Normally, when a tenant signs a lease, they agree to stay in their rental property for a certain period of time. But life happens, and the tenant may need to break their rental agreement.
Tenants in Alabama break their leases for many and varied reasons. Common reasons include:
- Moving closer to their new place of work
- Moving into the new home they recently bought
- If the tenant is a servicemember and has been received a change of station orders
- If the tenant is looking to upgrade or downgrade their unit
- The rental unit is no longer habitable
- Moving in with their partner
In some cases, the reason could even be negligence on your part as a landlord. For instance, the tenant could grow tired of reminding you to take care of your maintenance responsibilities.
Breaking a lease could either be legally justified or not. When justified, all the tenant may need to do is notify you of their intention to break the lease. But when not justified, then you may have a right to penalize the tenant for violating the contract.
When Breaking a Lease in Alabama is Legally Justified
Under normal circumstances, tenants are legally bound to adhere to all terms for the entire lease term. Typically, this is one year. During this time, the tenant must continue paying rent, whether or not they actually live there.
Exceptions to this blanket rule exist, however. They are as follows:
1. An Early Termination Clause
More and more landlords are including an early lease termination clause in their lease agreement. The clause enables tenants to break their lease early in exchange for a penalty fee.
The fee is usually equal to the rent of 2 months. You may also require a tenant to provide you notice prior to breaking their lease, such as 30 days.
2. Landlord Harassment
A tenant may also want to break their lease due to landlord harassment. Generally, a landlord may do this if they want a tenant to move out of their rental unit. The following are common examples of landlord harassment:
- Entering the tenant’s unit without proper notice. According to the Alabama code, you must provide your tenant with a notice of at least 2 days before entering their units
- Violating the tenant’s habitability by shutting off their utilities, such as heat during winter
- Refusing to make needed repairs
- Making illegal rent increases
- Threatening the tenant whether in writing, in person or over the phone
All these are illegal, as per the state’s Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
3. Privacy Violation
Alabama tenants have a right to live in the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their rented premises. The following are actions that undermine this fundamental right:
- Entering the rental unit without permission
- Entering the rental unit too frequently
- Creating situations that cause unreasonable and ongoing noise
As already mentioned, you must provide your tenant with proper notice prior to entering their rented units (at least 2 days advance notice). In addition, the reason for the entry must be within reason. For example, to inspect the unit or to make needed repairs.
4. Warranty of Habitability
Every state, including Alabama, has specific health and safety codes that every landlord must adhere to. A habitable property is one that, among other things:
- Is free from infestation
- Is structurally sound
- Has adequate heating, water and electricity
- Has adequate trash receptacles
If you fail to do such things, your tenant has a right to move out without further responsibility under the lease.
5. Active Military Duty
Service members who are relocated due to deployment or receive a change of station orders are protected by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The protection commences from the first day of entering duty and terminates 30-90 days after discharge.
As per the Act, service members are defined as those that belong to the:
- Armed forces
- Activated National Guard
- Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service
- Alabama National Guard on ordered federal duty
When Breaking a Lease is Legally Unjustified in Alabama
As sincere as they may sound, some reasons just aren’t enough justification for a tenant to break their lease. Common reasons to break a lease include:
- Moving to get closer to family
- Moving to upgrade or downgrade
- Relocating to the new home they recently bought
- Moving to a new place of work
- Moving in with their partner
In all these cases, the tenant would still be bound by the terms of the lease agreement. This would apply regardless of whether they live in the rental unit or not.
Landlord’s Duty to Find a Replacement Tenant
Even without legal justification, a tenant may still be off the hook on their rent obligation. This is because landlords in Alabama must make reasonable efforts to re-rent their units. (Ala. Code §§ 35-9A-105 and 35-9A-423). This means that the tenant may only be responsible for paying a fraction of the rent due.
So, once a tenant moves out, don’t just sit back and wait until the lease expires, and then sue the tenant for the rent due. Instead, make reasonable efforts to get the property rented again.
However, in re-renting the unit, you don’t have to relax your screening criteria in favour of a speedy replacement. For example, you don’t have to rent to a person who isn’t creditworthy. Furthermore, you also have a right to add legitimate expenses to the tenant’s bill. For instance, costs of marketing the unit.
Should your efforts come to nothing, then the tenant will still be liable for paying for the rent due under the lease. You can recover your losses by first using the tenant’s security deposit. If insufficient, you can sue the tenant for the remainder owed.
Breaking a lease can happen for a myriad of reasons. In the state of Alabama, however, only a fraction of these are legally justified. As such, it’s important to know your rights as a landlord and the rights of your tenants in the case of breaking a lease.
Should you have any questions on the laws relating to lease-breaking in Alabama, Southern Realm Property Management knows all the legal nuances, including everything from security deposits to evictions. We can help you manage this issue smoothly and efficiently.
Disclaimer: The information herein is by no way a substitute for legal advice from an expert. Laws change frequently and details may be outdated at the time of your reading. For further help, please reach out to Southern Realm Property Management.