Can I break my lease before the term of the lease has expired?

Yes, but you will probably be liable to your landlord if he/she loses money because you broke the lease. When you sign a lease, you are agreeing to the provisions of that lease. Some landlords will allow you to break a lease if you give them sufficient notice. In that case, the landlord may just keep your security deposit if there is one. Your lease may also have provisions that allow you to break the lease. A common clause is that a lease may be broken if your job transfers you out of the area. Check the lease carefully to see if there is an escape clause. 

If there is no way to get out of the lease, you may be able to sublet or assign the premises. When you sublet your portion of the lease, someone else (called the subtenant) takes over your lease for a specified period of time, after which you usually return to finish the lease. If, for example, you are planning to go somewhere warmer for the winter, for example, you could sublease your apartment during the months you are gone. During that time, you are still responsible to the landlord if the subtenant breaches the lease. For example, if the subtenant breaches the lease by not paying rent, you may be responsible for the unpaid rent. 

If you do not intend to return to your apartment and you want someone to take over the remainder of the lease, you could assign your interest in the lease. Once you assign your interest in the lease to someone, you are released from all obligations to the landlord. For this reason, assignments must be in writing.  

If your lease does not say anything about subleasing or assignments, then it is allowed. However, many leases require the landlord’s approval before you can sublet or assign, and some leases prohibit subletting or assigning completely. But as a practical matter, if the landlord is confident that the new tenant will be suitable, he or she may not object to the sublease. Besides, the landlord may still be able to get the rent from you if you sublease and the new tenant does not pay. 

If you cannot find a suitable new tenant, you will be responsible for the rent for the remainder of the lease term. If you leave the premises, and do not pay further rent, the landlord has two choices. First, he or she can re-enter the property and accept your surrender. This means that the landlord is ending the lease agreement, you cannot live there anymore, and you no longer have to pay rent. There is a special procedure that the landlord must go through to be able to re-enter the premises. 

A landlord will generally only re-enter if he or she has a new tenant lined up. If the landlord does get a new tenant, and the new tenant will not pay the same rent as you did, the landlord can make you pay the difference. 

If a landlord does hold you responsible for the rent, then the only question is whether the landlord will pursue you to try to collect the rent due. Some landlords will not bother tracking down skipping tenants to make them pay, but many do. It is not wise to assume that your landlord will not bother with trying to get you to pay the rent if you break your lease. It is better not to sign a lease if you think you cannot stay for the entire lease term.

See also our publication Tenants & Landlords: Rights and Responsibilities

For more information, see: W. Va. Code §§ 37-6-6 to -9 (2015); Teller v. McCoy, 162 W. Va. 367, 253 S.E.2d 114 (1978); 11B Michie’s Jurisprudence Landlord and Tenant §§ 57-60 (2009); Bowyer v. Seymour, 13 W. Va. 12 (1878).