Tenant Rights to Terminate a Lease

pipe leaking water damage

Dear Tai:

My landlord won’t fix anything and is in breach of my lease for other reasons. I want to stop paying rent and move out immediately. Because the landlord won’t comply, can I say “bye-bye?”

Sincerely, Very Angry Tenant

Dear Very Angry Tenant:

I recently read a story about a single mom and her child that ended up in the hospital due to a bug infestation in an apartment. The way the apartment unit was described, it made the worst jail cell in the world seem like a stay at the Ritz. The mom and her child had suffered hundreds of insect bites, probably from bed bugs that has infested their apartment, most likely from a neighboring unit. The mom and her child were forced to move, but despite the conditions of the unit, the landlord sued the mom for more than $1,000.00 of unpaid rent.

Most of the time, even the worst landlord and tenant disputes are not apparent when the lease is signed. Some intervening event, like a broken furnace, a water leak, or other maintenance issue goes unfixed by the landlord, and that leads to a series of deteriorating conditions that ultimately renders the landlord-tenant relationship soured. In the worst cases, tenants end up in uninhabitable housing. Tenants often report the conditions, and when the conditions are not repaired, the tenants stop paying rent, usually feeling like they shouldn’t have to pay rent for an uninhabitable dwelling. What the tenant does not realize is that in most situations, unless the law is followed almost precisely, the tenant may be on the hook for some or all of the unpaid rent, even though the dwelling was not inhabitable, or the landlord breached the lease.

But, there is a way out if necessary.

In 1975, the Kansas legislature adopted the Kansas Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (KRLTA). The KRLTA covers most residential leases but excludes commercial leases, living arrangements like contract-for-deed real estate sales, hotels and motels, employer provided housing (if occupancy is conditioned on employment), and some incidental temporary residency arrangements, such as educational housing, medically necessary housing (e.g., hospital stays) and any fraternal or social organization housing. So, if you went to college and lived in a fraternity or sorority, your housing was not covered by the KRLTA.

The KRLTA is very broad. It governs written rental agreements, verbal agreements, as well as unwritten month-to-month, and even week-to-week tenancy. The law prohibits unconscionable rental agreements but does not limit the monthly rent. The KRLTA allows a landlord to request a security deposit, but limits security deposits to the equivalent of one month’s rent unless it is a furnished dwelling, in which case security deposits are limited to 1-1/2 month’s rent. If the landlord allows pets, an additional “pet” deposit may be required, but it is limited to ½ month’s rent. When the tenancy ends, the tenant is entitled to a return of the deposit, plus any interest, less damages withheld for a tenant noncompliance. This means the landlord can withhold some of the deposit to clean up the premises, fix any damage caused by the tenant, and may use the deposit to fix any appliance or fixtures, if the damage was from tenant misuse. Rental agreements may not include terms requiring the tenant to confess a judgment, to pay attorney fees, to waive rights under the KRLTA, or provide for liability to the tenant for anything except fire, theft, or breakage to the common areas. This is why landlords usually require renter’s insurance.

But, what if there is a breach of the written agreement, or your landlord won’t fix the broken water heater, the broken furnace, won’t fix the leaks, won’t fix fire hazards, or otherwise simply won’t make the place livable? Are you allowed to stop paying rent and move out without any notice? The answer, simply, is NO.

Kansas law, specifically K.S.A. 58-2559 (found in the KRLTA), provides a specific procedure for the tenant to follow when a landlord has engaged in “material noncompliance” with the rental agreement, or when the landlord allows any condition “materially affecting health and safety” of the dwelling. In either breach situation, the tenant can effectively terminate the rental agreement early by following these steps:

1. The tenant must deliver a written notice to the landlord specifying the breach of the rental agreement or the breach affecting health and safety. The written notice must inform the landlord that the rental agreement will terminate upon a periodic rent-paying date that is not less than 30-days after receipt of the notice. Thus, if rent is due on the 1st of April, and the notice is sent on the 25th of March, the earliest date the rental agreement may terminate is May 1st.

2. The landlord is then allowed to make a good faith effort to remedy the breach within 14-days of receipt of the notice. If the breach is cured, the rental agreement remains in place. If another breach occurs after the 14-day period, the tenant may deliver another written notice, and then the same 30-day termination period is applicable.

3. If the breach is not cured by the landlord, the rental agreement terminates at the conclusion of the 30-day period.

The law also allows the tenant to recover damages or even obtain injunctive relief if the landlord is non-compliant. This is an additional remedy, meaning the tenant is still entitled to a return of the deposit, and any other remedy available. Some landlords will still sue even if the statute allowing termination of the lease is followed perfectly. In those cases, it may be necessary to prove in court that the landlord failed to comply with the rental agreement. It is thus important to document everything. For example, if the furnace goes out in the winter and the landlord won’t make immediate repairs, take pictures of thermostats each day, and find a professional for help if needed simultaneous with sending the termination notice. And, when the tenant provides the written notice to the landlord, it should be delivered using certified mail or priority mail with tracking, and the tenant should keep a copy.

So, don’t just walk away. Protect yourself by giving the required written notice, and if the landlord still won’t comply, then you can say “bye-bye.”

Tai J. Vokins is an attorney licensed to practice in state and federal courts in Kansas. Mr. Vokins concentrates his practice in the areas of civil litigation and consumer protection issues. If you have questions about this article, call Tai at 785-842-6311.

The information and materials on this blog are provided for general informational purposes only and are not intended to be legal advice. The law changes frequently and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Being general in nature, the information and materials provided may not apply to any specific factual and/or legal set of circumstances. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. Nothing on this blog is intended to substitute for the advice of an attorney, especially an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.