Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in Colorado when they can’t, what options they have if they don’t have a proper cause, and what the consequences are of walking out on a lease agreement.
Importance of Fixed Periods in Lease Agreements
Without a fixed period, a landlord generally has the same rights as the tenant to terminate tenancy (with proper notice). In the same way that a landlord lacks long-term security on a month-to-month (or shorter period) lease if a tenant decides to leave, tenants lack the same security if the landlord decides to change the terms (i.e. raise the rent) or end the lease altogether.
That’s why fixed periods are an important protection for both parties. They’re not just there to act as a restriction to tenants.
As a result, there are real legal consequences for violating the agreement without proper cause on either side. It’s important to understand when a tenant can get out a lease with a fixed period that hasn’t ended, and when a tenant can’t.
Lease Termination Notice Requirements in Colorado
In Colorado, a tenant is not required to provide notice for fixed end date leases, the lease expires on the last day of the lease (C.R.S. 13-40-107-4). All of the remaining lease terms require written notice based on their length:
- Notice to terminate a 1 week or less lease. 1 day (C.R.S. 13-40-107-1e)
- Notice to terminate a 1 week to 1-month lease. 3 days (C.R.S. 13-40-107-1d)
- Notice to terminate a 1-6 month lease. 7 days (C.R.S. 13-40-107-1c)
- Notice to terminate a 6-12 month lease. 28 days (C.R.S. 13-40-107-1b)
- Notice to terminate a yearly lease with no end date. 91 days written notice (C.R.S. 13-40-107-1a). These do not have a fixed date, they renew yearly.
Conditions for Legally Breaking a Lease in Colorado
There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in Colorado without penalty. We’ll go through each of them below.
1. Early Termination Clause
Some modern lease agreements may provide specific terms that would allow a tenant to terminate a lease early in exchange for a penalty fee. Read over the lease and look for language that outlines agreed-upon terms for ending the lease before the end of the fixed period, such as the amount of the fee (i.e. equal to 2 month’s rent) and the amount of notice required (i.e. 30 days).
If a lease agreement contains an early termination clause, before executing it and paying the penalty fee, read further to learn about other conditions that, if met, would not require a penalty fee to be paid.
2. Active Military Duty
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) helps protect active service members who are relocated due to deployment or permanent change of station. The protection begins on the date of entering duty and ends between 30-90 days after the date of discharge.
To break a lease in accordance with the relief act, a tenant must:
- Prove the lease was signed before entering active duty
- Prove they will remain on active duty for at least the next 90 days
- Deliver a written notice to the landlord (example, page 2), accompanied by a copy of the orders to deploy / PCS or a letter from their commanding officer stating their pending deployment.
With that said, the lease does not terminate immediately. Once the notice is delivered, the earliest the lease can terminate is 30 days after the beginning of the next rent period. So for example, if the notice was delivered on the 23rd of March, and the rent is due on the 1st of each month, the earliest the lease can terminate is May 1st (meaning, rent is still due for the month of April).
In Colorado, the term “servicemember” means a member of the armed forces, commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard. You must give your landlord written notice of your intent to terminate your tenancy for military reasons. Once the notice is mailed or delivered, your tenancy will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months before your lease expires.
3. Unit is Uninhabitable
Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and Colorado is no different.
If those standards are not met, proper notice is given by the tenant and the repairs/fixes are still not made within the allowable time period, a tenant would be considered “constructively evicted”. As a result, the obligations of the tenant under the lease are no longer required, given that the landlord has not met their own responsibilities under the Colorado landlord-tenant law. According to C.R.S. 38-12-505, landlord duties to provide habitable premises include the following:
- Waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls maintained in good working order, including unbroken windows and doors
- Plumbing or gas facilities that conformed to applicable law in effect at the time of installation and that are maintained in good working order
- Running water and reasonable amounts of hot water at all times furnished to appropriate fixtures and connected to a sewage disposal system approved under applicable law
- Functioning heating facilities that conformed to applicable law at the time of installation and that are maintained in good working order
- Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed to applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order
- Common areas and areas under the control of the landlord that are kept reasonably clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, and garbage and that have appropriate extermination in response to the infestation of rodents or vermin
- Appropriate extermination in response to the infestation of rodents or vermin throughout a residential premise
- An adequate number of appropriate exterior receptacles for garbage and rubbish, in good repair
- Floors, stairways, and railings maintained in good repair
- Locks on all exterior doors and locks or security devices on windows designed to be opened that are maintained in good working order
- Compliance with all applicable building, housing, and health codes, which, if violated, would constitute a condition that is dangerous or hazardous to a tenant’s life, health, or safety
No deficiency in the common area shall render a residential premise uninhabitable as set forth in this section unless it materially and substantially limits the tenant’s use of his or her dwelling unit.
4. Landlord Harassment or Privacy Violation
If the action is serious enough, harassment by a landlord or their violation of a tenant’s privacy may be enough justification for relieving a tenant of their obligations of the lease.
- Landlord entry.Colorado state law does not specify an amount of notice your landlord must give to enter a rental property.
- Changing the locks. In some states, if the locks are changed by a landlord without the tenant’s permission or without the protection of specific language in the lease agreement, this can qualify as being “constructively evicted”, and could relieve the tenant of their duties of the lease. In Colorado, lockouts are not allowed, and if a landlord changes the locks the tenant can sue for damages (C.R.S. 38-12-510)
5. Violation of Lease Agreement
If a landlord violates the terms of the lease agreement, it may be enough justification to break the lease and relieve the tenant from their own obligations (i.e. illegally raising the rent during the fixed period). Because each lease agreement is different, carefully read over the duties and requirements for both parties to understand if a violation has been made, and whether or not there is language describing how certain violations are to be handled.
6. Illegal Contract
In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal in the state of Colorado, and as a result, are generally not enforceable.
- Over 1-year lease without a description of the property. For a written lease agreement with a fixed period of greater than 1 year to be valid in Colorado, it needs to have a clear description of the leased property.
- Illegal units. The definition of what constitutes an illegal rental unit can vary by location and isn’t always entirely clear. On the state level, Colorado does not appear to have clear information on what defines a legal rental unit.
7. Domestic Violence
Many states protect tenants who are victims of domestic violence. If you are confronting a domestic violence situation (this can also be stalking), and want to move, check with local law enforcement regarding special state laws that may apply in domestic violence situations. Some statutes the state of Colorado provides for victims of domestic violence include:
- Termination of Lease. A landlord cannot terminate the lease of a victim of domestic violence (C.R.S. 13-40-107.5-c).
- Proof of Status. A landlord may require proof of domestic violence status (C.R.S. 38-12-402-2).
- Protection from termination. A landlord shall not include in a residential rental agreement or lease agreement for housing a provision authorizing the landlord to terminate the agreement or to impose a penalty on a residential tenant for calls made by the residential tenant for peace officer assistance or other emergency assistance in response to a domestic violence or domestic abuse situation (C.R.S. 38-12-402-1).
8. Gas-Related Hazards
If you become aware of any hazardous condition of a gas appliance, piping, or other gas equipment, you are required under Colorado law to immediately inform your landlord or the landlord’s agent in writing of the existence of the hazard. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-12-104(2).) Your landlord then has 72 hours (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays) to have the condition repaired by a professional. If the landlord doesn’t make the repairs within 72 hours, and your building is still hazardous, you can vacate the rental, and your lease becomes void (you are released from all responsibility under a lease). You can also demand the return of your security deposit (minus any allowable deductions), Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-12-104(3)-(4).
9. You or a Co-Tenant Face a Health Crisis
If you, a dependent living with you, or your co-tenant, face a serious physical or mental health issue you may qualify for early lease termination without obligation to pay the entire balance of rent due. Some states offer permitted, health-related lease-breaking arrangements that are age-restricted. Most states require a note from a locally licensed physician and at least 30 days’ notice. Since not all states allow this statute, be sure to check the Colorado Landlord and Tenant Handbook for further information.
Note About Illegal Retaliation in Colorado
In July of 2019, House Bill 346 (which became § 44-7-24) went into effect providing tenants with protection against landlords that retaliate to actions such as giving the notice to make repairs or reporting to governmental entities about violations in building or housing codes. The bill does not state that these types of illegal retaliation are enough justification for lease termination, but the bill does allow for a sizable penalty against the landlord if they’re found in violation (1 month’s rent + legal fees + $500), which could help offset the costs of penalty fees associated with early termination.
In Colorado, landlord retaliation is judged under section C.R.S. 38-12-509.
Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking
The below reasons are generally not enough justification (on their own) to release a tenant from the obligation of their lease term, and as a result, provide no legal protection against penalties for not honoring the lease.
- They bought a house
- They are relocating for a new job or school
- They are upgrading or downgrading
- They are moving in with a partner
- They are moving to be closer to family
Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons or in any conditions not previously outlined can have tangible consequences for tenants.
Tenant’s Options if Legal Justification is Not Met
If the previously stated legal conditions are not met, there are still a few options that a tenant has that could allow for them to not be obligated to pay rent until the end of the fixed period.
Talk with the landlord
Some landlords may be understanding and willing to negotiate with a tenant. Every situation is different, and every landlord is different. A tenant’s best chance at getting a landlord to work with them is, to be honest about the reasons for leaving, to provide as much notice as possible, and to propose possible resolutions that could be mutually beneficial (i.e. by paying 2 month’s rent).
Aid in finding a new tenant
If the tenant moves out before the end of the fixed period, they are still required to pay rent until the end of the period until a new tenant is found. During that remainder period, the landlord is required to make reasonable effort to find a new tenant (if they don’t, the previous tenant is not responsible for future rent).
Therefore, the previous tenant may choose to be proactive and help to find a new tenant on their own, instead of waiting for the landlord to find one. The landlord does not have to accept the newly found tenant if they have reasonable justification (i.e. they have bad credit or rental history), but helping to find a new tenant can only help increase a tenant’s chances of being relieved of future rent.
In many states, landlords have to make a reasonable attempt to rerent the dwelling and, if they are successful in rerenting, credit rent received from the new tenant to your debt. Unfortunately, an old case in Colorado imposes this duty on commercial landlords (Schneiker v. Gordon, 732 P.2d 603 (Colo. 1987)), but not to landlords renting residential property. However, over the years, courts in many counties and cities have required landlords to rent their property reasonably quickly, keeping their losses to a minimum.
If your lease does not prohibit subletting, then you are in the clear to do so. However, your lease might contain a clause requiring you to obtain your landlord’s approval prior to subletting. To get landlord approval you will want to send them a letter through certified mail, with a return receipt requested, outlining the terms of the sublet lease agreement. Certified mail is the only proof of delivery that most courts will accept in case you need to prove that you notified your landlord.
Consequences of Illegal Lease Breaking
If a tenant breaks a lease without mutual agreement from the landlord or without the proper legal justification and does not pay the rent due for the remainder of the fixed period, the tenant faces the following consequences.
- Loss of security deposit. Usually, at a minimum, a landlord may choose to withhold the security deposit.
- Lawsuit. A landlord may sue the tenant for unpaid rent during the fixed period, which if won, could result in the tenant facing a money judgment. That judgment, if not paid on the spot or if terms are not set for a long-term payment plan, could result in the garnishment of the tenant’s wages or bank account.
- Impact on credit score. While a money judgment won’t show up on a tenant’s credit report (thanks to the National Consumer Assistance Plan), if the landlord chooses to go an alternative route to collecting on unpaid rent by using a debt collection agency, the tenant’s credit score could be severely impacted.
- Difficulty in finding future housing. Whether or not a tenant provides the landlord’s name & contact information themselves when looking to buy or rent in the future, a background check will most likely provide the future landlord or mortgage lender with that information. That previous landlord could provide a very negative reference.
Other Resources for Colorado Landlords & Tenants
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