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The Right Way to Get Out of Your Apartment Lease

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hermit crab changing shells ((c) Jeffrey Hamilton)

What happens if you need to break a lease on a home or apartment? Is your credit doomed to destruction? Maybe, or maybe not. It depends in part on how you handle it.

There are numerous reasons why individuals want to get out of a lease before it's up. Here are three recent stories from the Credit.com blog:

I was under old management contract and then the apartment got bought out and the new management is horrible. I wanted to break lease but the fee is 2 months rent! I just can't afford that. I wanted to just move out hand them the keys and say sorry I am not paying to break my lease, what would happen?

I bought a self test mold kit and it came up with mold. I spoke to my land lord and she said yes I can break out of my lease. They got a specialist in and found no mold. She has no negated on that and telling me I must pay to break my lease early as I had already setup a new place. If I refuse to pay the $522 will her verbal say so stand up if they take me to court or collections.

I broke my lease with my former landlord in mid-April. I got a phone call about cleaning and damages two weeks later and the manager stated she would send me an itemized list. I never got one. Imagine my surprise when I got a call from a collection agency today about a $700+ bill from the apartment complex. I paid a $2,038 early termination fee and $600 in deposits. … I am in the middle of a security clearance process and this could jeopardize my clearance.

If you need to get out of your lease, here are seven essential steps.

1. Read your lease

"Read it three times!" says Joel S. Winston, a former deputy attorney general for the state of New Jersey, who practices consumer protection litigation and privacy law for the Winston Law Firm in New York City. He said he recently helped a client terminate a lease after a landlord failed to change the electronic access codes that had been used by previous tenants. The lease should spell out the procedures and penalties for canceling early. "The lease that you signed and that no one reads -- that's going to control how difficult and expensive it will be to break a lease," he says.

In particular, look for details spelling out what happens if you terminate the lease early, including whether you will be held responsible for the entire remaining term of the lease or a lesser amount. (In many states, landlords can't use the fact that you left early as a windfall. They must try to rent the property, but if they can only re-rent it at a lower rate than you were paying you may be required to make up the difference. You may also have to pay for the advertising costs associated with finding a replacement tenant.)

2. Communicate

Let your landlord know what you want to do and why. Some may be more flexible than others. A large property management firm may not be as sympathetic to your financial woes like an individual landlord with whom you have a good relationship. Or an individual landlord may be put in a real bind if he or she can't collect rent for a few months. Try to think of it from their perspective. They have to find and secure a new tenant, which is easier in some cases than others. You may want to help them find that person, but remember it's ultimately their decision whether or not to rent to them.

Just don't make up problems with the property that don't exist in order to try to get out of your current lease, Winston says. "Try to be open and honest and approach your landlord in a nice and friendly manner."

However, if there are problems and you feel the landlord is avoiding fixing them, put them in writing and keep a copy of your complaint for your records.

3. Get it in writing

Make sure you get written confirmation of any changes to the lease. If your landlord says you can move out early with no penalty (or with a smaller penalty), get it in writing. Keep a copy for your records in a safe place where you can easily access it. It won't do you any good if you can't find that information two years later when a collection agency contacts you. Never rely on a verbal agreement -- otherwise it will be your word against theirs. If you end up in collections or in court, the written terms in the lease will likely prevail.

If the landlord won't budge, won't put anything in writing, or won't compromise, you can still create your own paper trail by communicating in writing and keeping a record of the letters you sent.

4. Don't forget the walk-through

No matter how anxious you are to move out, you should protect yourself from unexpected charges for damages to the property by doing a walk-through with your landlord and getting a written record of the results. If at all possible, don't leave until you do. If your landlord refuses, take detailed pictures -- or, better yet, a video -- of the status of the property the day you leave.

5. Don't assume

Do not assume your security deposit will take care of any remaining balance that you owe. "When you are breaching the contract, it doesn't always entitle the landlord to scoop up your security deposit. For example, in New York the landlord has to go to the housing court to file a complaint in order to take that," Winston says.

Similarly, don't assume that if you pay your portion of the rent on time, but your roommate does not, that you are off the hook. If you both signed the lease you are both fully responsible for the entire rent, regardless of what the two of you have worked out between yourselves. In addition, if your roommate causes damage to the property and doesn't pay for it, you may be stuck holding the bag.

6. Exceptions to the rules

You may have legitimate reasons for breaking a lease that aren't spelled out in a lease -- safety or health reasons, for example.

"Essentially, the 'warranty of habitability' is a landlord-tenant legal doctrine requiring landlords to maintain rental real estate in reasonable conditions that are fit for tenants to live safely," explains Winston. "The warranty of habitability is accepted law in most every jurisdiction in America. In some states, the warranty has been established by decades of case law (i.e., Implied Warranty). But in other states, the warranty has been expressly established by legislation."

There may be state-specific laws that allow you to break a lease early. For example, in Washington state one of the legitimate reasons for terminating a lease include when a landlord fails to make certain types of repairs within a specific period of time. But mold, as our reader mentioned, doesn't appear to be one of those specific circumstances. In New York, tenants age 62 or older (or their spouses) who qualify because their physicians certify that they are no longer able to live independently may be able to terminate their leases.

And members of the military may be entitled to break their leases early due to deployment, permanent change-of-station orders, release from active-duty orders, and other specific circumstances.

7. Get help

Landlord-tenant laws are state-specific. So it's a good idea to research your rights as a tenant. If you believe a landlord's actions may be illegal, you may be able to get help from Legal Aid, a local housing agency, or a consumer protection attorney in your state.

Understand that even if you do everything right, problems can arise. Perhaps like our reader's story above illustrates, an unknown balance can wind up in collections and you may not hear about it until the damage to your credit scores is done. Or the fact that you terminated your lease early may wind up reported to specialty credit-reporting agencies used by landlords and catch you by surprise the next time you try to rent.

For that reason keep good records of what transpired long after you think you'll need them (seven years is usually safe). Also, review your free annual credit reports and get your free credit scores frequently to make sure you're aware of any significant changes. You can get two free credit scores updated monthly at Credit.com.

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This article was written by Gerri Detweiler and originally published on Credit.com.

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