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How to break a lease in Chicago

Written by
Nick Kotecki

For every amazing landlord, there’s a stinker who refuses to fix anything and poorly communicates changes.

Bad landlords truly suck. This is especially so in Chicago, where you basically need to show up to Craigslist showings with a check because, “If you don’t rent it now, somebody else will.” And that kind of mentality can lead to some seriously dicey flats riddled with leaky faucets, broken stoves, peeling paint and all sorts of irritating situations that you didn’t sign up for.

Luckily, Chicago has some of the best tenant protection laws on the books. Just in case you need to hit the pavement to your next humble abode, we’ve compiled some ways to wrangle your way out of a lease agreement.

Note: Be sure to follow up with an attorney if it seems your landlord really understands tenant laws.

RECOMMENDED: 5 Chicago tenant rights your landlord doesn't want you to know


Sublease at any time.

A landlord has to allow a tenant to enter into a sublease without penalty or charge. The original lease will continue under the tenant’s name until the agreed-upon termination date. That means if the subtenant wreaks havoc all through the apartment, that first tenant has to foot the bill. The original tenant will receive whatever portion of the security deposit he is owed when the subtenant leaves. Some landlords are nice enough to do a brief inspection of the unit, give back the security deposit, then let the subtenant take over completely, sometimes even signing a new lease.


Re-rent the apartment.

This option is less risky, but it could cost a tenant. In this scenario, the original lease is terminated and the landlord must do the legwork of finding a new tenant to lease the unit. Chicago law requires the landlord go searching as soon as the tenant gives notice of his plans. Those going this route should check their leases because the landlord usually charges a fee for re-renting. Even if an amount is not stated, landlords can deduct costs incurred in their searches from tenants’ security deposits. To be sure a landlord is actually trying to rent the place, check Craigslist and other apartment rental sites online. 


Prove the landlord doesn’t provide essential services.

Should the rental be devoid of heat, running or hot water, electricity, gas or plumbing, Chicago tenants have the right to request that repairs be made in 72 hours. If repairs are not made in three days, the tenant can terminate the lease and has 30 days to move out. Also be sure to check whether there is an issue stemming from the utility company. If the problem’s not on the landlord, no dice.


Call a building inspector.

Also along the lines of a landlord not fulfilling essential services, this option brings the possibility of digging up more code violations than the basics. Inspectors could discover that fire doors are kept open, fire extinguishers aren’t up-to-date, there’s a roach infestation (eww…) or other generally not-cool things. Ask inspectors for a copy of the report and kick the violations over to the landlord. If the issues aren’t fixed within a specified time, a tenant is free to go. This process is called “constructive eviction.” The law protects tenants from “retaliatory evictions” where a landlord kicks tenants out because of an ordered inspection or a complaint to the government regarding building codes.


Ask the landlord where the security deposit is being held.

A landlord cannot mix a security deposit with personal spending money. It’s required by law that the security deposit be held in a bank account that collects interest, and that the tenant receive a portion of interest after every 12-month lease period. Landlords must inform tenants what banks their security deposits are being held in during their tenancy.


Call the tenants union.

Feeling lost? Well, try a tenants union in Chicago. These services will help fight leases and draft letters on a tenant's behalf, claiming any number of code violations that could result in a constructive eviction. Or the landlord could just give in to demands. Tenants unions are paid services, however.


Just leave.

Oftentimes it’s not worth the hassle of taking a tenant to court or involving the proper authorities. Many Chicago apartments in sought-after neighborhoods can literally be re-rented in a single day by the right landlord. Be forewarned, though: If a landlord knows the courts well and is armed with attorneys, one could end up paying rent for the entire lease.

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