Breaking a Lease in North Carolina
There are two ways in which a residential lease can be broken. The first is when a Landlord agrees to terminate a lease with a tenant, either by signing a lease with another renter, or absolving the tenant of their lease responsibility.
The second is when a lease is broken due to circumstances in which a renter is able to provide notice to terminate a lease early without express permission from the landlord. We will cover both cases in this article.
It is important to understand that most lease agreements will include language requiring notice to be given by one party to the other prior to the expiration of a lease with a set term, or one that has no end date. Usually the lease will delegate how notice should be provided by either party to the other in order to terminate tenancy.
In North Carolina, Landlords and Tenants do not need to give notice to one another for leases that end on a set date, as long as the lease agreement does not require notice to be given. Read here for more information on landlord-tenant rights.
Tenants are required to give notice to Landlords for the below lease terms in North Carolina (NCGS § 42-14):
- Notice to Terminate Week to Week: 2 days written notice.
- Notice to terminate Month to Month: 7 days written notice.
- Notice to terminate Yearly lease with no end date: At least one month before the end of the current year.
When a Landlord Agrees to Terminate a Lease
A landlord can agree to a mutual termination with a tenant to terminate their lease early, but normally is not required to do so provided there are no provisions within the lease that allow for termination. Examples of reasons that a tenant may request to terminate early include:
- Buying a house
- Issues with roommates
- Getting married
If there are no clauses within the lease that allow for early termination then breaking the lease under these circumstances is at the sole discretion of the landlord. If a landlord decides to let the tenant out of their lease, they may require the tenant to find a new tenant to replace them or pay a buyout.
It is important to note that separate leases cannot overlap, and a landlord cannot collect rent from a past tenant with a new tenant’s lease in effect.
Read here for information on the security deposit laws associated with an early terminated lease.
When a Tenant Can Legally Terminate Their Lease
There are circumstances when a tenant can terminate their lease without consent from their landlord. In most cases termination requires notice to be given. The following are reasons for legally terminating a lease.
Early Termination Clause
The most common way for a tenant to legally break their lease is by exercising an early termination clause/option. Many lease agreements will include this clause, which stipulates terms that the tenant must adhere to in order to terminate the lease agreement.
Oftentimes the terms will have penalties in the form of fees that the tenant must pay. A common penalty for example, is that the tenant may terminate with notice (generally 10-30 days), and they must pay several months rent in order to “buy out” (1-2 months worth).
Early termination clauses can include conditions other than fees. Examples include: holding the tenant responsible for rent payments until a new tenant is secured, or requiring the tenant to procure a new tenant to replace them on the lease. In any scenario, the lease will expressly state conditions that need to be met.
North Carolina has standards which must be met in order for a unit to be considered habitable. If these habitability standards are not met, a tenant may be absolved of their lease obligations if proper notice has been given, and the landlord has failed to make necessary repairs so that the unit may be considered habitable within a reasonable time period.
This would be known as a constructive eviction, occurring due to a failure of the landlord to uphold their duties to provide a habitable residence under North Carolina law. More information on eviction processes in North Carolina here.
The following are some of the habitability requirements under North Carolina Law (NCLEG § 42-42):
- Dangerous Home Conditions – such as inoperable locks, lack of heat, inoperable toilet or bathtub/shower, pest infestation, unsafe railing or flooring.
- Carbon monoxide alarms – must be installed outside of sleeping areas, and where fuel burning appliances are located within a bedroom or an attached bathroom an alarm must be in the bedroom.
- Water contamination – if the landlord has knowledge from a reliable source that water or sewer being supplied to the home is not below the maximum allowable contamination level according to the North Carolina Drinking Water Act, the landlord must provide notice to the tenant.
- Maintaining – proper home conditions so that everything is in a safe and working order. Landlord must make necessary repairs to make sure of this throughout the lease.
Harassment or Violation of Privacy
Tenants are entitled to a reasonable degree of privacy and quiet enjoyment of their rental property. Harassment or a severe violation of privacy by a landlord can be grounds for absolving a tenant of their obligations under the lease.
- Notice of Entry – North Carolina does not stipulate a notice period for landlord entry, however if a lease does not stipulate a notice period, then 24 hours is the recommended minimum.
- Changing Locks – Per North Carolina law (NCGS § 42-25.9), landlords cannot change the locks to prevent a tenant from entry. This could result in a constructive eviction.
Active military are also allowed to terminate their lease early. The Service members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) states that active members of the military who entered active duty after the lease was signed, and are relocated, are allowed to terminate their lease with notice 30 days after the start of the next rent pay period. In order to break the lease, the tenant must:
- Prove that they entered active duty after the lease was signed.
- Prove that their activity duty will continue for at least a consecutive 90 days.
- Provide written notice to the landlord along with proof of their deployment.
A standard form from NC REALTORS (436-T) is a military status addendum which landlords can use to confirm that a tenant is not currently in the military at the time a lease is executed.
Another standard form is the Waiver of Rights for Service members (435-T) in which a tenant who is in active duty may waive their rights under the SCRA sections 3931, 3932 and 3934 as they pertain to breach of contract.
There are provisions in North Carolina that protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Laws can vary by local. In many areas the landlord is entitled to confirm a domestic violence claim by collecting evidence from a medical/religious professional, law enforcement, court, federal agency, or sexual assault/domestic violence program.
In those cases when a tenant provides proof, a landlord cannot terminate, fail to renew, or refuse to enter into a rental agreement with them. Additionally, a tenant of domestic violence may be allowed to terminate with 30 days written notice.