However, when you do move out prior to the end of the lease, generally the landlord has a legal obligation to try to rent your unit again as quickly as possible. This responsibility is called “mitigating damages,” where “damage” in this context means your money. The problem arises when a landlord doesn’t bother to look for a new tenant (or is inept at it), and then claims that you owe money for unpaid rent. Therefore, if you don’t want to pay any more money to your landlord after you move, you must take matters into your own hands before you move don’t trust your landlord!
There are two basic ways to break a lease if you need to move before your lease expires. The first is that you find an “uninhabitable condition” within your unit, and then move because of the landlord’s failure to remedy that condition. Since this can be a rather complex method of legally voiding your lease, read attorney Ken Carlson’s Web site on the topic (www.caltenantlaw.com). His view on the topic is specific to California landlord tenant law, so you’ll also need to research the law in your state.
The second way to break your lease without paying additional rent is to find an acceptable applicant willing to rent your unit for the remainder of your lease. In our experience, even that can be a daunting task when dealing with a highly unscrupulous landlord. In our case, Marilyn and I went to great lengths to find qualified candidates to take over the lease (this process is described in our rebuttal letter to the landlord), only to find that our landlord sabotaged every attempt. Based on his actions, we believed he didn’t want a new tenant he wanted to take Marilyn to court so he could try to scam her out of tens of thousands of dollars! Thus, you need to really “cover your ass” with a “paper trail” so that if you go to court, you can prove to a judge that the unit could indeed have been rented. Here’s how to do it:
• Give your landlord written notice that you intend to move (30 days notice is a good idea).
• Ask your landlord what his requirements are of applicants (e.g. credit, financial, previous rental history, etc.) so that you can tailor your search for prospective tenants your landlord will accept.
• Clean your place thoroughly, and then take a lot of pictures, especially of the key features. Don’t skimp on the photos the more the better, so the prospective tenant knows what the apartment looks like before taking a tour.
• Create a Web page devoted to your apartment/house. If you don’t know how, have a friend do it, or hire someone to do it for you. On the Web page describe all aspects of your apartment, the lease terms and the tenant qualifications provided by your landlord. Include the pictures of your apartment. You will find that your photos will draw a lot of attention, since most landlords don’t use them. Considering the money you could lose to your landlord, it’s worth your money and effort to build a Web site devoted to renting your unit.
• Advertise your unit on the Internet. Specifically, I suggest craigslist.org, because it’s free and available in dozens of cities. Read the directions and post your ad, with a link to your Web site. You’ll have to re-post your ad every two or three days because of how quickly other people are posting their ads as well. You can also upload 4 pictures with your ad, and that's highly recommended. In Southern California, you can also try Westsiderentals.com, another free service for landlords, though we got virtually no response from that site.
• If you advertise in a newspaper, list your telephone number and your Web address. When people call, send them to your Web site.
• You want people to go to your Web site for two reasons: 1) Your pictures will tell all and help you get a higher response rate; and 2) you want people to send you emails asking you about your apartment. Save those emails! It’s very important to keep them because they became proof that there were people interested in your unit.
• When you finally find someone who has toured your apartment and wants to apply, make sure you have him or her fill out the application form. Photocopy the application and the applicant’s personal check used for the credit verification fee, and then you give the originals to your landlord.
• Unless the landlord signs a lease with one of the applicants, don’t stop advertising and don’t stop showing the apartment. Keep them coming, and keep sending applications to the landlord (after you photocopy them, of course) until the landlord has signed a lease with a new tenant. If necessary, keep taking applications until you move because your landlord may reject perfectly qualified applicants (or talk them out of assuming your lease, just like our former landlord did).
• Even after you move, you can still get the names and numbers (through e-mail, hopefully) and then pass that information to the landlord; or if you live close by, you may still be able to show the unit and take applications. Use certified mail with a return receipt to prove that your landlord received the applications.
• Follow up with each applicant, in e-mail if possible. You want the applicant to reply in e-mail so you have a copy of the conversation. If the landlord does not rent to a qualified applicant, find out why from the applicant and record your conversation, in e-mail if possible.
• If someone contacts you about the apartment after you have moved, forward the information to the landlord and record on paper why he decided to look at the apartment. Follow up with the prospect after he views the apartment, preferably in e-mail, and find out if he filled out a rental application, and why or why not.
Remember, if your landlord doesn’t rent your apartment after you move out and before the end of your lease, all of the above work is your only evidence to prove that there were people interested in your apartment (and who maybe even applied to take over the lease), which could help a judge decide that you are no longer bound to the lease.
Shorter length leases are okay
It’s important to understand that you are responsible for the full term of the lease, so if the apartment is rented again for less time than that, you will still need to be involved. Let’s say you have nine months remaining on your lease, but a prospective tenant will only sign a six-month lease. That’s okay. Provided the applicant is credit worthy, to keep you bound to your lease your landlord is legally required to rent the apartment because doing so is “mitigating damages.” A landlord cannot legally refuse an applicant just because he will only sign a six-month lease, and still expect to hold you liable, because that’s not mitigating your damages. See Ken Carlson’s Web site (www.caltenantlaw.com) for more detail in this regard (as it pertains to California landlord tenant law). If the landlord does rent the unit, keep in mind that if the new tenant moves out at the end of the six months, you are still responsible for the remaining three months of the lease. Yet, if you stay in touch with the new tenant and find out that he is indeed leaving after 6 months, you still have plenty of time to find another applicant to take over the remainder of the lease before he moves.
The California landlord tenant law which governs breaking a lease is Civil Code 1951.2. If you live in California, I recommend you read it several times, as it is somewhat confusing. The law favors landlords, make no mistake about that. It’s very, very easy for the landlord to lie in court and say he couldn’t rent the apartment and then get away with it unless you have documentation to prove otherwise. Therefore, it is entirely up to you to find qualified applicants and record everything, if you don’t want to pay for the remainder of your lease after you move!