Rent Watch: How to get a tenant to leave before the lease is up

Question: I just bought a single-family home as a second property. A tenant and his family are living in the home. They have a one-year lease that has about five months left on it. As far as I know, he is paying the rent on time and otherwise abiding by the lease. But I bought the house in order to move my in-laws into it. Is there any way I can remove the tenants and replace them with my in-laws before the lease expires?

Answer: Landlords and tenants choose to document their relationship with a lease rather than a month-to-month rental agreement because both sides have decided to lock in that relationship for the life of the lease. Neither side has a unilateral right to terminate the lease, even if there is an unexpected event such as a tenant losing his job or a landlord needing to find housing for his or her in-laws.

There are some exceptions to this general rule. If either side violates the lease, the other party can treat the lease as void. For example, if the tenant fails to pay rent, the landlord can treat the lease as void and proceed to evict the tenant, subject to serving a proper three-day notice first.

If the landlord significantly violates the duty to provide a habitable premises, for example by not providing adequate plumbing, heating or electric power after being notified of the deficiency, the tenant can treat the lease as void and vacate.

Some leases have a cancellation clause allowing either party to terminate the lease after giving notice. Some of these clauses have a "break lease fee" that a tenant must pay in order to vacate.

Unless one of these exceptions exists, your only alternative is to negotiate with your tenant to arrive at a mutual agreement to terminate the lease. You might have to offer a financial incentive to get your tenant to do so. A local mediation program may be available to help with negotiations if you decide to pursue them.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to

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