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Breaking a Lease in California 📜 | Guide to Early Termination of Lease Penalties & Tenant Rights

Last Updated on: 20th March 2024, 08:51 pm

When you signed your lease, you likely did not imagine you would one day need to break it and move out early. Whether you’re buying a home, leaving the area, or dealing with an untenable situation, you need to know your rights and options.

Can you break a lease in California? Yes, but it may cost you unless you meet one of only five legal reasons to avoid penalty. Here’s how to break a lease in California and everything you need to know about your legal options and potential costs you face.

California Tenant Rights & Responsibilities When Signing a Lease

Your lease agreement is a legally binding contract with your landlord. Both tenants and landlords are held to the terms of this agreement and must uphold their responsibilities unless portions of the lease violate California tenant and landlord law.

Here are the most basic rights and responsibilities under California lease laws.

  • Your rent and the terms of the lease cannot be changed until your lease expires unless it specifically allows for these changes.
  • You are obligated to pay rent for the full term of your lease regardless of whether you live there unless you meet the requirements for a legal exception.
  • Your landlord cannot force you to move before the end of your lease unless you violate major lease terms or fail to pay rent.
  • Landlords must follow very specific procedures to end your tenancy, including giving three days’ notice to pay your rent or leave before an eviction can be filed. An unconditional notice with three days to leave can be given if you engage in illegal activities on the property.

Breaking a Lease in California: Consequences & Potential Penalties

Before breaking a lease in CA, be aware of the possible penalties and costs you will face. An early lease termination clause in your lease will limit the costs of ending your lease. Otherwise, you may be liable for the unpaid rent for the remainder of your lease if your landlord can’t find another tenant.

Here are just some things that may happen when breaking an apartment lease in California:

  • Responsible for remaining unpaid rent. You must continue paying rent on the unit until your landlord gets a new tenant.
  • You may be sued for the rest of the rent. If you can’t reach an arrangement with your landlord and owe remaining rent, they can sue you for the balance.
  • A judgment can be issued. A landlord will likely win a judgment against you for unpaid rent without a valid reason for early termination. This judgment. Fortunately, judgments no longer appear on your credit report.
  • A judgment will appear on your tenant background check. When potential landlords run a background check, a money judgment against you will appear. It can be hard to get approved by a landlord when they see a money judgment for back rent.

The financial fallout of breaking a lease in California can be significant, but there’s good news. Landlords are only entitled to the actual damages they suffered when a lease is broken.

Your landlord is obligated to mitigate damages and make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit quickly. You will be responsible for unpaid rent until a new tenant can move in and any costs the landlord incurs related to finding a new, qualified tenant.

How to Break a Lease in California Without Penalty

Fortunately, there are many legal reasons to break a lease in California. If any of these apply to your situation, you can move out early without incurring penalties and additional rent. Here’s how to get out of a lease early without penalties.

#1. Your Lease Has an Early Termination Clause

As soon as you realize you want out of your lease, read your lease agreement carefully to look for an early termination of lease clause. This type of clause allows you to end your lease early with specific conditions.

Normally, you are required to give your landlord 30 or 60 days’ notice. A penalty is common, usually one month’s rent.

Less commonly, your lease agreement may allow you to terminate your lease early if you experience financial hardship, such as a major illness, or meet other specific requirements.

California early lease termination cannot have a flat penalty amount. This means a landlord can’t demand a flat $2,000, regardless of your rent amount, to end your lease early.

#2. The Rental Is Uninhabitable

One of the most common reasons for breaking an apartment lease in California is an uninhabitable rental unit. Uninhabitable or unsanitary conditions that are not corrected by the landlord are considered grounds for constructive eviction.

The list of things necessary for a habitable unit includes:

  • A clean, sanitary, safe building without rodents and other vermin, filth, or debris
  • Hot and cold running water with a connected sewage system and fixtures in working order
  • Lighting, heat, and electricity in good working order
  • A working bathtub or shower, sink, and toilet in a properly ventilated bathroom that allows privacy
  • Functional deadbolt locks on entry doors

This is not an exhaustive list. To get out of your lease due to major health and safety defects, you must follow specific rules.

Here’s how to get out of a lease in California due to uninhabitable conditions:

  • Notify your landlord of the defects right away.
  • If they are not corrected within a reasonable amount of time, you can take one of several actions, including leaving and terminating the lease early without penalty.

California law doesn’t define a reasonable amount of time, but it’s based on the circumstances of the conditions and necessary repairs.

#3. The Rental Unit Is Illegal, or the Lease Is Unenforceable

You can break a lease in California without penalty if the unit is illegal. This makes the lease unenforceable. Landlords cannot collect rent on an illegal unit without a Certificate of Occupancy.

You can also get out of a lease if it was otherwise unenforceable. This may happen if the person who rented it to you did not have the right to do so, was an unlicensed property manager, or was a tenant not authorized to sublease.

#4. The Landlord Has Significantly Interfered with Your Quiet Enjoyment of the Property

You have the right to quiet enjoyment of the property you are renting. If a landlord interferes with your ability to use and enjoy the property, it may qualify as constructive eviction. This means your use of the property is so impacted by the landlord’s action or inaction that you have no choice but to leave.

Constructive eviction is a defense against the landlord’s attempt to recover additional rent.

Examples of scenarios that may qualify as constructive eviction include:

  • Your landlord repeatedly enters your rental without providing 24 hours’ notice or a justifiable emergency,
  • Your landlord has failed to make agreed-upon repairs,
  • Your landlord made threats, including threats of physical harm, threatening to call immigration authorities, or threatening to disclose perceived immigration status or citizenship,
  • Removing, taking, or deliberately destroying your property without permission,
  • Creating a nuisance, such as loud noise,
  • Singling you out with notices of conduct ignored from other tenants,
  • False or exaggerated notices of improper conduct,
  • Withholding amenities,
  • Retaliating after you make a report regarding illegal actions or health and safety violations.

#5. You Were the Victim of Domestic Violence or A Qualifying Crime

If you have been the victim of crime, California law offers one of several legal reasons to break a lease in California. You can terminate your lease early if you or an immediate family member, even one not living with you, has experienced:

  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Human trafficking
  • Stalking
  • Elder or dependent adult abuse
  • Crimes resulting in death or bodily injury
  • Crimes involving force or the threat of force
  • Crimes involving brandishing or using a firearm or deadly weapon

You must give your landlord written notice that you are terminating your lease along with a copy of a written police report, protective or restraining order, or other documentation proving the crime occurred.

This protection only allows you to terminate the lease within 180 days of the crime, when the report was made, or when a protective order was issued by the court. You cannot be held liable for rent beyond 14 days from the date you give notice.

You Are Entering Active Military Duty

Finally, breaking a lease in California is allowed if you must relocate due to a permanent change of station or deployment as an active duty service member. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act explains the requirements and how to get out of a lease in California for active military members:

  • You signed your lease before entering active duty
  • Your must give your landlord a copy of your orders or a statement from your commanding officer with written notice of early lease termination
  • You must be on active duty for 90 days or longer

With these requirements met, your lease can be ended in 30 days starting on the first day of your next rent period.

Tips for Getting Out of a Lease Early

  • As soon as you know you want to leave before your lease is up, take steps to reduce the fallout. You may be able to avoid paying additional rent or penalties if you are proactive – and get lucky.
  • Communicate with your landlord. If you have a good relationship, they may be willing to work with you to find a solution. The more notice you can provide, the better.
  • Offer a compromise. Your landlord may accept forfeiture of your security deposit or limiting the financial damage to a single month’s rent.
  • Keep good records. If you have a valid legal reason to terminate your lease, make sure you document everything and always communicate with your landlord in writing.
  • Subletting may be a good solution if the option is available to you.
  • Offering to find a new tenant may be an acceptable solution. Your landlord may let you out of the lease if you can find a tenant that passes their screening process.

We can’t help with breaking a lease in California, but our movers can make moving day easier! If you’re breaking a lease to buy a home, change neighborhoods, or even leave the state, give our Bay Area movers a call at (650) 284-2931 for a free, personalized moving quote.


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