How to avoid breaking your lease

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Renters often plan out their lives in six- to 12-month increments. But sometimes life brings an unforeseen circumstance.

Whether you just accepted a new job that's in a different city, or you need to make room for a new baby, the idea of breaking your lease might make you a little nervous.

Before you fork over the remaining rent on your lease, it's good to explore all of your options with your landlord or property management team.

Start with a conversation

If your situation has changed or you're dissatisfied with your rental, don't assume you're on your own.

"When you're unhappy, go talk to the management," says Tracy Atkinson, director of global marketing and relations for Goodman Real Estate in Seattle. "Millennials, in particular, want to do everything online. But come down and speak to someone. Be articulate in letting them know the circumstances. Tell them why [you need a change]."

But before you make an appointment to go speak to your landlord or property manager, be sure to really evaluate your situation to determine whether you actually need to break your lease.

Is it a situation where your roommate is moving out and you can't afford your rent alone, or are you just disturbed by your neighbor's habits? If you're simply having issues with neighbors or the property itself, you can most likely work with the manager to solve the problem.

"Whether the problem is that they have noisy neighbors, or the unit they've chosen is too far away from the clubhouse, we do try to be proactive," says Atkinson. "We deal with these kinds of problems on a weekly basis.

"The very first thing we do is bring in [residents] and have them share their story," she continues. "We ask them what has made them unhappy. We try at that point to solve the problem. If it's a noise issue, we try to deal with the neighbor. Seven out of 10 times we can solve the issue."

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10 US cities at risk of a housing bubble

#10: Portland, Oregon

Median list price: $428,600
Bubble index compared with 2001: +6%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -26%

Photo credit: Getty

#9: Charleston, South Carolina 

Median list price: $322,300
Bubble index compared with 2001: +7%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -20%

Photo credit: Getty

#8: Buffalo, New York

Median list price: $159,900
Bubble index compared with 2001: +7%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -1%

Photo credit: Getty

#7: Fresno, California

Median list price: $272,100
Bubble index compared with 2001: +9%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -31%

Photo credit: Getty

#6: Los Angeles, California

Median list price: $690,000
Bubble index compared with 2001: +10%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -35%

Photo credit: Shutterstock

#5: Dallas, Texas

Median list price: $335,000
Bubble index compared with 2001: +13%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -2%

Photo credit: Getty

#4: Salt Lake City, Utah

Median list price: $347,200
Bubble index compared with 2001: +14%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -20%

Photo credit: Getty

#3: Austin, Texas

Median list price: $400,000
Bubble index compared with 2001: +17%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -1%

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#2: San Francisco, California 

Median list price: $855,000
Bubble index compared with 2001: +19%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -26%

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#1: San Jose, California 

Median list price: $981,500
Bubble index compared with 2001: +19%
Bubble index compared with market peak: -18%

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You have options

After you discuss your situation with the manager and you both determine it's necessary for you to break your lease, you can then consider your options. Depending on the size of the property management company and the terms of your lease, you may have several choices.

If you need to up- or downsize, one option is to move into a different unit in your building. This can be an especially appealing choice if you're about to have a baby and need more space, or if your roommate is leaving and you need a smaller apartment.

Another opportunity is to check for availability in a sister property or another landlord-owned property. Some property management companies own buildings in several states, so if you're relocating, it's a good idea to see if there's an option to transfer.

These changes in the lease, however, may come with fees, which will depend on your lease or rental agreement terms and tenant laws in the state.

Ask up front

Though you may have some options to move into another unit or building that management owns, the best way to get out of a lease is to negotiate from the beginning, Atkinson says.

If you think you may buy a house, try to negotiate a mortgage clause. When you buy a home on a short sale or you are building a home, timing can often be unpredictable, so it's good to have a flexible lease.

Or if you know there may be a job relocation for you in the near future, try to add a relocation clause to the lease.

Although you can't predict every major life change, for the ones you can, you should add a loophole to the lease. "Ask up front. It's always at the beginning that you have the negotiating power," Atkinson says.

Ultimately, breaking your lease depends on what the lease itself defines.

"At the end of the day, a lease or rental agreement supersedes everything," Atkinson says. "The key is understanding that lease or rental agreement before you move in."

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