Worst Case Scenario: What happens when you break a lease?
February 15, 2007 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Worst-Case-Scenario-Filter: What would happen if we broke our lease?

My husband and I are in a situation where our lease is expiring at the end of March and our current landlords aren't renewing it for reasons that have nothing to do with us as tenants. We've potentially found a new place, but said new place requires moving in before the old lease is up.

What would happen if we broke the lease and moved as soon as possible? Would the landlords have the right to sue? Would we be hounded in the night by ravaging packs of dogs?

Assume the worst. These landlords care a lot about money and little to none about propriety. They've been highly unprofessional, dishonest, and downright douche-tastic about the whole ordeal.

(PS: We just found our lease and found that we had never signed an updated version when the building changed owners. Our previous landlady had a month to month lease, but changed it to a year when she put the house on the market. Since we never signed the new version, can we say that the contract is non-binding and move out at the end of the month?)
posted by grapefruitmoon to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANAL, but if you haven't signed a lease that says you're stuck there until March, I can't imagine they could legally force you to pay for March.

That being said, I think the worst case scenario you'll be facing is that your landlord might rattle some sort of legal saber that involves making you pay for March. If they're anything like the landlords I have experience with, they'll probably also figure out some way to avoid returning your deposit (if you made a deposit).

Whether you throw up your hands and give them an extra month's rent depends on you, but if they're as huge of douches as you claim, they'll probably ask for it because they have nothing to lose and some petty dollars to gain. If you have a lawyer friend you may want to consult them since I think these things vary by state and city.
posted by crinklebat at 10:49 PM on February 15, 2007

According to your profile, you're in Providence RI. Anecdotally, my worst landlord experience ever was in Providence ten years ago. Ooooh, the sleaze.

When you moved in, did you give the landlord the last month's rent PLUS security deposit? If so, then you can move and he'll almost certainly keep both. (ok, my cynicism about crooked Providence landlords) He won't come after you for more than that, though, I would guess.

If you only gave the landlord security deposit, you can be pretty well assured of not seeing that money again. You can move, and worst case scenario, the landlord will take you to court to force you to pay one extra month's rent. Then it will be up to the judge and RI state law. Some states have tenant-favoring laws, some have landlord-favoring laws, about things like month-to-month leases.

The answer is probably in The Rhode Island Landlord-Tenant Handbook (that link is PDF). More resources here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:02 PM on February 15, 2007

Copying out what seem to me (IANAL) to be the relevant sections of the handbook linked above:
The landlord or the tenant may end a week-to-week oral or written rental agreement (tenancy) by
sending a written notice (like the copy of section 56c in the appendix) by first class (regular) mail to the
other party. It must be postmarked more than ten days before the specified termination date. A month to
month tenancy or any periodic (specified time) tenancy of more than a month but less than a year may be
terminated by the same type of notice (section 56c) mailed first class, and postmarked more than 30 days
before the given termination date. A year-to-year tenancy can be terminated by the aforementioned
notice, mailed first class, and postmarked more than three months before the end of the year's term.
A bit about what money you are entitled to get back. (My experience was that the landlord kept the whole deposit, after legal threats sent a faked-up list of damage to the apt, and basically dared us to take the trouble to take him to court; we had moved away, so couldn't. Take photos as you're moving out, to show that you didn't damage the place.):
A landlord can take a security deposit from a tenant at the beginning of a new rental term but it
cannot exceed one month's rent. Taking a greater sum subjects the landlord to a possible suit under
section 56f of the "Act". The deposit must be returned within twenty days after the tenant gives proper
notice, moves out, returns the key, and provides a forwarding address. When returning the deposit, the
landlord must send the tenant an itemized notice listing any legal deductions withheld from the money
being returned. Such deductions can only be for unpaid rent (not future rent that might be legally owed),
and physical damages other than ordinary wear and tear.
If the landlord fails to comply with the law concerning the return of a security deposit, the court
may require a damage payment to the tenant of twice the amount illegally withheld, plus attorney fees.
When rental property is sold, security money should be transferred to the new owner since it is this
individual who will be held legally responsible for the return of funds when the tenant moves.
Separate amounts of money can be requested from a new tenant for prepaid rents, etc. Since the
State law does not specifically govern such payments, disputes must be settled in Small Claims Court or
through a civil court action like any other monetary dispute or by bringing an action in the local district
court by filling out and submitting a Landlord-Tenant Complaint form (see section 56f under form titles
in appendix).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:14 PM on February 15, 2007

I think you have to give notice equivalent to the frequency that you pay rent, in the case where there's no current lease. So ask if you can move out sooner, but give your 30 now. At the very least it'll reduce the amount of rent you have to pay for the last month. And definitely document your move out with lots of pictures and notes.
posted by electroboy at 5:34 AM on February 16, 2007

Some people just don't pay the last month's rent and let the security deposit cover it. Landlords hate this, naturally, but if it seems likely that they're going to keep the deposit no matter what (which is what one expects of douchebag landlords), it's a way of keeping money that you deserve and they don't out of their hands.
posted by languagehat at 6:10 AM on February 16, 2007

Assume the worst. These landlords care a lot about money

Actually, that's not the worst. The worst is if you've done something to make them angry, and they are vengeful. In that case, if you do what languagehat suggests, they will hire a lawyer, get a judgment against you for a lien, garnish your wages, and totally ruin your credit for the next seven years.

It will cost them considerably more money than they'll recover in order to ruin your lives this way. So if you really believe that their main motivation is money, you're safe from it.

Not having signed the replacement lease doesn't necessarily cover you. In many places there are clauses in the original lease (which you signed), or in rental law, about how if you continue to live in the apartment after the lease expires, and you pay your rent, you're implicitly consenting to the terms of the new lease agreement. "But that would never hold up in court!" Maybe not - but you'd have to go to court to find out.

In general if you get out and leave the place clean and in good order, most landlords will just add you to the list of "stories to tell about shitty tenants at the country club" and let it go.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:56 AM on February 16, 2007

I would talk to your landlord. I've broken a lease early twice, and both times I was able to come to mutually friendly agreements with the landlord. You will have to be willing to invest the legworks to make it happen, though. As a landlord, all they want is someone in the place paying rent who probably won't destroy it.

My agreements in the past are "Hey I want to leave early. I will advertise the apartment, show it to people, do pre-screening on prospects, and give you a short list for final veto. When you find someone you like, they sign a new (year) lease with you and I am free to go." I was able to find people within a week or two in both cases and everyone was happy.
posted by morallybass at 1:10 PM on February 16, 2007

Thanks for the handbook, LobsterMitten. They certainly didn't give us three months notice, so I'm going to try and push the case for using the security deposit as the last month's rent.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:20 PM on February 16, 2007

morallybass: Oh, were it that easy.

They want the place *empty* for renovations and we're willing to be out two weeks early, but they won't let us out of the lease, despite the fact that they're not going to rent the place. We've already tried discussing this reasonably.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:22 PM on February 16, 2007

Well, they can't do major cosmetic renovations if you're paying the rent and you don't want them to. They can't kick you out of an apartment you're renting without compensating you. Look in the handbook about this. Also double-check under "abandonment" (be sure you don't qualify) and under the situations where the landlord is allowed access to the apartment. Maybe you could point this fact out to them, maybe allowing you to come to a 50/50 solution?

The danger of course is that if you try to play hardball they can (illegally) mess with your stuff out of spite, causing you huge headaches to repair/replace/sue to recoup costs. That's what a crazy spiteful landlord could do. (If you have one of those, arrange to move all your stuff in one big whack on one day.) A greedy, rational landlord would probably not mess with your stuff, though.

Good luck!
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:14 PM on February 16, 2007

You're talking about 1 month of rent. Do not pay rent for March; use the security deposit. Leave the place spotless. Even if they say it's okay not to clean, pay no attention. Anything that is not in writing or photographs doesn't count. Take pictures. If they owe you money that is greater than the rent for March, and don't pay it, take them to small claims court. You're likely to be screwed for the month of March, unless a lawyer looks at the lease and advises otherwise. There is almost certainly a tenant's advocate at the Legal Aid organization in your city or state. Go over and verify that the space is unused after you leave. If they start renovations early, you have a reasonable case to get back some rent. Small claims court is easier than you think, especially if you can document that you have behaved reasonably. IAAL (I am a landlord.) People always use the security deposit for the last month, and, yes, I hate it, because people often cause real damage and filth, although many do not.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on February 17, 2007

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