A lease agreement is a legally binding contract between a landlord and their tenant. A tenant who is paying rent should stay in the rental unit for the entire lease term.
Breaking a lease means that a tenant is ending the lease before its natural termination date.
Ideally, before moving out and ending the lease, a tenant must provide the landlord with a proper notice. To terminate a week-to-week lease, the tenant must provide the landlord with a 7 days written notice (Civ. Code §§ 1946). To end a month-to-month lease, the tenant must provide the landlord with a 30 days written notice (Civ. Code §§ 1946).
When a tenant breaks a lease early, they must still continue to pay rent for the remaining period that the lease or rental agreement would be active. Even if they no longer live in the property, it is still their responsibility to pay unpaid rent.
Landlords’ Rights & Responsibilities when Signing a Lease in California
As a landlord, you have a right to collect rent from California tenants for the entire life of the lease in California. So, even if your renter breaks their lease early, you may still hold them accountable for unpaid rent under the lease agreement and they must pay rent.
Additionally, as a landlord, you also have a right to require a proper notice from a tenant looking to end their lease in California. As already mentioned, with an early lease termination, tenants must provide a 7-days or 30-days’ notice to end a lease in California, depending on the lease type. If they fail to do so, you may sue them for unpaid rent and withhold their security deposit.
Along with rights, the lease or rental agreement also gives a landlord responsibilities. For instance, as a landlord, you must ensure that your California rental unit adheres to the state and local habitability standards. If you fail to do so, your tenant is legally entitled to breaking a lease in California without consequence and can no longer be held responsible for paying rent.
It is also the responsibility of landlords to ensure tenants live in a peaceful and quiet space on the property, as well as ensure tenants have privacy in their rented property unit throughout the duration of their lease term.
Legally Justified Reasons to Break a Lease Agreement in California
A handful of scenarios exist that legally entitle tenants to break a lease in California.
The following are some of the scenarios:
1. The tenant is a victim of domestic or sexual violence
Landlords need to understand that California law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.7) gives tenants who are victims of domestic violence special rental provisions. Victims of stalking, domestic violence, and sexual abuse can break their California lease so long as certain conditions are met.
A landlord in California has a right to request proof from a domestic violence victim. The legal justification for domestic violence or sexual violence can be in the form of a police report, an emergency protective order, or a restraining order.
Relocating to a different property for their safety allows a tenant who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence to break their lease early and exempts a tenant from any further rent obligation and excepts them from any early-termination fees they might otherwise be required to pay. This is also allows them to vacate the rental unit.
2. The landlord is harassing the tenant
Landlord harassment is illegal, and it is a valid, legal reason for a tenant to break their lease in California.
Examples of such actions from landlords include:
- Making verbal threats to the tenant.
- Using physical harassment towards a tenant.
- Increasing the rent amount without serving a proper landlord written notice.
- Refusing to make required property repairs.
- Cutting off amenities that were included in the rental agreement.
- Shutting off utilities, such as running water.
Any of these actions allow tenants to break their lease and be released from any further obligation to continue paying for the rental unit.
3. The landlord repeatedly violates the tenant’s right to privacy
Your tenants have a right to the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their rented unit during their lease term. Even as the landlord, you cannot just barge in as you like. If you do, especially repeatedly, your renter could sue you for privacy violation.
As per (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954), a landlord must provide their tenant at least 24 hours’ notice prior to entering their rental. Not adhering to this does allow your tenant to break their lease in California before their fixed term lease expires.
4. The rental unit is no longer habitable
California has specific health and safety standards that the landlord should ensure that their property for rent meet. These standards must be maintained throughout the lease by the landlord.
Thus, as a landlord, it’s your responsibility to ensure your rental unit meets all the basic safety, health and building codes throughout the lease.
In your unit to rent, ensure there are:
- Effective plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems
- Adequate water supply
- Effective weatherproofing
- An adequate number of garbage receptacles
If you, as landlord in California, fail to provide these, a court would likely conclude that you have “constructively evicted” your tenant by supplying unliveable housing which allows the tenant to break their lease early.
5. The tenant is beginning active military service.
Another reason that a tenant may break their lease early is due to active military duty. Active service members who have been relocated due to deployment or received permanent change of station are protected by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).
The Act protects members of the “uniformed services,” including:
- Members of the Armed Forces
- The Activated National Guard
- Commissioned corps of the Public Health Service
- Commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
As per the relief act, the tenant about to embark on active military duty must serve the landlord a written notice of their intent to move out. They must also show the landlord copies of the deployment letters, as well as prove they intend to remain on active duty for the next 90 days.
If they do, this is a legal justification in California for early lease termination without requirement to pay any fees.
6. The lease contains an early termination clause.
In, some modern California lease agreements, landlords allow tenants to terminate a lease early in exchange for a penalty fee the tenant is required to pay. The penalty fee is usually equivalent to the rent of two months which releases them from any obligation of their lease.
A landlord can also require California tenants to provide them proper notice before moving out of the rental property unit.
Landlord’s Duty to Find a Replacement Tenant in California
When tenants break their lease early, California law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.2) requires landlords to make reasonable efforts to re-rent their units after a renter moves out. So, regardless of the reason for moving out, you must try to re-rent the unit quickly in order to mitigate costs of the early terminated lease.
Bottom Line: Breaking a Lease in CA
As an overview, landlords should now that when your renter breaks the lease early, it means they are ending the lease before its natural termination date. As a California landlord, it’s important to understand how to act in this situation.
As a landlord, it’s also crucial to know that there are many scenarios that legally allow a tenant to break their lease early in California!
Does the legal side of leasing properties stress you out? Are you ready to hand over your California property for rent to the professionals while still enjoying the monthly income? Contact us online to learn more about what we can do for you.
If you have more questions, Realevate Specialists can help. Backed by over 30 years of experience, we’re true leaders in the Temecula and San Diego real estate market.
Disclaimer: This blog about breaking a lease isn’t a substitute for professional legal advice from a qualified attorney. Laws may change, and this blog may not be updated at the time of your reading. For questions or edits, kindly get in touch with us.
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