Breaking a Lease in NC

A lease or a rental agreement is a legally binding contract between the landlord and the tenant. It binds them for a period of time. It also assigns themrights and responsibilities. Either party can break the lease if the other party fails to adhere to its terms.

Generally speaking, breaking a lease refers to moving out of the unit before the expiry of the lease. It can be legally justified or not. When justified, tenants can move out of the property without facing any legal or financial repercussions whatsoever. However, if tenants move out without a legal justification, the opposite proves true.

As a property owner in North Carolina, it's important to familiarize yourself with the laws. In doing so, you'll be able to follow the stipulations of the law when an issue arises and avoid potentially costly mistakes.

So, without further ado, here is everything you need to know about a tenant breaking a lease in North Carolina.

Basic Landlord & Tenant Rights and Responsibilities Provided by the Lease

The lease agreement typically binds a landlord and a tenant for one year. It gives a landlord rights, as well as a tenant rights. During this period, as a landlord, you can't alter the terms of the lease. To make any changes to the lease, you must wait until the lease expires. The only exception to this is if the lease itself contains a clause permitting it.

Also, you cannot evict the tenant out of your premises without having a legal cause. Examples of legal causes include nonpayment of rent, excessive property damage and illegal property use. And even then, you must follow the formal eviction process.

If the violation is nonpayment of rent, for instance, you must serve the tenant with a 10-days' notice. The notice gives the tenant two options:

  1. To pay all due rent
  2. To move out

If they pay all due rent within the notice period, you must stop all further eviction proceedings henceforth. But if they don't and they refuse to move out, then you can move to court and file an unlawful detainer lawsuit.

On their part, tenants are required to pay rent for the entire time they will be occupying the property, regardless of whether they are living there or not. However, there are some exceptions.

home exterior

When are Tenants Legally Justified to Break the Lease?

1. The tenant is beginning active military duty.

Active service members may be able to break the lease by invoking the Service members Civil Relief Act (SCRA). It helps protect active service members who have been deployed or have received change of station orders.

Only "uniformed services" are eligible under the Act. The SCRA Act defines uniformed services as those service members who belong to the armed services, the activated National Guard, the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

To break the lease, the tenant must provide you with three important things:

  1. They must show proof that they signed the lease before entering active military duty.
  2. They must prove that they intend on remaining on active duty for at least three months.
  3. They must deliver a written notice of their intentions to move out, as well as accompany the notice with a copy of the deployment letter.

It goes without saying that the lease agreement doesn't terminate immediately. Once they deliver the notice, the earliest the lease can terminate is 30 days after the start of the next rent period.

2. The agreement contains an early termination clause.

Nowadays, an increasing number of landlords are including a clause that allows tenants to break the lease early in exchange for a reasonable fee. The clause usually mentions two important things: the fee amount and the notice amount required.

signing the lease agreement

3. The tenant is a victim of domestic violence.

Victims of domestic violence have special rental provisions for their protection in the state of North Carolina. The state has four statutes in this regard.

  • As per (NCGS § 42-42.2), a landlord has a right to verify whether a claim of domestic violence is true or not.
  • As per (NCGS § 42-45.1), with proof of the domestic violence, a tenant may be able to terminate the lease within 30 days of notifying the landlord.
  • As per (NCGS § 42-42.2), there are 3 things you cannot do when it comes to domestic violence victims. You cannot refuse to enter into a rental agreement with them, fail to renew their lease, or terminate their tenancy.
  • As per (NCGS § 42-42.3), you must change or re-key the locks upon request by the tenant. Alternatively, you may give your tenant permission to do so, at their own expense.

4. You are harassing your tenant or violating their privacy.

If your actions are serious enough, your tenant may be able to use that as justification to end the lease. The following are common ways a landlord can harass their tenant.

  • Construction noise
  • Threatening a tenant to move out of the premises
  • Refusing to make repairs after repeated calls from the tenant
  • Carrying out an illegal eviction
  • Raising the rent without any notice
  • Locking the tenant out of the property

5. Failing to provide your tenant a habitable unit.

Every state has specific safety, health and building codes regarding rental properties. North Carolina isn't an exception. Therefore, if you fail to maintain habitable rental standards, your tenant may be able to break the lease without further responsibility under the lease.

habitable property rental

Does a Landlord Have a Duty to Find a Replacement Tenant in NC?

As a North Carolina landlord, you must make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit, regardless of the reason that led to the tenant breaking the lease. (Isbey v. Crews, 284 S.E.2d 534 (N.C. Ct. App. 1981).


Do you still have questions? If so, TE Johnson & Sons can help. We have been operating in the Winston-Salem area since 1928, and can help you in all aspects of property management.

Contact us today!

Disclaimer: This blog shouldn't be used as a substitute for legal advice from a professional attorney. Laws change frequently, and this post might not be updated at the time you read it. Please contact us for any questions you have regarding this content or any other aspect of your property management needs.

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