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Can You Get Out of a Lease Early? Guide to the California Lease Laws

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When a tenant signs the lease, they essentially have a contract with the landlord to live in the rented premises until it expires. If a tenant breaks this contract, they risk facing a number of penalties including forfeiting their security deposit return

For context, what exactly is breaking a lease? Breaking a lease is leaving before a fixed-term lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent due under the lease agreement. For example, leaving in July when the lease is due to expire in October, without paying for the 3 months left of the lease duration.   

Now, the reasons a tenant might break a lease can be legally justified or not. Legal justifications include breaking a lease to enter military service, being a victim of domestic violence, or if the property violates California’s habitability standards. 

If a tenant breaks a lease for any of those reasons, they may not face any legal or financial repercussions. The same, however, cannot be said for tenants who break their lease for unjustified reasons. For example, unjustified reasons include breaking a lease because of a breakup, wanting to move closer to a new place of work, or moving to a new home. 

What are the Consequences of Breaking a Rental Lease in California?

If you break a lease without legal justification, you may face one or more of the following consequences. 

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1. You could have trouble renting your next apartment. 

Landlords typically screen prospective tenants before allowing them to rent their property. The screening process may involve checking your rental history and contacting one or more of your previous landlords. If they find out you broke your lease without following due process, they may not want to lease to you. 

2. You could hurt your credit score. 

Unpaid rent is debt. Breaking a lease can severely hurt your credit score and make it incredibly difficult for you to get new loans and rent another apartment. 

3. You risk getting sued. 

While rare, especially if you have been an otherwise good tenant, it’s still a possibility. This is a higher risk if you have a rather litigious landlord. 

4. Your risk facing some hefty fees. 

This is the most common penalty for breaking a lease without legal justification. Sometimes the fine is equal to one- or two month’s worth of rent. In other words, you risk forfeiting your security deposit. 

In other cases, you may be faced with the financial burden of having to cover the amount of rent due for the remainder of your lease term, regardless of whether you’re actually living in the apartment or not. 

Tenants Rights & Responsibilities When Signing a Lease in California

Under the California landlord-tenant law, tenants have many rights under the lease agreement. For one, a landlord cannot evict them before the lease ends. The only exception is if they have seriously violated the terms of the lease. An example of a serious violation would be a failure to pay rent. 

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Even in that kind of situation, the lease obligates the landlord to follow the due process when carrying out the eviction process. They cannot, for example, force a tenant out by doing things like:

  • Turning off the heat or electricity.
  • Removing the front door.
  • Taking the tenant’s belongings.
  • Changing the locks.

These are all illegal acts, and a court would rule that you have been “constructively evicted” should they happen. 

You also have a right to receive appropriate notices in the event a landlord feels you have violated a lease term. For non-payment of rent, a landlord must give you a 3-days’ notice to pay or leave. For illegal activities, your landlord must give you a 3-days’ unconditional quit notice.

On your part, the lease obligates you to pay rent for the entire time the lease will be active. If you break the lease midway through, you’ll be obligated to pay the remainder of the rent, even if you’ll no longer be living in the property. 

5 Legal Reasons to Break a Lease in California

If a tenant has a legally justifiable reason, they can break the lease without facing any penalty. 

1. Landlord Harassment 

Any form of landlord harassment is illegal in the state of California. Landlord harassment is when a property manager willingly creates a situation meant to make their tenant uncomfortable. 

The following are some examples of landlord harassment.

  • Refusing to make repairs after repeated requests from a tenant. 
  • Serving eviction notices that are based on false charges. 
  • Intimidating or lying to a tenant.
  • Performing too many unnecessary inspections, or doing them at odd hours. 
  • Changing the locks when a tenant is away.
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  • Entering the property without notifying the tenant first. 
  • Taking away services that the lease provides. Examples include laundry and parking. 
  • Shutting off utilities that were previously available to the tenant. 

2. Privacy Rights Violation 

Under California law, tenants have the right to the quiet enjoyment of the property they are living in. A landlord cannot enter without your permission, not even to say ‘hi’. They must give you 24-hours notice (or 48-hours for the final move-in) before entering your rental apartment. 

3. Safety, Health, and Building Codes

Tenants have a right to live in a safe and habitable property. “Habitable” means a property that meets the local and state building and health codes. If a landlord fails to provide a property that lives up to these codes, a court would rule that a tenant has been “constructively evicted” in which case they are free from their lease agreement.  

4. Military Duty

Entering military service could relieve a tenant from their lease, regardless of when they signed it. However, this is only available to military personnel who are classified under “uniformed services.” 

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Members of the uniformed services include the 5 branches of the military (U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, and the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. 

5. Victim of Domestic Violence

Tenants who are victims of domestic violence have certain legal protections. A tenant may be able to break their lease if they’re a victim of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, or elderly abuse. Their landlord may, however, require them to produce some proof, for example, a temporary restraining order on their partner. 

Disclaimer: This blog is only meant to be informative and is in no way intended to be a substitute for legal advice from a qualified attorney. If you need any more help, please consider hiring professional legal services or a professional property management company, such as Doug Anderson Property Management.