Tenants break their leases for all sorts of reasons. The reasons could be justified, such as in the case of landlord harassment, habitability issues, or being a domestic violence victim.
In other cases, though, the reasons are not legally justifiable. For example, a tenant moving out to stay with their lover, due to divorce/separation or to be closer to a new place of work.
As a landlord, you need to be aware that a tenant can sometimes move out early without facing any penalties. However, for other reasons, they may be financially liable if they break a lease. If you’re wondering how to get out of a lease in California, this article can help.
We here at Eagle Property Management have made this article to give you an overview of breaking a lease in California.
What is a lease termination?
A lease termination refers to the end of a lease agreement between a landlord and a tenant. It is the point at which the tenant is no longer legally obligated to pay rent or abide by the terms of the lease. Lease terminations can occur for a variety of reasons, including the expiration of the lease term, a mutual agreement between the landlord and tenant to end the lease early, or termination by the landlord or tenant due to a breach of the lease agreement.
Tenant Rights and Responsibilities When Signing a Lease
As a landlord, your lease outlines various rights and responsibilities for both you and your tenant. Your renter has a right to the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their home. This means that you must provide them with adequate notice prior to accessing the premises.
As a California tenant, they also have a right to a habitable rental property. This means a property that, among other things, is free from infestation, is structurally sound and has functioning plumbing, heating, and electricity.
Thirdly, the lease agreement prevents landlords from forcefully evicting tenants unless the term ends or they seriously violate the terms of the lease. Common lease violations include nonpayment of rent, repeatedly throwing noisy parties, subletting the property, or keeping a pet when there is a “no animals” policy.
Can a landlord break a lease in California? Yes, but only under certain conditions. If you’re wondering how to break a lease in California, you can only do so if your tenant fails to honor these responsibilities. Then, you may pursue an eviction.
Regardless of the infraction they have committed, you must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy.
It would be illegal for you to engage in direct or indirect tactics to get your tenants out of your property, such as:
- Interfering with amenities, such as blocking access to their reserved parking space.
- Ordering or threatening them to leave the premises.
- Shutting off utilities such as phone service, electricity, gas, water, or heat
- Locking them out or removing their belongings from your property
These are known as self-help eviction tactics, and they are illegal in California much like they are elsewhere in the country.
Valid Reasons for Early Lease Termination
1. There is Harassment.
As a landlord, you need to respect your tenants’ right to privacy. Any form of landlord harassment is illegal in California and can lead to a tenant ending the lease early without being financially responsible.
As per California lease termination laws (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954), you must provide your tenant with 24 hours’ notice (or 48 for the final move-out inspection) before accessing the property.
Furthermore, you must have a legitimate reason for accessing the property, for example:
- To make needed repairs.
- To show the property to prospective tenants or buyers.
- If given permission by a court of law.
- To conduct scheduled inspections.
- In the case of an emergency.
- If you have reason to believe that the tenant has abandoned the property.
California landlords must also enter only during normal hours, or at any time with the tenant’s permission.
2. The property isn’t safe or habitable.
Landlords must provide properties that meet all local and state housing codes. If you don’t, it could amount to a “constructive eviction.” Living in an uninhabitable property poses a risk to tenants.
Conditions that make a home uninhabitable include:
- Damaged floor tiles
- Insufficient security measures
- Poor ventilation
- Inconsistent water temperature
- Exposed asbestos
- Chipping lead paint
To move out due to any of these conditions, there are specific requirements a tenant must follow (see Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal.3d 616 (1974) and Cal. Civ. Code § 1942).
3. They are starting active military duty.
If your tenant is an active service member and has received a change of station order, they have a right to break the lease under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 1944. The following are the “uniformed services” that qualify for this:
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Members of the armed forces
- The activated National Guard
- The commissioned corps of the Public Health Service
They must provide you with written notice of the date that rent is due.
If you are a member of the military inand need to break your lease due to starting active duty, you have legal options. California law provides all military tenants with the legal right to terminate their lease if they are called to active duty.
To end a housing lease early without penalty, you must provide your landlord with written notice of your intent to end the lease early and a copy of your military orders. If you signed a lease or rental agreement after you began active-duty service, you may still be able to terminate it without penalty under the (SCRA).
It is recommended that you provide your landlord with written notice of your intent to break the lease and a copy of your military orders, ideally no fewer than 30 days in advance.
4. They have been a victim of domestic violence.
Breaking a lease due to domestic violence in California is legally justified. A tenant can terminate the lease if they or their child have been a victim of domestic violence.
California Civil Code, Chapter 2, Section 1946.7 allows tenants the right to terminate their lease if they have been a victim of domestic violence. To exercise this option, you may need to provide documentation such as a restraining order or police report.
A toolkit provided by the National Housing Law Project and a letter template provided by Action Network can help you navigate the process of early lease termination for survivors. However, breaking a lease early in California usually means paying a termination fee of one or two months’ rent, but this is not required in cases of domestic violence.
How can I Legally Terminate Lease as a Tenant?
In California, tenants can break a lease without penalty if they have legally justified reasons, such as early termination clauses, active military duty, uninhabitable living conditions, privacy violations, or victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. If tenants don’t have a legal justification, they can negotiate with the landlord, offering to work with them and finding a replacement tenant.
Lease termination notice requirements in California include 30-day notice for less than one year, 60-day notice for more than one year, and 90-day notice for those in subsidized housing or Section 8 vouchers. Breaking a lease without legal justification can have tangible consequences for tenants, including unpaid rent, advertising, showing the unit, and background and credit check fees.
Can a Landlord Terminate a Lease Without Cause in California?
In California, landlords can terminate a lease without cause if the lease has expired or includes an early termination clause. There are certain circumstances where a landlord may be able to terminate a lease without cause, such as if the tenant has violated the terms of the lease or engaged in illegal activities on the property. It’s important to note that even if a landlord can terminate a lease without cause, they must still follow the proper legal procedures and provide the tenant with written notice of termination. If a landlord terminates a lease without cause in violation of California law, the tenant may be able to take legal action against the landlord.
If tenants lack legal justification, they can negotiate with the landlord or find a replacement tenant. Understanding notice requirements in California is crucial, as breaking a lease without legal justification can result in unpaid rent and other costs for tenants.
Landlord’s Duty to Find a New Tenant in the State of California
So, what happens if a tenant doesn’t have a justified reason to break your lease agreement? (As mentioned earlier, things like breaking a lease to buy a house in California are not legally justified). If this occurs, yet they still want to move out, they’ll need to pay all the rent due under the remaining lease period.
For example, if your lease is due to end in August and the tenant wants to move in March, then they’ll still be liable for paying for the 4 months that the lease will still be in effect (cal civ code 1951.2).
However, during this period, you still have a responsibility as a landlord to find a replacement tenant.
Disclaimer: This blog isn’t a substitute for legal advice. If you have any questions regarding any part of this content or simply want legal advice, please get in touch with a qualified attorney or property management company.