Life happens, and change is inevitable.
For most landlords, that means there will come a time when a tenant is either unwilling or unable to fulfill the terms of his or her rental-lease agreement.
From a tenant’s perspective, needing to move before the expiration of a lease can result from a new job out of state, changes in a relationship status or a loss of income, to name a few causes.
Practically speaking, there are usually three outcomes when a tenant decides to break a lease early:
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• The lease contains a buyout clause and the tenant complies with those terms.
• The tenant moves without permission or agreement from the landlord, and the landlord must follow the state’s law regarding “abandonment” (RCW 59.18.310).
• An early-termination agreement is reached between the landlord and that tenant that stipulates terms for ending the tenancy early.
As a tenant, if you find that you have to move before the expiration of your lease, the first thing to do is to check your rental agreement to see if it contains a buyout clause.
Buyout clauses in a lease are typically more common when renting an apartment, where turnover of units is more frequent, than a single-family home or duplex.
If there is a buyout clause in the agreement, completing its requirements will release a tenant without further obligation. Breaking a lease without a buyout clause, however, can be more contentious.
Tenants should be aware that without a buyout clause, the circumstances for which they are entitled to terminate their tenancy without agreement from the landlord are very limited. Those situations include:
• A landlord’s failure to respond to a tenant’s written request for maintenance, per RCW 59.18.070.
• A tenant who is a member of the armed forces, or that tenant’s spouse or dependent, who delivers copies of reassignment or deployment orders to the landlord within seven days of receipt (RCW 59.18.220).
• A tenant who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, unlawful harassment or stalking, and who has a legal protection order or has reported the incident to the authorities (RCW 59.18.575).
When a tenant has, or intends to, break a lease and none of these circumstances apply, it’s at the landlord’s discretion to determine how to proceed.
Terminating a lease before its expiration without permission of the landlord places the tenant within the parameters of abandonment, which is defined as occurring when “the tenant defaults in the payment of rent and reasonably indicates by words or actions the intention not to resume tenancy” (RCW 59.18.310).
Abandonment allows the landlord to hold the tenant liable for all rent accrued during the time it takes to re-rent the unit or until the lease term expires, whichever occurs first. Depending on the time of year and the current market cycle, this could add up to a large amount of money for the tenant to have to pay.
A more palatable option for both parties would be to pursue an early-termination agreement. This would allow the landlord and tenant to avoid future court action and the possibility of collections impacting the tenant’s credit report.
While landlords are not obligated to offer or negotiate such terms, many will be happy to work with the tenant if it means a predictable move-out scenario and an opportunity to begin finding a new tenant before the current tenant leaves.
Sean Martin is the director of external affairs of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a not-for-profit association of more than 5,000 landlord members statewide. Rental Resource is the organization’s biweekly column. For more information for landlords or tenants, visit rhawa.org.