Sketchy Landlord? Can I Break my Lease?

Sketchy Landlord?  Can you break your lease?Great. Now that you’ve already moved in — lease signed and sealed — the landlord starts acting nutty.  He stops by. He asks too many questions. He knows when you leave the lights on, where you leave your shoes and who you’re dating. Or, worse, it turns out he has a criminal record.  Is it too late to get out? Is a crazy landlord, or one with an undisclosed past, grounds to break the lease without penalty?

Depends. First, the matter of the Annoying Landlord.  Here are the guidelines:

1. The landlord’s behavior must either violate the terms of the lease or threaten the safety, health or quiet enjoyment of the property that is afforded to all tenants.

The operative term here is “quiet enjoyment.”  A landlord who is overly controlling or personally invasive could be violating that implicit right. Is he making unreasonable demands that aren’t spelled out in the lease? Is he harassing you? Is he making your home life too stressful?  As a renter, you have the right to possess the property without interference.  Any time the landlord is making it unlivable, you can break the lease, according to tenant lawyers.

2. You must give the landlord an opportunity to correct the behavior.

This should be done in writing. If asking him hasn’t worked, write a letter or email that includes examples of the behavior and a request to stop. You can add that it is interfering with your quiet enjoyment of the property. Adopt a businesslike tone, and keep emotion out of it.

3. Finally, you must formally document your intent to break the lease. You can’t just move or stop paying rent. Get a professional — a tenant advocate or housing lawyer —to draft the letter.

Landlord harassment is a common reason for wanting to get out of the lease, where the landlord just won’t leave the tenant alone.  But it needs to be well-documented.  Keep a written log, with dates of the landlord’s behavior and of your requests to the landlord to end that behavior.

Landlord with a Sketchy Past

Now, the issue of a landlord’s undisclosed criminal record.  Say he/she was a registered sex offender?  According to housing attorneys, the tenant could make a case only if the landlord had violated the law. Otherwise, even assuming the landlord lives nearby, his criminal history has no bearing on the lease, which is a civil agreement between two private parties.  All 50 states have sex-offender registration laws. But those laws require only that convicted sex offenders register their address with police. In some areas, parole terms may prohibit a sex offender from living near a school or park where children play in groups.  In general, if a tenant is concerned about living near sex offenders, it is her duty to research the landlord’s history prior to signing a lease. Many jurisdictions publicly disclose the addresses of high-risk sex offenders.  Start with a call to the local police department to ask what information is available. Be warned that some private, online offender maps are not up-to-date and may falsely list former addresses of sex offenders.

For complete civil and criminal records from your jurisdiction, seek help at the county courthouse.