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Breaking a Lease in California | 📝 What you Need to Know in CA

No one ever signs an apartment lease with the intention of breaking it. Maybe you’ve bought your dream home, need to relocate for work, or you simply can’t afford rent anymore. While weighing your options, you likely have a huge question: what happens when breaking a lease in California? Will it make it impossible to rent a new place or create a financial burden?

There are ways to get out of a lease in California without penalty, but not many. Here’s a complete guide to California early termination of lease including how to break a lease in California with legal justification.

California Lease Laws – Tenant Rights & Responsibilities When Signing a Lease in California

When you sign a California lease agreement, you and the landlord are obligated by the terms for a period of time. Unless your lease allows it, the landlord cannot increase the rent or change the terms. You cannot be forced to leave the home before the end of the lease unless you violate the terms of the lease.

Even if you violate a major term of the lease such as causing major damage, your landlord must provide written notice. In the case of nonpayment of rent, California requires a three-day “pay or quit” notice in writing that allows you to pay the overdue rent or face eviction. In the case of illegal activities on the property, the landlord can give a three-day unconditional quit notice.

Importantly, when signing the lease, you are legally responsible for paying rent for the entire term of the lease. If you terminate your lease early, you can be responsible for paying the remaining rent due.

What Happens if You Break a Lease in California?

Before you consider breaking a lease in CA, make sure you understand the potential consequences.

What happens if you break an apartment lease? That depends on whether your lease has an early termination clause and the steps you take after moving out.
If you have a lease early termination clause, you can break your lease early in exchange for paying a penalty such as one month’s rent. If you do not have this clause and break your lease, you will be liable for your landlord’s damages. This includes the unpaid rent until the unit is occupied by a new tenant and other costs such as advertising, showing the unit, and background and credit check fees.

You may face the following consequences of breaking a lease in California.

  • You may have trouble renting a new home. Your new prospective landlord may ask for references and check your credit report. They can see if you have a collections account or judgment for unpaid rent.
  • You may be sued for the remaining balance. Your landlord must attempt to find a new tenant as soon as possible. However, until that happens, you will be responsible for the remaining balance under your lease. If you fail to pay it or work out an arrangement with the landlord, they may sue you.
  • You may have a judgment issued against you. If your landlord takes you to court over the unpaid debt, they are very likely to win. Unless you make payment plan arrangements, a judgment can be issued against you.
  • You can be responsible for the remaining unpaid rent on your lease. Fortunately, California law requires landlords to mitigate damages. However, your landlord may not be able to rent the apartment quickly. You will be on the hook for unpaid rent under your lease until the landlord finds a new tenant.
  • You can lose your security deposit. Your landlord can use your security deposit toward the unpaid rent. You will still be liable for any additional amount you owe.
  • Your credit score may be damaged. Breaking a lease in California won’t automatically damage your credit. However, your landlord can report the debt to a collection agency which will appear on your credit report. If your landlord sues you and receives a judgment against you, it will remain on your credit report for up to 7 years and be visible to prospective landlords. However, judgments are no longer considered for your credit score.

How to Get Out of a Lease in California

When can you break a lease? There are several legally justified reasons to get out of a lease early. However, not all reasons are considered valid. You cannot, for instance, break a lease in CA because you bought a home, lost your job, or for medical reasons without facing consequences.

Here’s how to break a lease in California without penalty.

Your Lease Contains an Early Termination Clause

If you do not have one of the above valid reasons to break your lease, the next step is checking your lease for an early termination clause. This clause will allow you to terminate your lease early, but there are usually conditions. You must generally give your landlord notice (usually 30 to 60 days) and you may be required to pay a penalty such as one month’s rent.

Early termination clauses are fairly common. Some lease agreements go a step further with a provision to terminate a lease early due to financial hardship or job loss, major illness, and other circumstances.

It’s important to note that it’s illegal to charge a flat penalty for early lease termination in California. If your lease has a specific dollar amount to get out of your lease early, it most likely won’t hold up in court. That’s because landlords can only recover their actual damages suffered due to a lease termination under California Civil Code §1951.2. Still, it may be worth it if the early termination penalty is reasonable compared to the alternative and you have a long time left on your lease.

You Are Entering Active Military Duty

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act gives you the right to break an apartment lease in California if you are relocating due to deployment or a permanent change of station as an active service member. There are several conditions that must be met.

To qualify for this protection, which begins the date you begin active duty and ends 30-90 days after discharge, you must meet these conditions.

  • Your lease was signed before entering active duty
  • You will be on active duty for at least 90 days
  • Your landlord must be given written notice and a copy of your orders or a statement from your commanding officer

Even after meeting all requirements, your lease is not immediately terminated. The lease can be terminated as soon as 30 days beginning on the start of your next rent period.

The Unit Is Uninhabitable, Unsanitary, or Illegal

You have the right to a safe, habitable home under California health and safety codes. If your unit is considered uninhabitable, you can be considered “constructively evicted” and be allowed to break your lease.

There are very specific rules that must be followed to break a lease due to major defects. Here’s how to break a lease in CA under California Civil Code §1942.

When a property is uninhabitable, a tenant can also choose to move out without notice. California Civil Code §1941.1 lists conditions that make a unit uninhabitable. This includes:

  • A lack of effective waterproofing
  • A lack of working heating
  • A lack of hot and cold running water
  • Plumbing or gas that is not in safe, working order
  • A lack of electricity in good, working order
  • Conditions that may affect your health such as mold, insufficient ventilation, or unsanitary conditions

If your unit has major health or safety violations that make it uninhabitable, you must inform the landlord about the condition and give them a “reasonable” amount of time to correct it. The amount of time you need to wait isn’t legally defined and depends on the circumstances. You can further protect yourself by contacting the County Health Department or Building Inspector to document the conditions, getting statements from other tenants, and taking photos of the conditions.

Your Landlord Has Harassed You or Violated Your Privacy

California Civil Code §1954 requires landlords to give 24 hours’ notice prior to entering a rental property except in an emergency. If your landlord repeatedly violates this protection, or engages in harassing behavior like turning off utilities, removing doors, or changing your locks, you are considered “constructively evicted.” This gives you the legal justification for breaking a lease in California without further obligation to pay rent.

You Were the Victim of Domestic Violence or Other Qualifying Crimes

California Civil Code §1946.7 protects victims of certain crimes by allowing them to terminate their lease early without penalty. This statute applies to survivors of:

  • Domestic violence
  • Stalking
  • Sexual assault
  • Human trafficking
  • Elder abuse
  • Dependent adult abuse
  • Crimes that cause bodily injury or death
  • Crimes that involve the display, brandishing, or use of a firearm or deadly weapon
  • Crimes that involve use of force or threat of force

In addition to victims, immediate family members, even if they do not live with the victim, can also be protected by this law. Household members are also protected, but only family members, not roommates.

Here’s how to get out of a lease in California after suffering abuse or crime. Note that specific actions must be taken for legal protection.

You must provide written notice to your landlord that you are terminating your tenancy. This notice must include one of the following:

  • Copy of an emergency protective order, protective order, or temporary restraining order protecting you, a household member, or immediate family member from one of the qualifying crimes,
  • A copy of a written police report stating that you, a household member, or family member has filed a report alleging being the victim of a qualifying crime,
  • Documentation from a qualified third party based on information they received in a professional capacity that you, a family member, or household member is seeking assistance for abuse or injuries resulting from a qualifying crime, or
  • Any other documentation that can verify that the crime occurred.

You must give this notice to terminate your lease within 180 days of the date the crime occurred, the report was made, or the protective order was issued.
As long as these rules are followed, you will not be responsible for paying rent for more than 14 days following the notice. You will be released from your lease without penalty.

Learn more from the National Housing Law Project.

California Landlord’s Duty to Mitigate Damages & Find a New Tenant

Even if you must break your lease early without justification, California Civil Code §1951.2 requires the landlord to mitigate their damages. Your landlord must make reasonable efforts to find a new tenant instead of simply charging you for the remaining rent under your lease.

If you live in a high-demand rental market, you may not have to pay much when breaking a lease in California if the unit is re-rented quickly. However, this is no guarantee. The landlord is not required to relax their standards to find an acceptable new tenant.

You will still need to pay for any unpaid rent until a new tenant moves in. You will also need to pay other costs the landlord faces such as marketing expenses.

Tips to Minimize the Early Termination Penalty

When breaking a lease in California without legal justification, there are still steps you can take to reduce your liability for rent or even avoid penalties completely. Here are some options that may be available to you.

  • Discuss your situation with your landlord. Be honest, give as much notice as possible, and offer to work with them. They may be willing to let you out of your lease without paying a penalty.
  • Consider subletting if your lease does not prohibit it and obtain your landlord’s permission if necessary.
  • Offer help to find a new tenant quickly.
  • Provide as much notice as you can. Landlords have a duty to find a suitable new tenant as soon as reasonably possible.

Breaking a Lease in California FAQ

Can a landlord break a lease in California?

A landlord can terminate a lease in California and evict a tenant for violating the rental agreement (such as getting a pet that is not allowed), failing to pay rent, major damage to the unit, or committing a crime. They must give written notice, however, to terminate a lease with cause.

Can one person break a two person lease?

When two people sign a lease, they are both equally responsible for the rent. If one person moves out or breaks the lease, the other person is still liable for the rent.

What does breaking a lease in CA do to your credit?

When you break a lease, your landlord can sue you for the unpaid rent you owe under the lease agreement. If a judgment is obtained against you, it will be on your credit report for seven years. If the landlord instead turns the unpaid debt to a collection agency, you will have a collections account on your credit. This will damage your credit score.

How does breaking a California lease affect your rental history?

Prospective landlords may contact your previous landlords for references and find out you broke your lease. If your credit is checked when you apply for a new apartment, the early lease termination may appear if your previous landlord got a judgment against you or turned over your debt to a collection agency. A history of breaking leases is a red flag to landlords who may not want to risk a tenant who will leave early without paying the rent they owe.

Is breaking a lease in California for medical reasons allowed?

In California, early termination of a lease is not allowed for medical reasons. You will still be liable for unpaid rent until the landlord finds a new tenant unless your lease specifically offers conditions under which you can end your lease early. However, in the case of disability or when a tenant’s medical condition means they can no longer use the unit, early termination may be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the Fair Housing Act in some cases.

Breaking a lease early in California can come with hefty penalties, but not always! If you give as much notice as possible, you may avoid significant costs even without a legal reason to break your lease.

Are you breaking your lease to buy a house, leave the area, or change neighborhoods? We can’t help with the legal aspect of terminating your lease agreement, but we can make moving day easy and hassle-free. Call Republic Moving & Storage for a free moving quote so we can have you in your new home in no time.

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