Tenants in every state can break their lease if the landlord doesn’t make timely repairs. In about two-thirds of states, this is available through the regular repair process. A minority of states make tenants go through a court process to break most leases.
What Kinds of Issues Let a Tenant Break Their Lease?
Not all issues with a rental property let tenants break a lease. They can only do so when a landlord fails to fix a required issue after notice. In general, landlords have a legal duty to fix any issues that might cause health and safety problems.
There are exceptions to this general rule. Tenants have to fix damage they themselves cause, as well as damage to things they (rather than the landlord) have provided on the property. Minor issues that don’t threaten health and safety, like worn carpet or a blown light bulb, also don’t allow tenants to break their lease. Landlords can lawfully refuse to fix such things.
How Can Tenants Break a Lease After the Landlord Fails to Repair?
Breaking a lease after the landlord fails to repair depends on the location and terms of the lease.
When breaking a lease, the first and most important place to look is always the lease itself. Many leases provide a process for ending the lease after a violation. Courts generally honor a termination process provided by the lease.
If the lease isn’t specific about termination, the process will depend on state law. Most states let tenants break the lease a certain amount of time after notice. A significant minority require a court process in most cases.
States Which Don’t Require a Court Process To Break a Lease
Roughly two-thirds of U.S. states don’t make tenants go through a court process in order to break a lease.
Such states make termination straightforward. Tenants follow the process described in the law. As long as they meet all requirements, they can treat the lease as ended when they’re done.
The process is easy in most cases. Arizona is a typical example. Tenants request repairs giving (usually written) notice to the landlord, then wait for the period specified in the law. If the landlord hasn’t made repairs in that time, tenants can declare the lease terminated and move out.
States Which Do Require a Court Process To Break a Lease
About a third of U.S. states require a court process for most lease termination.
This doesn’t necessarily mean tenants must sue to break a lease. In many cases they can simply claim a “constructive” eviction and move out. If the landlord then sues demanding payment, tenants can show he failed to act on a substantial habitability issue. The court will then declare the lease terminated due to landlord misconduct.
This is not a risk-free approach. The court may disagree with the tenant’s claim that the landlord failed to fix an important issue. In this case, the tenant may still owe most or all of the rent under the original lease.
Exceptions for Disaster
Some states require a court process to break most leases, but allow exceptions. Tennessee is an example of such a state. These exceptions let tenants sometimes skip the court process after a major event prevents the lease continuing as usual.
Most often, this event must be a disaster that severely damages the dwelling unit. The damage must be enough to destroy the unit or else completely prevent it from being used in a normal way.