The Landlord-Tenant Act allows only four reasons for breaking a lease during the term. They are:
There may be any number of other serious reasons renters choose to break their lease, including: health reasons, irreconcilable problems with neighbors or management, noise problems, and concerns about safety or security. As serious as these problems may be, the Landlord Tenant Act does not explicitly allow tenants to break their lease for these reasons. Tenants may still negotiate with their landlords to be released from their leases early. The best protection for tenants breaking their leases is to get something in writing and signed by the landlord agreeing upon a mutual termination of the lease that releases the tenant from any further financial obligation and guarantees a return of the deposit according to the terms set out in the lease. It is up to each individual tenant to try and negotiate with their landlord. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney to review the terms of the agreement and provide legal advice on how to proceed. This may be difficult because landlords often don’t have a financial incentive to release tenants from leases and are not required to do so.
If a tenant breaks a lease, the landlord can mitigate their damages by continuing to charge the tenant rent until they’re able to re-rent the unit. If a landlord has to re-rent the unit at a lower amount than what is stated in the lease, the tenant can be charged the difference for the remainder of the lease period. The landlord can also charge for actual advertising costs, though there is no specific standard for how much they can charge, beyond the cost of mitigating the damages (RCW 59.18.310). Instead of, or in addition to, continuing to charge rent, they may attempt to withhold the tenant’s deposit or charge them a termination fee.
Read your lease carefully to see if it includes a termination fee or specific forfeiture of your deposit for breaking your lease. Remember, RCW 59.18.310 requires the landlord only to mitigate the damages caused when the tenant broke their lease. Damages include any lost rent and the cost of advertising the unit for re-rental. If your landlord tries to charge you more than their actual damages, or continues to charge you rent in addition to taking your deposit or charging you a termination fee, you could argue that the landlord is attempting to penalize you. The law does not allow landlords to penalize tenants above and beyond the mitigation of damages for loss of rent due to a tenant’s breaking the lease. However, it is unclear how the courts will interpret this law. Speak to an attorney for more information and advice on your specific situation.
Some tenants will try to work with the landlord to advertise the unit themselves and find a replacement renter before vacating the unit. Tenants can then request the landlord screen the replacement, and if the landlord is willing to rent to them, they can sign a new lease. The new tenant can pay the prorated amount of rent for the month the old tenant wants to move out, and then the new tenant can begin making rent payments for the following month to the landlord. This is not subletting, because the lease is strictly between the new renter and the landlord. A sublet is a lease between the original tenant on the lease and a new tenant living in the unit. Most rental agreements prohibit subleases. It is still a good idea to have a written agreement with the landlord that the old tenant will be released from the lease under no penalty, though the landlord is not required to sign such a document.
Watch a video from Northwest Justice Project on Breaking a Rental Agreement:
Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.