once a day. All we need is Joker to come in here and say a bunch of stuff that isnt true and tell you what an idiot you are for not agreeing with him, and we’d have a typical day in the comments on PoP.

          • 1. I will repeat – “What’s wrong with Tenleytown?” You have made several generalizations and now you’re backing away from them, That’s a good first step, at least.

            2. I’d like to see some valuations for your assertions re: old and new condos. It’s not cheap to live in many of the neighborhoods west of the park, so I don’t beleive that new buildings are always, or even usually, more expensive. If people are paying more to live in Columbia Heights than to live in Georgetown, I’d question their decision. Anyway, if 2005 taught us anything it taught us that price alone is not the only indicator of value.

            3. I do read the comments here, mostly for comic value. For every Denizen comment, there are 10 comments about how everything west of the park sucks. I might be being conservative with that figure.

  • I’d second the be honest approach. Just tell them the situation. If you give them advanced notice and help them find another tenant it might go a lot easier.

    Also read your lease. Double check to see if there are any explicit clauses dealing with early termination of the lease. Often there are and you need to be aware before you talk to the landlord.

    I don’t know the law in DC (and, again, read your lease)but I would check to see if you could be held accountable for the monthly rent for the remainder of the lease. This is true in some situations-so you don’t just lose the deposit but are on the hook for the remainder of the lease if the place remains unrented.

    Good luck! I am in a similar situation myself.

  • A little OT, but I’m curious why the OP chose the apartment (other than the obvious: cheap, possible location). It could serve as a cautionary tale for people from out of town looking at apartments.

    • True, the OP did state that she didn’t know too much about the various neighborhoods in DC. Could have been cost and accessibility to work, which is a primary motivator for pretty much everyone that posts here.

      There have also been changes in perception on what is and is not a safe area in DC over the past several years. As the perceived “safe zone” border pushes further east, people are more apt to look in neighborhoods that were previously shunned as unsafe. But that doesn’t mean the neighborhood crime stats have changed dramatically. It only means that people are now willing to live there, usually hoping that things will get better very quickly.

      Especially when it means a rapid ROI!

      • Actually, the neighborhood crime stats HAVE changed dramatically. You repeatedly prove, day in and day out, you have absolutely not idea about neighborhoods in DC. Head on back to LNS. bye!

      • I’m happy that parts of the city that used to be “no go” areas have improved. Sometimes, though, the perception that a few new coffee houses and bars next to some renovated homes (some very nicely renovated, others less so) can quickly change the crime in a neighborhood is flawed. There is still a lot of crime in several of the neighborhoods that are the focus of supposedly successful gentrification in DC. Many people clearly overestimate the real change that has occurred beyond the cosmetic improvements and assume that all change will continue to be positive. That said, hopefully things will continue to improve and fewer neighborhoods in this city will be scary enough that newcomers feel threatened.

        • +100, well said.

          • Do you get tired of hating on the non-Upper NW rich areas of town? Or is it your thing?

          • To Black and White – I think you have it backwards. This blog is a steady stream of envious negativity about places like Georgetown, Glover Park, etc. To paraphrase the average comment – “Everything in (add affluent neighborhood) sucks! Dog Parks!” I certainly never said that the favored neighborhoods on this blog are bad places. There’s a lot to like about many of them. But sometimes the talk about how everything’s changed for the better overstates the case a bit.

          • many of us actually like all of DC. not just the edgy hoods. georgetown is a great neighborhood, very few who have explored it really think otherwise.
            and yeah, most of us can’t afford to live there.

          • The Heights: that was to Tenallytown – sorry if I hit the wrong reply.

            Tenally seems to hate on the nonrich noncaucasian places in DC… and always on about how criminal DC is. I just wonder why she lives here if she f’ing hates DC so much.

            Oh well. There’s always a new place to move to. I heard fairfax is nice … ;-P

          • Georgetown is full of gorgeous architecture.

            I just wish it (well, M Street and Wisconsin Avenue) hadn’t become such a shopping mecca for tourists.

          • Black and White – You hit the right button. It’s my mistake.

          • Black and White indeed: I’m not hating on any hood, actually. I’m pointing out that posters on this blog who move into neighborhoods with historically high crime actively deny said crime exists, or claim that it’s overblown. These same posters, as The Heights pointed out, also dismiss many areas of DC including Upper NW as boring or passe. These same posters then ask POPVille questions about home security systems, the best way to disguise newly purchased bikes so they don’t get stolen, how to avoid being a victim of a holdup, etc.

            I find it all a bit amusing, especially because people get so worked up when you point it out. It’s like you’re poking a hole in their collective psyche.

          • No Denally, you come into a blog specifically named for a part of town that isn’t uppercaucsian whiteyville (you know, PETWORTH) and you laugh at them.

            Please, name me an area in DC, OUTSIDE of rich white Ward 3, that is not “historically crime ridden”. I will await your honesty.

        • Remove “Sometimes” from the start of your second sentence, and I will agree with you 100%. This isn’t displacement gentrification. It’s infill gentrification. There’s a difference in what that means for crime/quality of life issues.

          • Technically speaking, many places east of the park in NW are in “upper northwest.” For example, 16th street heights, parts of Petworth, Brightwood and Shepard Park are all in upper NW. It annoys me that “upper northwest” seems to be code for white, affluent neighborhoods in northwest DC. I live in upper NW (east of the park), I love the architectural details of my wardman home, which when I bought it, was a Home Depot investor reno, but I’ve been transforming it into a nicer home in the 8 years I’ve lived here. And the crime sucks (I am not in denial), but I do not have bars on my windows! However, I would move to Friendship Heights or Chevy Chase in a minute if I could afford it.

    • I was motivated strictly by budget.

      • It’s unfortunate the we have to choose between already high rent (even in the worst areas) and safety. Even compared to bigger cities, this place makes it difficult to justify living in it.

        I hope you can find a better place within your budget!

  • Georgetown Law has this helpful guide for tenants, which also lists a number of resources in the back:

  • I found that talking to your landlord and offering to find someone to take over your lease works. You might not even lose your deposit.

  • As a lawyer, but not your lawyer, first read the lease. It may specifically state how much you have to pay for early termination.

    I am not an expert on DC landlord tenant law, but in some jurisdictions there is a requirement that the landlord mitigate his damages. Basically, the landlord has to try and get someone to release the space before being able to claim the entire year’s rent amount. That is where the above suggestions come into play on finding a new tenant.

    I would suggest speaking honestly and trustfully with your landlord about your desire to leave. Volunteer to help with finding a new tenant and be flexible in the showings of the apartment. If you handle it professionally, its much more likely to go well.

  • Are you sure it’s a legal apt? A lot of those basement apartments are illegal rentals, so you can’t be held liable for breaking an illegal contract.

    • Un huh…you move into an illegal basement apt when it suits you (location and price) and then try to scam the landlord when it also suits you.

      It goes both ways, if you want to insist the lease wasn’t legal to begin with, fine, then if we don’t have a “legal” lease then you aren’t my “tenant” and your property is illegally in my basement so don’t be surprised to come home in the rain and find all your crap on the sidewalk and the locks changed. If the laws don’t apply to you, they also don’t protect you.

      Be an ass and you’ll get treated like one.

      • +100

        If I was a landlord and you pulled that crap on me I would literally go to the effort of hauling your crap to the dump while you were at work so you couldn’t salvage it off the sidewalk.

        The OP’s lack of planning isn’t the landlords fault.

        • … and you’d spend a night or two in DC Jail.

          Believe it or not, but it’s happened more than once.

      • People, I’m not trying to go to court here! haha I want to do what is best for both parties. Is it best for the landlord if I stay and fulfill my lease yes? Is it best for me? No. So, maybe I’ll try to find someone to quickly fill my place where the landlord sees no gap in finances and we will all be happy.

      • Actually, that’s not how tenant law works – especially in DC where it’s very pro-tenant.
        Landlord rents an illegal apartment, tenant can break the lease.

        Also, allowing someone to live in and keep their stuff in your house creates an implied lease, whcih would trigger tenant protections.

        And while i think the OPs best bet is to just talk to the landlord, I have no sympathy for the people who rent illegal basement apartments. I saw ridiculous dumps and fire death traps for rent when I was looking.

  • Talking to your landloard is often the best approach and many of them will be okay if you find a subleaser, but if you don’t have money to pay the penalty and just want out let me suggest another approach, one that does make you a not so nice person.

    Presuming you have not caused much damage and you have a one month security deposit, just don’t pay your last months rent and move out. I have known people who did this before in college and most of the time the landloard just didn’t want to go through the hassle of going to court.

    Yes on your next rental application you are not going to be able to use that place as a reference, but you can lie. Say you lived with a friend who is willing to lie for you.

    Like I said, this method makes you a not so nice person, but if you feel the need to get out then do it. (I feel do want to point point out that the killing that happened 50 yards from you probably wasn’t random and doesn’t imply any danger to you)

    • I do agree with the final statement. I know that the person was killed due to something they did or were involved in…….but it still happened 🙂

  • gotryit

    Join the military. There are laws limiting liability if you get orders changing your permanent station. Unless that’s more drastic than what you’re looking for…

  • As a landlord, and a reasonable person, I would expect you to come to me in person and explain your issue.
    The last thing I am going to do is expect a person to live in a situation that scares them and expect to make a profit out of it.

    Be honest and offer a compromise, 90 day notice/cleaning fee/etc and I’m sure it will work out.

    Here is hoping that your landlord is a normal person.

  • Thanks for all of the wise words! I will have to think about this for a bit. It’s not like I exactly have the budget to trot off to Luxuryland anyways.

  • Really? DC rental laws are heavily weighted to the tenant. Tell your landlord you are moving out 1-2 month in advance. Also, check to see if it is a “legal” apartment. If its not, hes screwed and you can do what you want. Even if it is, you have a couple options:

    Give him alot of notice so they can re-rent it. If hes a ass about it play hardball. Move out, dont pay the last months rent and see if he sues you. Going to court is usually not worth it.

  • Concepts of safety are so weird. Google for a study about how more people are killed by drivers in the suburbs than are killed by violent crimes in any urban neighborhood. For some reason we’ll take the risk of negligent and aggressive driving, but not assaults by other deadly weapons, despite the stats.

    • I can kind of understand the confusion here, but you can always look both ways when crossing the street, and generally avoid bad drivers. But being a victim of violence is a lot harder to physically escape.

      • negligent and aggresive driving is not easy to escape, especially for kids.

        70 children were killed by drivers in PG county last year. Oh the uproar if 70 kids were killed by guns. But drivers… nah, that’s the price we may.

    • You should maybe study human psychology, and focus specifically on the development of human survival instincts for a better understanding of the human condition.

    • i’m way more scared of drivers than thugs.

  • No one is forcing you to stay there. Just pack and get out.

  • I broke a lease for the same reason. I got mugged on my own street and have seen all the same things mentioned in your post. I approached the landlady via e-mail and said I was willing to find a suitable subletter. I got a disappointed response but nonetheless I was able to walk a way w/ a balance of my security deposit. It won’t hurt to try approaching your landlord.

  • I say suck it up and live there. If you feel unsafe then call the police. I bet the situation is not as bad as you think.

    • Right, and get to know all of the local little Gs and their handlers, and say hello once in a while, ask them for advice on where to buy some some good HQW, and post all their pictures on a local blog so we can get to know them too. Or we can just wait to see their pictures on homicidewatchdc!

  • There are shootings in most affordable neighborhoods of DC. Don’t strand yourself in Glover Park or Arlington. Budget for cabs home once in a while, buy a bike and a bulky hoodie and enjoy your proximity to cool stuff before you are too old and grumpy to enjoy it or have kids and need to worry about school boundaries.
    When you move, consider a group house. You can afford a better neighborhood and you may meet some cool people. Unless you are one of those roommates who is always dragging home poorly screened hookups.

  • This is why I never rented to anyone sight unseen despite the pleas that they live in Farfarway, KS and need a place and can’t possibly fly out to DC just to look.
    Hopefully the OPs mistake can be seen as a warning to others who come in from other places without knowing jack about a neighborhood and put down money on a place for a year. When moving to a new metropolitian place rent someplace short term (room for rent, hostel, hotel, stay for free w/ long lost relatives, nunnary, etc) for a week or two to get a sense of the place and then decide on where to live.
    To echo what others have said, comb over your lease, then talk to your landlord and try to find a solution, but be prepared to loose your deposit.

  • OP, have you talked to the landlord yet?

    Like most other people posting in this thread, I think your best bet is to talk to the landlord and offer to find someone to take over your lease.

    • Haven’t talked to the landlord yet. I know they will not be a happy camper because when I moved in the person specifically said that they were tired of people moving in and out every 3-6 months. I’m just going to keep my eye out for a new place to live and if it seems like something great I’ll probably jump on it. I might be complaining but finding something in my budget, that allows animals, and feels safe seems to be a bit hard to do around here!

  • SouthwestDC

    I’ve been in this situation (in SW), except it seemed we were being specifically targeted by someone in the neighborhood who wanted us out. After our apartment was broken into and ransacked we didn’t feel comfortable living there anymore, so we informed the landlord and told him he could keep the security deposit. We also offered to help him find new tenants, and got the place professionally cleaned after we left.

    If you forfeit the deposit and make the transition as smooth as possible the landlord shouldn’t have a problem with you breaking the lease. Vacancy rates are extremely low right now so he/she should have no trouble getting a new tenant.

    My partner just went through something similar with the tenants in her mother’s house (except they’re in VA so they really have no excuse), and she felt it was better to let them break the lease than have them living in a place where they feel uncomfortable. However, she drew the line at returning the security deposit since they only gave 2 week’s notice and her mother will be losing rental income because of them.

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