Under Massachusetts law, if a landlord isn’t making necessary repairs and the rental unit becomes unlivable, a tenant can automatically terminate their lease. However, the tenant must follow strict guidelines and allow a landlord the chance to fix the problem. In addition, tenants in a handful of specific scenarios—for example, victims of domestic violence—can also end leases early without penalties in Massachusetts
Tenants and landlords can negotiate ending a lease
There are a lot of reasons a tenant may want to break a lease, and a lot of them aren't related to a problem with the rental unit or the landlord. A tenant may secure a new job, get married, or simply find a new apartment that works better for their needs. In these cases, the best way to end a lease is to reach out to a landlord and work out a deal.
Tenants should reach out to their landlord as soon as they think they may need to end a lease early. They should also work to find a replacement tenant who would be willing to sign a new lease. Landlords and tenants can also negotiate a lease break fee, if one is not included in the lease.
Tenants can end a lease when a unit becomes uninhabitable
In Massachusetts, as in all other states, landlords are required to keep their units safe and livable. This legal guarantee is known as the “warranty of habitability.” (In Massachusetts, it’s been established both by court cases1 and statutory law.2)
To abide by the warranty, landlords must make sure their rental units meet all state and local building codes and don’t threaten the health, well-being, and safety of a tenant in any way. More specifically, landlords are required to provide tenants with heat, hot water, access to electricity, and gas, and, in some cases, with regular cleaning of an apartment building.3
If a rental unit doesn’t meet these standards, the tenant must inform their landlord in writing. The landlord must start repairs within five days of receiving the notice; the repairs must be finished within 14 days of receiving the notice. If the landlord fails to follow this timeline, the tenant may vacate the rental unit and stop paying rent.
Massachusetts also recognizes “constructive eviction”
Theoretically, if a tenant followed the procedure laid out in the previous section, they’ve already terminated their lease. But a landlord could refuse to accept that the lease is broken and sue the tenant for unpaid rent even after they moved out. That’s where the concept of “constructive eviction” comes in.4 If a rental unit is uninhabitable (because a landlord won’t make repairs) and a tenant moves out, the tenant can use the condition of their rental as a defense against any lawsuits for unpaid rent. Basically, the tenant can claim in court that they were effectively pushed out of their rental because it was in such bad condition—in other words, they were “constructively evicted.”
Victims of domestic violence have special termination rights
In Massachusetts, victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking may end a lease early. The same is true if a member of a tenant’s household is in reasonable fear of serious physical harm due to domestic violence, rape, stalking, or sexual assault.5
In such a situation, the tenant must notify a landlord in writing of their intention to vacate their rental unit and end the lease. The tenant then has three months to leave the unit—if they wait longer than three months, their notice to the landlord is void. The tenant’s lease will be terminated 30 days, or the next full month’s occupancy, after the tenant vacates the unit, whichever is later. Usually, this means that the tenant will be on the hook for one additional month’s rent, and nothing further.
The tenant is under no obligation to provide proof of domestic violence to the landlord upon initial notice. However, the landlord may demand such proof, at which point the tenant must provide it. The law does not clarify what proof is sufficient, but police reports, orders of protection, medical records, or the statement of a social worker or domestic violence victim’s advocate should be sufficient.
Federal law allows some service members to terminate leases early
As per the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, members of the U.S. armed forces may terminate residential leases if they are deployed to active duty during a lease period, or if they are deployed to a different location for at least 90 days.6 Massachusetts doesn’t expand on these federal rights, unlike some other states.
Landlords have a duty to try and re-rent vacant units
Like most other states, landlords in Massachusetts have a “duty to mitigate.”7 This applies to tenants who are moving out early (and haven’t managed to negotiate an official end to the lease with their landlord). Once a tenant has informed a landlord that they’ve moved out, the landlord must then try, in good faith, to find a replacement tenant. Once the new tenant is found, the original lease is over, and no new rental payments are due from the original tenant. If the landlord fails to try and re-rent the unit—if they just leave it vacant without bothering to advertise—the original tenant isn’t required to keep paying rent during that time.
However, keep in mind that the landlord isn’t legally required to actually re-rent the unit—only to make a reasonable effort to look for a new tenant. If the landlord tries and fails to find a replacement, the old tenant continues to be on the hook to pay rent until their original lease expires.
Lease-break provisions are legal in Massachusetts
Massachusetts law does not stop landlords and tenants from including so-called “lease break provisions” in leases. This type of clause lays out the process for ending a lease early, including the termination fee a tenant will be asked to pay. Note that this does not change any of the above-described duties that landlords have, and does not waive a tenant’s rights to claim constructive eviction.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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