A lease is a legally binding agreement that stipulates the rights and responsibilities of the landlord and the tenant. In Virginia, the agreement can either be short- or long-term.
A short-term agreement is referred to as a rental agreement and typically runs month-to-month. A long-term agreement is referred to as a lease agreement and may run anywhere between 6 months to one year.
Many tenants who sign a lease usually have the intention to stay for the entire term. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes, tenants need to move before the lease term has expired.
Here are some common reasons tenants break a lease:
- To move closer to the new place of work.
- Due to a divorce or separation.
- To move in with a lover.
- To downsize or upsize.
- Military reasons (leaving for active duty or permanent change of station).
- Failure by the landlord to maintain habitable standards.
A tenant who breaks a lease for legally unjustified reasons could face a number of repercussions. Some include:
- Having difficulty finding new housing
- Losing the security deposit
- Facing a money judgement
- Getting sued by the landlord
Renters Rights & Responsibilities When Signing a Lease in Virginia
Tenants in the state of Virginia are entitled to a number of rights. Here are a few:
- The landlord can't change the terms of the lease during the lease term. They must wait until the lease has expired (unless, of course, the lease itself provides for a change).
- The landlord can't force the tenant out of the unit before the lease ends, unless they violate the agreement. And even then, only a sheriff can evict a tenant once the due process has been followed.
As for their responsibilities, after a tenant signs the lease, they have an obligation to abide by all terms. Some terms include:
- Paying rent on time
- Caring for the unit
- Not disturbing the neighbors
When Breaking a Lease Agreement is Legally Justified in Virginia
Usually, if a tenant breaks the lease, they are still responsible for continuing to pay the due rent until it expires, regardless of whether they live in the property or not. That said, there are exceptions to this rule.
The following are the exceptions in which a tenant can break a lease without facing any financial or legal repercussions.
Exception #1: The lease contains an early termination clause.
Nowadays, some leases contain specific terms that allow tenants to break the lease early in exchange for a reasonable penalty fee. Normally, the fee is usually equivalent to the rent of one month.
So, before terminating your lease agreement, go over the lease and check whether it has a termination clause.
Exception #2: You have been deployed on an active duty.
Are you a serviceman and have been deployed? If so, you can break the lease without further obligations under the lease agreement thanks to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).
To end the lease, you'll need to do three important things:
- Show your landlord proof that the lease came into effect before entering active duty.
- Prove that the deployment will take at least 90 days.
- Give your landlord a written notice, accompanied with the deployment letter.
Exception #3: The unit is uninhabitable.
The state of Virginia requires that rental properties maintain certain habitable standards. If your landlord doesn't meet them, then you can break the lease without any further obligations.
In such a case, a court would deem you to have been "constructively evicted."
Exception #4: Your landlord is harassing you.
Landlord harassment is enough justification to relieve you of your lease obligations. Harassment by the landlord normally falls under two categories.
- Landlord Entry: Does your landlord notify you every time they access the property? If not, that may qualify as harassment – especially if it happens multiple times. The statewide law requires that landlords provide their tenants with at least a 24 hours' notice prior to accessing their rented units. (§ 55-248.18(A).
- Changing the Locks: If your landlord changes the locks without your permission, that may also qualify as landlord harassment. A court would probably rule that you have been constructively evicted. The same could also apply if your landlord shuts the utilities.
Exception #5: Your landlord has violated the terms of the lease agreement.
If your landlord tries to alter the terms of the agreement or doesn't follow its rules, that might be enough justification for you to end the lease.
Exception #6: You are a victim of domestic violence.
If you have been a domestic violence victim, you may also break the lease early without further obligations. Just make sure to meet all the specified conditions; for instance, securing a protection order. (§ 55-225.16).
Exception #7: Your landlord didn't disclose some important information.
In Virginia, landlords are required to disclose important information to their tenants before lease signing. For example, the existence of a defective drywall, whether the unit was used to manufacture methamphetamine, and whether the property is located adjacent to a military air installation.
Landlord's Duty to Find a New Tenant in Virginia
Even without a legally justified reason to break a lease, a landlord must make reasonable efforts to find a replacement tenant. (§ 55.1-1251 (2020). If the landlord finds another tenant, then you will only be responsible for paying rent for the time the property was vacant. This can help you save a substantial amount of money.
However, if the landlord can't find a replacement tenant, you'll still be responsible for paying the amount remaining under the lease. You may help the landlord find a new renter who meets all of his screening criteria.
If you have specific questions, please consider hiring the services of an experienced attorney. Alternatively, seek help from a qualified property management company such as Rent Easy.