A Relationship Ends, But the Lease Does Not

Dear Billfold,

The bad news is that my boyfriend and I broke up about two weeks ago (angst angst, it sucks but I’m doing pretty well).

The worse news is that we were five months into a year-long lease that’s in both our names (neither of us is the primary person on the lease), and now we have to figure out how to talk to the landlords about what’s going on, and convince them to let us either change the lease, or break it altogether.

The situation as it is now: I have moved out of the house and am staying with my parents. I told my ex I was willing to pay my half of March rent ($400) so we have some wiggle room. Neither of us can afford the two-bedroom house by ourselves.

As I see it, we have two choices: first, we alter the lease so that one of us is taken off (probably me) and the other one can sublet to another person, either for the remainder of the lease or on a month-by-month basis. Second, we break the lease entirely, which we don’t really have grounds for and which would put our landlords (who are very nice people) in a real bind.

Mostly I’m just struggling with how to start the conversation. “Hey, my relationship failed and now we’re going to make things more complicated for you, too!” I mean, how do you do this? Like I said, our landlords have been super nice to us (they’re a fairly young couple too, and this is the first time they’ve done this), and I don’t want them to get a bad impression.

We have until the end of March before things get really hairy, but obviously I’d like to get this taken care of as soon as possible. Can you give me any advice on how to approach this situation? Should I be honest about why we need to break the lease? Keep it vague? I appreciate any pointers you can give — N.

I’m sorry to hear about the breakup and that this has made a dilemma out of your living situation. You should approach this in the way you feel the most comfortable, and you shouldn’t have to mention your breakup with your landlords if you don’t want to.

People sign leases together all the time, and it’s fairly common for one person to need to get out of the lease, or for a lease to be broken entirely—people get new jobs and need to relocate, roommate situations deteriorate, relationships end.

The last apartment I lived in was a two-bedroom I shared with a roommate, and when I decided I needed to leave to get my own apartment closer to my job, I called up my landlord and told him that I was leaving and that my roommate was going to find another tenant to take my place. I didn’t give any specifics about my situation—just that I had decided to leave—and my landlord was perfectly fine with it. He even wrote me a little letter thanking me for being a good tenant, which I keep in a box in case another landlord ever asks for a reference. My roommate found another person to take my room a few weeks later, and they lived in that apartment for another year without any problems.

The good news is that your landlords are, as you say, very nice people, and are likely not to give you a hard time if you say that one of you has decided to move out while the other finds a replacement tenant for the other bedroom. If neither of you want to continue living in the house, you can talk to your landlords about needing to leave for personal reasons. You can then see if they are willing to allow you to break your lease (for a fee, perhaps), or more likely, give you the opportunity to help them find new tenants to take over the lease for you.

Think about what situation is ideal for the two of you, and what you’re most comfortable saying. Then, when you decide whether one of you needs to find a new tenant or that you both of you need to find tenants to take over the lease for you, it’ll be mostly in the hands of Craigslist.


Previously: Should I Take a One-Year Dream Fellowship, Or a Great Job Offer From a Private Company?


10 Comments / Post A Comment

Susan Tidebeck (#5,691)

I had to break a lease early in my career and the landlord didn’t give me a hard at all. In fact, he had been contacted by someone who wanted to live in that exact apartment, and told them they had to wait until my lease was up. They were thrilled to be able to move in the next month.

As it turns out it was a win for everyone. I found a much better place with this amazing thing called “insulation” (gawd, that apartment was COLD), the people that wanted to move in got what they wanted (their sister lived next door) and the landlord was planning on jacking up the rent at the end of my lease anyway.

And here I was all stressed out about breaking the lease. HA!

isabellebleu (#5,572)

I feel like a jerk, for my first reaction to this letter was “WHERE is there a 2 bedroom house for only $800/mo, WHAT CITY”.
This is good advice, though, and finding subletters is usually not difficult…approach the landlord first, they may not even require that you do so if the house is an easy rental.

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

@isabellebleu me too, I was feeling really sympathetic until she got to the part where she pays $400 in rent and then the jealous beast inside me reared its head. But it’s all relative, especially if wages in that city are lower. $400 is still a lot of money!

pterodactylish (#2,321)

@isabellebleu No but really

ThatJenn (#916)

@wrappedupinbooks That’s a low but close to typical rental rate where I live. It’s also about what people here can afford; there are few full-time jobs with benefits here (for anyone other than PhDs) and the ones that exist pay notably less than similar jobs elsewhere (I have maybe two friends who make over $30k/year and nearly all have multiple jobs; all have college degrees and several have graduate degrees). Definitely all relative!

megsy (#1,565)

I think the key is to determine what you want to do first – does your ex want to keep the apartment? Or do you both want a clean break? If the latter I would tell the landlords – I don’t understand why you wouldn’t, especially if they’re a young couple, because I think it would only help your request. I would expect you and your ex to have to help them find new tenants though, which would be more than fair.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

Mike, did you choose this picture?

potatopotato (#5,255)

Ehhh, I had to break my last least because I was suddenly and unceremoniously laid off. I called the landlord (big real estate mogul couple who owns half the city’s rentable homes, I spoke to the wife) — after living there for about 3 years, never causing a problem, paying on time and having saved them a lot of money and work by asking them not to paint before I moved in — and told them the situation. They had zero sympathy, and charged me a “rerental fee” equivalent to a month’s rent. State law here dictates that the landlord must make a good faith effort to find a new tennant, but if one is not found the tennant can be held to pay the remainder of the original lease. I placed a great Craigslist add talking the place up, since I was legitimately sad to leave it, it was in a great location and the rent was relatively low. The lady in charge of showing the place told me she had too many calls and that I should take it down…and then was completely incompetent and disorganized and took a very long time to find someone. I was sure they’d tell me I had to keep paying.

Whatevs, having nice landlords will probly help a whole ton, just maybe look up state laws about breaking leases first, so you know what legally you/they can and can’t do.

ThatJenn (#916)

I’m a 20-something landlord who rents out a small house to someone and I know I’d do my best to be accommodating (which might mean a lot of different things depending on my current flexibility with time and/or money). Talk to them early! There’s the slight chance they’d rather screen new tenants themselves than have you find subletters, for instance. (I really like my tenant but I’m not interested in having her pick my next tenant.)

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