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Do Renters Have the Right to Break a Lease in California?


Unless a tenant has legal grounds to break an unexpired fixed-term lease, the tenant would normally be liable for substantial damages. Depending on the language of the lease, Civil Code Section 1951.2 or 1951.4 will determine the amount of those penalties. Federal, state, and local laws may sometimes give tenants valid grounds for breaking a lease. In this article, we’ll discuss a few examples of when a tenant may have the right to break a lease before the lease term ends.

Active Military Service

Under the servicemembers civil relief act, and state law, a tenant who enters active military service may have legal reason to break a lease. The tenant must enter active military duty after signing a lease or be redeployed for a period of not less than 90 days. In these instances, the service member may have the right to break a lease without further responsibility for monthly rent.

What Type of Service Qualifies?

In California, this includes any of the following types of military personnel:

  • Active-duty members of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard)
  • Full-time members of the activated National Guard, State Military Reserve, and the Naval Militia

Proper Notice Requirements

The tenant must provide the landlord written notice of termination for military reasons. To break a lease for military reasons, tenants must follow proper notice requirements. To qualify, tenants must provide the following information:

  • Written notice to the landlord
  • Proof the lease was signed before entering active duty
  • Documentation they will remain on active duty for a minimum of the next 90 days

Once the tenant delivers the notice, the lease will terminate thirty days after the next rental due date. To illustrate: The tenant delivers notice on March 23rd. The rent is due on the first of each month. The rent is still due for the following month of April. The earliest date the lease can terminate is May 1st.

Unsafe or Unhealthy Conditions

California residential landlords must provide habitable housing that meets local and state housing codes. If a rental unit violates California’s minimum health or safety codes, tenants may have a right to break a lease under constructive eviction. When landlords provide unlivable housing, it may well reduce or suspend a tenant’s rental obligations.

Moreover, under Civil Code Section 1942, the tenant may have the right to terminate if the landlord fails to make necessary repairs within a reasonable time period. However, both landlords and tenants have responsibilities. California law outlines specific procedures tenants must follow before moving out due to a repair problem.

Illegal Dwelling Units

In order to be considered a legal dwelling, a unit must satisfy building and safety codes, and the city must issue a certificate of occupancy. For example, converted garage areas, attached rooms, and areas previously used for other purposes may not be legal if they don’t meet building codes. If the dwelling unit is illegal, the rental agreement is normally void, no rent is owed, and the tenant can leave at any time.

Privacy Violations

California Civil Code Section 1954 only allows a landlord to enter the unit after giving proper notice. However, this is only for one of the limited reasons specified in that law (such as to make necessary or agreed upon repairs). If a landlord continually violates a tenant’s privacy under that law, or engages in other substantial violations of the tenant’s quiet enjoyment rights, the tenant may have the right to legally break the lease.

Harassment

Similarly, it is illegal for landlords to harass tenants. Actions such as shutting off electricity, changing locks, or removing doors may well be considered “constructively evicting” a tenant. In these types of situations, if the tenant leaves within a reasonable period after the misconduct occurs, the tenant will not owe rent accruing after the tenant moves out.

Victims of Abuse

California law states that tenants who are victims of abuse have the right to break their lease. This includes instances of domestic violence, sexual abuse, elder abuse and other similar crimes. As long as specific conditions exist, tenants have the right to early termination of their lease.

California law provides these rights when tenants themselves are a victim of domestic violence. The law also applies if a member of their household is also a victim of abuse. In addition, the law extends these rights to any immediate family members who are victims, even if they do not live with the tenant.

Early Termination Clause

A lease agreement may include terms that allow the tenant to terminate the lease early in exchange for a penalty fee.

When the Landlord Agrees

In some situations, landlords may choose to agree to allow a tenant to move out early rather than taking legal action. They may prefer to avoid the costly and time-consuming court process.

What If A Tenant Breaks A Lease Without Justification?

For tenants who want to leave early and don’t have legal justification to break a lease, there are effective ways to minimize the money owed and ensure a good reference. Tenants may help improve the situation by doing the following:

  • Provide as much notice to the landlord as possible.
  • Write the landlord an explanation letter.
  • Find a qualified replacement to offer the landlord.

Landlord Rights and Responsibilities If the Tenant Unlawfully Terminates the Lease

In California, tenants are only required to pay the amount of rent a landlord loses. Even if a tenant may not have a legal right to break a lease, California state law says the landlord must make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit. Before charging the tenant for the remaining rent due, the landlord must take steps to minimize the loss of rent. When re-renting the property, the landlord subtracts the new rent from the amount owed. The tenant is generally only responsible for the amount of time the unit was vacant. But, the tenant may also be liable for any rent differential if the landlord is forced to re-rent the unit for a lower rent. This may happen in a declining rental market.

However, the landlord does not need to compromise standards for selecting a new tenant. For instance, the landlord does not need to accept someone with low credit scores or poor references. Landlords are also not required to place a higher priority on renting the unit, to the detriment of other rental business. Finally, the landlord can add the costs of re-renting the unit to the tenant’s bill.

What if the landlord can’t find a new tenant?

If the landlord cannot find an acceptable tenant, the tenant is liable for the rent that remains on the lease term. If a tenant moves out with several months left before the end of the lease, this could be a substantial amount of money. Landlords may use the security deposit to cover the amount owed by the tenant. If the deposit is not sufficient, the landlord has the right to sue the tenant in Small Claims Court or otherwise to recover the unpaid damages. They may also be able to seek court costs, attorney fees the landlord incurs, and legal interest.

Some recent state and local laws purport to limit the landlord’s rights and remedies if a tenant terminates before the lease expires. The validity and interpretation of those laws is still uncertain. A qualified landlord-tenant attorney can help navigate these laws.

As San Francisco’s leading landlord-tenant attorneys, we can clarify how California landlord-tenant laws affect you. Steven Adair MacDonald & Partners has resolved landlord-tenant disputes and real estate issues for over 30 years. To schedule a consultation for legal advice, please call 415-956-6488.

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