A lease is a binding contract. Like all other contracts, it is not designed to be easily broken. Other than a few specific situations—such as when a landlord shuts off utilities, or military deployment—Texas law doesn’t allow tenants to end a lease without going to court. If a renter has to leave their unit before the lease is up, landlords are required to look for a replacement tenant rather than letting the apartment sit empty to try (hopefully reducing the amount of damages the original tenant has to pay).
Leases can always be ended by mutual agreement
Before Texas tenants involve the court system in trying to break a lease, the best move may be to simply speak to the landlord. While leases are binding contracts, they can be ended at any time if both the landlord and tenant agree to it (typically in writing). A tenant who needs to move and is willing to work with their landlord to find a replacement may be able to negotiate a mutually acceptable way to end a lease.
Leases can contain certain fees for early termination
Texas courts allow landlords to charge so-called “reletting fees,” which are the landlord’s costs resulting from an early lease termination.1 While there is no specific Texas law governing how much these fees can be, excessive fees unrelated to actual early termination expenses may be struck down by a court. Tenants should consult a lawyer if they feel their lease contains an abnormally high penalty for early termination.
Tenants can terminate a lease when their rental is unlivable
Unlike many states, Texas law actually allows a tenant to unilaterally end a lease when a landlord has failed to keep the rental unit in good shape.2 This happens when they breach something called the “warranty of habitability.” If a landlord doesn’t repair the breach within a reasonable period of time—typically seven days in Texas—a tenant can legally terminate their lease.
Victims of domestic violence can terminate their lease
Texas law allows victims of domestic violence to unilaterally end their lease.3 A tenant who has been the victim of domestic violence should obtain either a court document, such as an order of protection, or a letter from a healthcare provider or advocate for victims of domestic violence, and provide that documentation to their landlord along with a notice that the tenant seeks to end the lease. If the abuser doesn't live with the tenant, the tenant must give the landlord at least 30 days’ notice before terminating the lease. Otherwise, the tenant can leave immediately.
Tenants who follow this procedure are not liable for future rent. Also, any unpaid rent accrued to that point will be wiped clean, meaning the tenant will not have to pay any back rent owed.
These provisions also apply to tenants who are the victims of stalking offenses, or sexual assault, or who are the parents or legal guardians of such victims.4
Tenants can also break a lease their roommate assaults them
Texas’ definition of “family violence” is pretty broad—it includes everyone who lives in the same household, even if they’re not actually related.5 That means the same protections apply to tenants who are the victim of a violent crime committed by their roommate as to those who are the victim of a violent crime committed by their spouse.
Deployed or reassigned service members can terminate a lease
Tenants in Texas who are members of the military have very strong rights, even stronger than those under the national law, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. If a tenant (or a tenant’s legal dependent) is a member of the military who is either reassigned to a new base or deployed to a new location for more than 90 days, they may break a lease unilaterally.6 The tenant or dependent must provide a landlord with a copy of the official military orders and a written notice that they are moving out. The lease is then immediately terminated, and the tenant has a right to a refund of any prepaid rent for time in which they will not be living in the unit.
Tenants can terminate a lease when a landlord cuts off utilities, or locks them out
If a landlord cuts off a tenant’s utilities—such as water, heat, or electric—the tenant has a right to unilaterally cancel a lease.7 The same is true if a landlord removes a window, door, appliance, or fixture for any purpose other than a repair (in which case a replacement must be provided). A tenant can also terminate their lease if a landlord changes the locks on their rental for any reason other than nonpayment of rent. Even then, the landlord must provide a tenant with the ability to quickly get a new key, regardless of payment.8
The law is strict in these cases and doesn’t require the tenant to provide any notice to the landlord (although it’s best practice to do so). The landlord’s only defense is that they shut off the utilities for a legitimate reason, such as construction or maintenance.
Landlords must look for a replacement if a tenant vacates early
Texas courts recognize a so-called “duty to mitigate.”9 This means that if a tenant terminates a lease early and vacates a rental unit, the landlord has a duty to try and rent out that unit to a new tenant. If the landlord doesn’t attempt to find a replacement tenant, they can’t sue the vacating tenant for the unpaid rent. Note that a landlord does not have a duty to actually find a new tenant—only to perform a diligent search for one.10
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.