Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in California, when they can’t, and whether or not a landlord is required by California law to make reasonable effort to rerent.
Before we address the legally acceptable reasons to get out a lease early without penalty, it’s important to know the notice requirements in California to end a tenancy in general.
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).
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.
A dwelling shall be deemed untenantable if it substantially lacks any of the following (§ 1941.1):
- Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors
Plumbing or gas facilities that conformed to applicable law in effect at the time of installation, maintained in good working order
- A water supply approved under applicable law that is under the control of the tenant, capable of producing hot and cold running water, or a system that is under the control of the landlord, that produces hot and cold running water, furnished to appropriate fixtures, and connected to a sewage disposal system approved under applicable law
- Heating facilities that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order
- Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order
- The building, grounds, and appurtenances at the time of the commencement of the lease or rental agreement, and all areas under control of the landlord, kept in every part clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin
- An adequate number of appropriate receptacles for garbage and rubbish, in clean condition and good repair at the time of the commencement of the lease or rental agreement, with the landlord providing appropriate serviceable receptacles thereafter and being responsible for the clean condition and good repair of the receptacles under his or her control
- Floors, stairways, and railings maintained in good repair
The landlord, or his or her agent, of a building intended for human habitation, shall do all of the following (1941.3):
- Install and maintain an operable deadbolt lock on each main swinging entry door of a dwelling unit. The deadbolt lock shall be installed in conformance with the manufacturer’s specifications and shall comply with applicable state and local codes including, but not limited to, those provisions relating to fire and life safety and accessibility for the disabled.
- Install and maintain operable window security or locking devices for windows that are designed to be opened.
- Install locking mechanisms that comply with applicable fire and safety codes on the exterior doors that provide ingress or egress to common areas with access to dwelling units in multifamily developments.
The lessor of a building intended for the residential occupation of human beings shall be responsible for installing at least one usable telephone jack and for placing and maintaining the inside telephone wiring in good working order, shall ensure that the inside telephone wiring meets the applicable standards of the most recent California Electrical Code, and shall make any required repairs. (1941.4)
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. Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Stalking, or Elder Abuse
California provides tenants who are victims of domestic violence with special rental provisions for their protection. 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.
Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking in California
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
Since state landlord-tenant laws vary, the following reasons may legally permit a tenant to terminate their tenancy early in other states but are not applicable in California:
- Violation of the 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).
- Illegal contract. In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal and as a result, is generally not enforceable.
- Mandatory disclosures. Many state and local laws require landlords to disclose documentation, policies, or specific unit information to tenants prior to moving in. Disclosure laws typically impose heavy fines or legal ramifications to landlords if they are not followed. In rare cases, they contain penalty provisions and may allow you to break your lease.
- Senior citizen or health issue. Some states offer age or health-related lease-breaking arrangements that permit early lease termination.
Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons or in any conditions not previously outlined can have tangible consequences for tenants.
Landlord’s Responsibility to Rerent in California
California state law does require landlords to take reasonable steps to rerent their unit when a tenant breaks their lease. This is referred to as the landlord’s duty to “mitigate damages”. This means that if you leave your lease early and your landlord rerents the unit before your lease ends, then the rent received from the new tenant will apply to your debt.
According to California state law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.2), 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.
Keep in mind, not all landlords are aware of their duty to mitigate. If your landlord demands payment for the remaining balance of your lease, you may want to notify them of your state’s law.
California tenants who break their lease early without proper justification should still plan on losing at least one month’s rent, even though the landlord has a responsible to rerent. In California and other states where the law requires the landlord to make a reasonable effort to rerent, judges in civil courts commonly award landlords with at least one month’s rent, no matter how quickly the unit is rented.
Tenant’s Right to Sublet in California
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.
The letter should include the following information:
- Sublet term
- Name of proposed subtenant or assignee
- The permanent home address of proposed subtenant or assignee
- Your reason for subletting or leaving permanently
- Your new address during the sublease if applicable
- The written consent of any co‑tenant
- A copy of the proposed sublease
If your landlord rejects your request, know that they can only refuse the proposed subtenant based on legitimate factors. The law says your landlord cannot unreasonably refuse your sublet.