Landlord-Tenant Law: Lease Violations

A lease is a legal contract between a landlord and a tenant. The landlord provides the premises for the time period specified in the lease in exchange for the tenant paying rent for that time period. When a landlord and tenant sign a lease, neither party can terminate the agreement before the end of the lease term unless the other party has violated the lease or the other party consents to the termination.

If the tenant has complied with all of the provisions of the lease and the landlord tries to break the lease before the end of the lease term, the tenant can enforce the lease in court or sue for damages. If the tenant hasn’t complied with all of the provisions of the lease, the landlord should follow the eviction procedures required in the landlord’s state to evict the tenant.

If the landlord has complied with all the lease provisions and a tenant simply moves out before the end of the term of the lease, the tenant has violated the lease. The landlord can sue for the remainder of the rent due under the lease. (See Collecting From Tenants Who Move Without Paying in the Learn More … box.) Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether a tenant has left, but if the landlord does decide the tenant has moved out and does not intend to return, the landlord can take possession of the property and re-rent it. In some states landlords have to try to re-rent the property. If the landlord doesn’t try to re-rent the premises to minimize the loss of rent, the landlord may not be permitted to collect unpaid rent from the tenant who moved out.

If the landlord has violated the lease, the tenant may have the right to terminate the lease. However, only major violations will trigger the tenant’s right to terminate. For example, the tenant generally can terminate a lease without penalty if the unit is destroyed or badly damaged by a natural disaster or if the landlord has failed to keep the unit in a livable condition. Some states allow other reasons, such as an elderly person moving to a health care or nursing facility. In any event the tenant should always give the landlord sufficient notice.

In most states, a lease remains in effect even after a tenant dies. The lease simply becomes part of the tenant’s estate from which the remaining rent must be paid. Landlords, however, frequently waive this requirement.

Tenant’s failure to pay rent
When a tenant fails to pay rent, the tenant has violated the terms of the lease. Some landlords provide a grace period for payment of rent, giving a tenant an extra few days to come up with the money. The landlord’s next step should be to request payment. Most states require that the landlord do so in writing or by using a specific form, called a “notice to pay rent or quit.” Once the landlord makes the request and the tenant still doesn’t pay, the landlord can then proceed to court, where the landlord can have the tenant evicted.

Landlord’s failure to maintain the premises
When a landlord rents a residential dwelling, the landlord assumes the responsibility of keeping the premises in good condition so the tenant can use it. Unless the lease specifically requires the tenant to care for and make all repairs to the property, it’s the landlord’s responsibility. This responsibility can include such things as painting the walls when they need it, fixing railings and keeping hallways and other common areas in good condition.

If a landlord doesn’t keep the property in good condition, tenants should notify the landlord in writing about the problem. The tenant can also notify local housing inspectors if a problem persists. In some states, tenants can withhold rent until repairs are made, or make the repairs themselves and withhold the cost of repairs from the rent. If a landlord refuses to maintain the unit in reasonable condition, the tenant can also go to court and seek rent abatement (a reduction in the rent to the amount the rental is actually worth based on the condition of the property). If a landlord keeps a rental unit in such bad condition that it isn’t fit to live in, the landlord has violated the lease. The tenant is “constructively evicted” and can leave without fear of owing any more rent.