Breaking a Lease in California

Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in California when they can’t, what options they have if they don’t have a proper cause, and what the consequences are of walking out on a lease agreement.

Importance of Fixed Periods in Lease Agreements

Without a fixed period, a landlord generally has the same rights as the tenant to terminate tenancy (with proper notice). In the same way that a landlord lacks long-term security on a month-to-month (or shorter period) lease if a tenant decides to leave, tenants lack the same security if the landlord decides to change the terms (i.e. raise the rent) or end the lease altogether. 

That’s why fixed periods are an important protection for both parties. They’re not just there to act as a restriction to tenants. 

As a result, there are real legal consequences for violating the agreement without proper cause on either side. It’s important to understand when a tenant can get out a lease with a fixed period that hasn’t ended, and when a tenant can’t.

Lease Termination Notice Requirements in California

In California, a tenant is not required to provide notice for fixed end date leases, the lease expires on the last day of the lease. California tenants have to provide written notice for the following lease terms:

  • Notice to terminate a week-to-week lease. 7 days written notice from either the landlord or the tenant is required (Civ. Code §§ 1946).
  • Notice to terminate a month-to-month lease. 30 days written notice from either the landlord or the tenant is required (Civ. Code §§ 1946).

Conditions for Legally Breaking a Lease in California

There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in California without penalty. We’ll go through each of them below.

1. Early Termination Clause

Some modern lease agreements may provide specific terms that would allow a tenant to terminate a lease early in exchange for a penalty fee. Read over the lease and look for language that outlines agreed-upon terms for ending the lease before the end of the fixed period, such as the amount of the fee (i.e. equal to two month’s rent) and the amount of notice required (i.e. 30 days).

If a lease agreement contains an early termination clause, before executing it and paying the penalty fee, read further to learn about other conditions that, if met, would not require a penalty fee to be paid.

2. Active Military Duty

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) helps protect active service members who are relocated due to deployment or permanent change of station. The protection begins on the date of entering duty and ends between 30-90 days after the date of discharge.

To break a lease in accordance with the relief act, a tenant must:

  • Prove the lease was signed before entering active duty 
  • Prove they will remain on active duty for at least the next 90 days
  • Deliver a written notice to the landlord (example, page 2), accompanied by a copy of the orders to deploy / PCS or a letter from their commanding officer stating their pending deployment.

With that said, the lease does not terminate immediately. Once the notice is delivered, the earliest the lease can terminate is 30 days after the beginning of the next rent period. So for example, if the notice was delivered on the 23rd of March, and the rent is due on the 1st of each month, the earliest the lease can terminate is May 1st (meaning, rent is still due for the month of April).

NOTE

In California, the term “servicemember” means a member of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) who is on active duty, as well as members of the National Guard, State Military Reserve, and the Naval Militia,  called to full-time active state service or full-time active federal service.

3. Unit is Uninhabitable

Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and California is no different. 

If those standards are not met, proper notice is given by the tenant and the repairs/fixes are still not made within the allowable time period, a tenant would be considered “constructively evicted”. As a result, the obligations of the tenant under the lease are no longer required, given that the landlord has not met their own responsibilities under the California landlord-tenant law.

NOTE

California law (see Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal.3d 616 (1974) and Cal. Civ. Code § 1942) sets very specific requirements for the procedures you must follow before moving out because of a major repair problem. (For detailed information see Cal. Civ. Code § 1941, Health and Safety Code Sections

4. Landlord Harassment or Privacy Violation


If the action is serious enough, harassment by a landlord or their violation of a tenant’s privacy may be enough justification for relieving a tenant of their obligations of the lease.

  • Landlord entry.California state law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954) requires your landlord to give 24 hours’ notice to enter your rental. If your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy or does removes windows or doors, turns off your utilities, or changes the locks, you would be considered “constructively evicted,” as described above.
  • Changing the locks. In some states, if the locks are changed by a landlord without the tenant’s permission or without the protection of specific language in the lease agreement, this can qualify as being “constructively evicted”, and could relieve the tenant of their duties of the lease. In California, there is no statute on lockouts.

5. Violation of Lease Agreement


If a landlord violates the terms of the lease agreement, it may be enough justification to break the lease and relieve the tenant from their own obligations (i.e. illegally raising the rent during the fixed period). Because each lease agreement is different, carefully read over the duties and requirements for both parties to understand if a violation has been made, and whether or not there is language describing how certain violations are to be handled. 

6. Illegal Contract


In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal in the state of California, and as a result, are generally not enforceable. 

  • Illegal units. The definition of what constitutes an illegal rental unit can vary by location and isn’t always entirely clear. On the state level, California defines illegal units as dwellings that do not have the required Certificate of Occupancy. This document certifies that the residential building complies with all state and local building codes and is safe to live in. If your unit does not have this certificate the landlord is not entitled to collect or request rent from a tenant (Jack Gruzen v. Aaron P. Henry, 84 Cal. App. 3d 517, 519 (1978)).
  1. Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Stalking, or Elder Abuse

Many states protect tenants who are victims of domestic violence. California state law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.7) provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of domestic or sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse, provided that specified conditions are met (such as the tenant securing a temporary restraining order). Some statutes the state of California provides for victims of domestic violence include:

  • Protection from termination. Landlords cannot refuse to rent to a potential tenant because they were a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. Additionally, landlords cannot end a lease or refuse to renew a lease because the tenant was a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
  • Locks. If you request the landlord to change your locks and they fail to do so within 24 hours of your request, you may then change the locks yourself. If the restrained person is also a tenant of the unit, that person is still responsible for upholding their end of the lease. 
  • Proof of status. A landlord is entitled to verify the claim of domestic violence status. The tenant is required to attach a copy of the restraining order, emergency protective order, or police report to their termination notice they provide to the landlord. These need to be submitted within 180 days of the day the order was issued. 
  1. Mandatory Disclosures in California

Many state and local laws require landlords to disclose documentation, policies, or specific unit information to tenants prior to moving in. Since these laws vary from state to state (and sometimes by city or county) it is important to have your agreement looked over by a landlord-tenant attorney in your state to guarantee the correct disclosures are included in your lease. 

Some disclosure laws impose heavy fines or legal ramifications to landlords if they are not followed. Others contain penalty provisions and may allow you to break your lease. If your landlord fails to provide you with a mandatory state or local disclosure speak with a California landlord-tenant attorney to determine what can be done.

California requires that landlords provide the following disclosures to tenants, normally in writing and at the start of the lease:

  • Pest control. If the landlord has a contract with a pest control company, the landlord must provide new tenants with a notice that is provided by the pest control company. The notice must state the pest that the pest company is contracted to control and the pesticides that the company will use. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.8; Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 8538.)
  • California’s EPA’s Residential Environmental Hazard Guide. This guide contains all the required disclosures of potential environmental hazards required in California. 
  • Methamphetamine Contamination. If a health inspector finds that a unit is contaminated with chemicals from the production of meth, the tenants must move out of the unit, and the landlord must also serve the health inspector’s notice to future tenants. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 25400.28.)
  • Demolition Permit. If a building has applied for a demolition permit, the landlord must give notice to the current tenants and prospective tenants before they pay an application fee. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.6.)
  • Military Ordnance. The landlord must notify prospective tenants if the rental property is located one mile from a closed military base where live ammunition or explosives were used. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.7.)
  • Death in Unit. The landlord must disclose if the prior tenant died in the unit within the last three years, and why. However, if the prior tenant died in the unit because of AIDS, the landlord does not need to disclose that the prior tenant died of AIDS. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1710.2.)
  • Mold. Landlords must provide written disclosure to prospective tenants of the potential health risks that may result from exposure to mold. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 26147 and Cal. Health & Safety Code § 26148.))
  • Utility. The landlord must disclose whether gas or electricity in the rental also serves other areas and must disclose how costs will be fairly allocated. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.9.)
  • Flood Hazard. Starting on July 1, 2018, the landlord must tell their tenant whether the property is located in a flood hazard area or an area of potential flooding. (Cal. Govt. Code § 8589.45.)
  • Bed Bugs. Starting July 2017, landlords must provide all new tenants with general information about bed bug identification, behavior and biology, the importance of cooperation for prevention and treatment, and the importance of tenants promptly reporting (in writing) any suspected infestations to the landlord. Landlords must provide this notice to any existing tenants by January 2018. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954.603.)
  • Registered sexual offender database. Landlords must include the following language in every lease and rental agreement: “Notice: Pursuant to Section 290.46 of the Penal Code, information about specified registered sex offenders is made available to the public via an Internet Web site maintained by the Department of Justice at www.meganslaw.ca.gov. Depending on an offender’s criminal history, this information will include either the address at which the offender resides or the community of residence and ZIP Code in which he or she resides.” (Cal. Civ. Code § 2079.10a.)
  • No smoking policy. For leases and rental agreements signed after January 2012, if the landlord prohibits or limits the smoking of tobacco products on the rental property, the lease must include a clause describing the areas where smoking is limited or prohibited. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1947.5.)
  • Notice of default. Lessors of single-family homes and multifamily properties of four units or less, who have received a notice of default for the rental property that has not been rescinded, must disclose this fact to potential renters before they sign a lease. The notice must be in English or in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or Korean (if the lease was negotiated in one of these languages), and must follow the language specified in Cal. Civ. Code § 2924.85(d).
NOTE

The only federally required landlord disclosure pertains to lead-based. Known as Title X, this disclosure is designed to protect families from exposure to lead from paint, dust, and soil. Section 1018 of this law requires the disclosure of known information on lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards before the sale or lease of housing built before 1978.

9. You or a Co-Tenant Face a Health Crisis

If you, a dependent living with you, or your co-tenant, face a serious physical or mental health issue you may qualify for early lease termination without obligation to pay the entire balance of rent due. Some states offer permitted, health-related lease-breaking arrangements that are age-restricted. Most states require a note from a locally licensed physician and at least 30 days’ notice. Since not all states allow this statute, be sure to check the California Landlord and Tenant Handbook for further information. 

Note About Illegal Retaliation in California


In July of 2019, House Bill 346 (which became § 44-7-24) went into effect providing tenants with protection against landlords that retaliate to actions such as giving the notice to make repairs or reporting to governmental entities about violations in building or housing codes. The bill does not state that these types of illegal retaliation are enough justification for lease termination, but the bill does allow for a sizable penalty against the landlord if they’re found in violation (1 month’s rent + legal fees + $500), which could help offset the costs of penalty fees associated with early termination. 

NOTE

In California, landlord retaliation is judged under section Civ. Code §§ 1942.5.

Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking

The below reasons are generally not enough justification (on their own) to release a tenant from the obligation of their lease term, and as a result, provide no legal protection against penalties for not honoring the lease.

  • They bought a house
  • They are relocating for a new job or school
  • They are upgrading or downgrading
  • They are moving in with a partner
  • They are moving to be closer to family

Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons or in any conditions not previously outlined can have tangible consequences for tenants.

Tenant’s Options if Legal Justification is Not Met


If the previously stated legal conditions are not met, there are still a few options that a tenant has that could allow for them to not be obligated to pay rent until the end of the fixed period.

Talk with the landlord

Some landlords may be understanding and willing to negotiate with a tenant. Every situation is different, and every landlord is different. A tenant’s best chance at getting a landlord to work with them is, to be honest about the reasons for leaving, to provide as much notice as possible, and to propose possible resolutions that could be mutually beneficial (i.e. by paying 2 month’s rent). 

Aid in finding a new tenant


If the tenant moves out before the end of the fixed period, they are still required to pay rent until the end of the period until a new tenant is found. During that remainder period, the landlord is required to make reasonable effort to find a new tenant (if they don’t, the previous tenant is not responsible for future rent). 

Therefore, the previous tenant may choose to be proactive and help to find a new tenant on their own, instead of waiting for the landlord to find one. The landlord does not have to accept the newly found tenant if they have reasonable justification (i.e. they have bad credit or rental history), but helping to find a new tenant can only help increase a tenant’s chances of being relieved of future rent.

NOTE

In California, landlords have to make a reasonable attempt to rerent the dwelling and, if they are successful in rerenting, credit rent received from the new tenant to your debt. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.2)

Sublet

If your lease does not prohibit subletting, then you are in the clear to do so. However, your lease might contain a clause requiring you to obtain your landlord’s approval prior to subletting. To get landlord approval you will want to send them a letter through certified mail, with a return receipt requested, outlining the terms of the sublet lease agreement. Certified mail is the only proof of delivery that most courts will accept in case you need to prove that you notified your landlord. 

Consequences of Illegal Lease Breaking


If a tenant breaks a lease without mutual agreement from the landlord or without the proper legal justification and does not pay the rent due for the remainder of the fixed period, the tenant faces the following consequences.

  • Loss of security deposit. Usually, at a minimum, a landlord may choose to withhold the security deposit. 
  • Lawsuit. A landlord may sue the tenant for unpaid rent during the fixed period, which if won, could result in the tenant facing a money judgment. That judgment, if not paid on the spot or if terms are not set for a long-term payment plan, could result in the garnishment of the tenant’s wages or bank account.
  • Impact on credit score. While a money judgment won’t show up on a tenant’s credit report (thanks to the National Consumer Assistance Plan), if the landlord chooses to go an alternative route to collecting on unpaid rent by using a debt collection agency, the tenant’s credit score could be severely impacted.
  • Difficulty in finding future housing. Whether or not a tenant provides the landlord’s name & contact information themselves when looking to buy or rent in the future, a background check will most likely provide the future landlord or mortgage lender with that information. That previous landlord could provide a very negative reference.

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