Breaking a Lease in North Carolina

Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in North Carolina, when they can’t, and whether or not a landlord is required by North Carolina law to make reasonable effort to rerent.

Before we address the legally acceptable reasons to get out a lease early without penalty, it’s important to know the notice requirements in North Carolina to end a tenancy in general.

Lease Termination Notice Requirements in North Carolina

In North Carolina, a tenant is not required to provide notice for fixed end date leases. North Carolina tenants have to provide written notice for the following lease term:

  • Notice to terminate a week-to-week lease. 2 days (NCGS § 42-14)
  • Notice to terminate a month-to-month lease. 7 days (NCGS § 42-14)
  • Notice to terminate a yearly lease with no end date. One month or more before the end of the current year of the tenancy. (NCGS § 42-14)

Conditions for Legally Breaking a Lease in North Carolina

There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in North Carolina 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).

NOTE

In North Carolina, 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.

3. Unit is Uninhabitable

Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and North Carolina 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 North Carolina landlord-tenant law.

According to North Carolina state law, landlord duties to provide habitable premises include the following (§ 42-42):

  • Compliance. Comply with the current applicable building and housing codes, whether enacted before or after October 1, 1977, to the extent required by the operation of such codes; no new requirement is imposed by this subdivision if a structure is exempt from a current building code.
  • Repair. Make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.
  • Common Areas. Keep all common areas of the premises in a safe condition.
  • Maintenance. Maintain in good and safe working order and promptly repair all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and other facilities and appliances supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord provided that notification of needed repairs is made to the landlord in writing by the tenant, except in emergency situations.
  • Smoke Alarms. The landlord shall ensure that a smoke alarm is operable and in good repair at the beginning of each tenancy.
  • Contaminants. If the landlord is charging for the cost of providing water or sewer service pursuant to G.S. 42-42.1 and has actual knowledge from either the supplying water system or other reliable source that water being supplied to tenants within the landlord’s property exceeds a maximum contaminant level established pursuant to Article 10 of Chapter 130A of the General Statutes, provide notice that water being supplied exceeds a maximum contaminant level.
  • Carbon Monoxide Alarm. Provide a minimum of one operable carbon monoxide alarm per rental unit per level.
  • Imminently dangerous condition. Within a reasonable period of time and based upon the severity of the condition, repair or remedy any imminently dangerous condition on the premises after acquiring actual knowledge or receiving notice of the condition. The term “imminently dangerous condition” means any of the following (c. 770, s. 1; 1995, c. 111, s. 2; 1998-212, s. 17.16(i); 2004-143, s. 3; 2008-219, ss. 2, 6; 2009-279, s. 3; 2010-97, s. 6(a); 2012-92, s. 1.):
    • Unsafe wiring.
    • Unsafe flooring or steps.
    • Unsafe ceilings or roofs.
    • Unsafe chimneys or flues.
    • Lack of potable water.
    • Lack of operable locks on all doors leading to the outside.
    • Broken windows or lack of operable locks on all windows on the ground level.
    • Lack of operable heating facilities capable of heating living areas to 65 degrees Fahrenheit when it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside from November 1 through March 31.
    • Lack of an operable toilet.
    • Lack of an operable bathtub or shower.
    • Rat infestation as a result of defects in the structure that make the premises not impervious to rodents.
    • Excessive standing water, sewage, or flooding problems caused by plumbing leaks or inadequate drainage that contribute to mosquito infestation or mold.

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. In North Carolina, there is no statute for landlord entry, however, 24 hours notice is recommended.
  • 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 North Carolina, landlords are not allowed to lockout tenants (NCGS § 42-25.9).

5. Domestic Violence

North Carolina provides tenants who are victims of domestic violence with special rental provisions for their protection. 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 North Carolina provides for victims of domestic violence include:

  • Proof of Status. The landlord is entitled to verify the claim of Domestic Violence status. (NCGS § 42-42.2)
  • Protection from Termination. The landlord cannot terminate a tenancy, fail to renew a tenancy, or refuse to enter into a rental agreement with a victim of domestic violence. (NCGS § 42-42.2)
  • Early Termination Rights. A tenant is allowed to terminate a lease with 30 days written notice and proof of Domestic Violence status. (NCGS § 42-45.1)
  • Locks. Upon request, the landlord must change or re-key the locks, or give the tenant permission to do so, at the tenant’s expense within 48 hours if the perpetrator does not live in the same dwelling unit as the victim, and 72 hours if the perpetrator lives in the dwelling unit. If a landlord fails to change the locks within 48 hours, a tenant may do so but must give a copy of the keys to the landlord within 48 hours. (NCGS § 42-42.3)

Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking in North Carolina

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

Since state landlord-tenant laws vary, the following reasons may legally permit a tenant to terminate their tenancy early in other states but are not applicable in North Carolina:

  • Violation of the 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).
  • Illegal contract. In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal and as a result, is generally not enforceable.
  • Mandatory disclosures. Many state and local laws require landlords to disclose documentation, policies, or specific unit information to tenants prior to moving in. Disclosure laws typically impose heavy fines or legal ramifications to landlords if they are not followed. In rare cases, they contain penalty provisions and may allow you to break your lease.
  • Senior citizen or health issue. Some states offer age or health-related lease-breaking arrangements that permit early lease termination.

Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons or in any conditions not previously outlined can have tangible consequences for tenants.

TIP

North Carolina state law does not require landlords to take reasonable steps to rerent their unit when a tenant breaks their lease.

Tenant’s Right to Sublet in North Carolina

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 proof that you notified your landlord.

The letter should include the following information:

  • Sublet term
  • Name of proposed subtenant or assignee
  • The permanent home address of proposed subtenant or assignee
  • Your reason for subletting or leaving permanently
  • Your new address during the sublease if applicable
  • The written consent of any co‑tenant
  • A copy of the proposed sublease

If your landlord rejects your request, know that they can only refuse the proposed subtenant based on legitimate factors. The law says your landlord cannot unreasonably refuse your sublet.

Additional Resources for North Carolina Tenants & Landlords: