In most rental situations, the end of a tenancy will occur when your lease or rental agreement with a tenant concludes, and the tenant decides to move out. Other situations, such as when you decide not to renew the agreement on your end or either party ends the tenancy early, can be much more complicated from both a logistical and legal standpoint. It is critical to have a good understanding of the laws in your city and state that govern the process of tenants moving out, and also to make sure you have kept good records in the event that you or the tenant takes legal action.
Giving Notice to End a Tenancy
If you decide you do not want to renew a month-to-month rental agreement with a tenant, generally you just need to give the amount of notice specified in the agreement, which is typically 30 days though in some states it is longer. If your tenant has a long term lease with a specified end date, you may not necessarily need to give notice in some states, though it is often beneficial to all parties to give the tenant at least a month or ideally two that you intend to end the lease. If you end the tenancy, be sure to give notice in writing and to do so in accordance with any applicable state or local laws. Be aware that if your rental property is subject to rent control, you are generally quite limited in terms of the reasons for which you can end a tenancy. You also may not decline to extend a lease or rental agreement for discriminatory reasons, or in retaliation for a tenant complaining about or taking legal action regarding their living conditions.
If a tenant informs you that they plan to move at the end of their lease or the end of the next month, require that the tenant give you notice in writing so that if they change their mind after you have already found a new tenant, you have a record of their stated intention to leave. It is generally a good idea to include termination notice requirements in your written rental agreement or lease, or some other document you provide to the tenant, so that they are aware in advance of the required method and time period for giving notice. Note that if you accept rent after a tenant has given notice, this can automatically extend the tenancy and nullify the termination notice. While most tenants intending to move out must give 30 days’ or another amount of notice as specified by law, tenants can give much less notice in situations involving military service. In some states, tenants may also give less notice than is normally required if they are relocating for a job or are a victim of domestic violence.
Early Termination or Refusal to Leave
If you fail to fulfill a significant obligation under your lease or rental agreement, such as ensuring that the rental unit has adequate heat and secure doors and windows such that it meets basic habitability requirements, this can amount to what is known as “constructive eviction.” Though state laws vary, under these circumstances a tenant can generally leave a tenancy early. A tenant may also lawfully leave early if you or any of your employees have committed any sort of invasion of privacy against them, or if their rental unit has been severely damaged or destroyed.
Conversely, if a tenant substantially damages the property or violates the lease or rental agreement in a material way, the landlord can often pursue eviction proceedings, and will be subject to much shorter notice requirements than normal. Similarly, in situations where a tenant refuses to leave the property at the end of a lease, the landlord can evict the tenant.
When a Tenant Breaks a Lease
If a tenant has abandoned their rental unit and you have made sure that they have actually moved out, you are entitled to take possession of the property. If it all possible, it is best to obtain a written confirmation from the tenant that they have moved so that you can re-rent the unit without fear of the old tenant returning and claiming that they never intended to leave permanently.
In most states, if a tenant leaves a lease early, landlords are required to mitigate their losses by seeking a new tenant as soon as possible rather than letting the unit sit empty and suing the old tenant for lost rent. And even if you are not legally required to find a replacement tenant as soon as possible, it is typically in your best interest from a business standpoint to do so. While you are in the process of locating a new tenant, it is important to maintain the same quality standards you used to screen and find the original tenant. It is also advisable to keep good records of your efforts to fill the unit, as well as the costs incurred in the process, in the event that you eventually sue the old tenant to cover those expenses.
Suing a Tenant Who Breaks a Lease
If you decide to pursue a tenant through legal action after they have broken a lease, it is common to wait until you have re-rented the unit to file your lawsuit. This is because at that point all of your costs in terms of lost rent and finding a replacement tenant will be known and ideally documented. However, at that point it may be less worthwhile to pursue the tenant, especially if they are unlikely to have the assets to pay a judgment. Before commencing a lawsuit, you can use the tenant’s security deposit to cover outstanding costs. Depending on the amount at issue, small claims court is often the simplest and most efficient route, though if the amount you plan to seek from the tenant is well above the civil court minimum, it may make more sense to file there.