All tenants' rights, including the right to cancel a lease or to protest a landlord's cancellation of the lease, are usually governed by the lease agreement itself. When the lease agreement fails to address lease cancellation and issues that might precipitate lease cancellation, the law in most jurisdictions has certain default rules that will come into play. Those with specific questions about cancelling a lease or rental agreement should consult a real estate attorney.
When the landlord and tenant have a lease agreement, the lease will control how and when either the tenant or landlord can cancel the lease. Leases for a fixed period of years typically expire at the end of that period, with no requirement of notice by either side. However, cancellation of leases for periodic terms (such as month-to-month) usually requires notice of cancellation at least one period in advance, or they are renewed automatically. Most states' specific requirements to execute proper notice are spelt out in state statutes.
Tenancy at Will
With no valid lease agreement or other form of contract governing the tenancy, the law will often treat the rental arrangement as a tenancy at will (tenancies at will can also be created by a lease.) Under the common law, tenancies at will can be terminated by either the landlord or the tenant without any notice. However, many states' law now implies certain rights to notice. Should a lease give the landlord the right to terminate without notice, but not give the tenant a similar right, the law will usually imply the tenant's right to notice. However, the law will not imply the same right for landlords.
Cancellation by Law
Under the law, a tenancy at will terminates automatically if either the tenant or landlord dies; if the tenant tries to assign his tenancy to another party; if the landlord sells or transfers his ownership of the property; or if the tenant commits waste of the property. Tenant waste covers a broad range of tenant treatment of the property: damage to the premises through the tenant's negligent or intentional behaviour; the tenant's failure to repair ordinary (everyday) wear and tear to the property; and the tenant's failure to inform the landlord of problems or damage to the property.
Warranty of Habitability
Regardless of the language in the lease, the majority of U.S. states require the landlord to ensure that residential premises are "habitable." Usually, habitability is measured by conformance with local housing codes. While some states only allow the tenant to seek damages or demand the cost of repair from the landlord, other states do allow a tenant in uninhabitable premises to move out and cancel any lease.
Although a landlord may legally cancel the lease and evict a tenant for failure to pay rent, the landlord may not terminate the rental and/or evict a tenant in retaliation for a tenant's lawful behaviour. For instance, should a tenant complain to the local housing board about the state of the rental property, the landlord may not then punish the tenant by terminating the lease and evicting the tenant. Most states assume an eviction is done in retaliation if the eviction happens within a certain period (differing by state) of the tenant's exercise of his rights; should a landlord evict within this period, he may need to present evidence of a good alternative reason for the eviction.