Property Management Blog

What You Need to Know About Breaking a Lease in California

Pinnacle Property Management - Thursday, November 8, 2018

In California, as in many states, leases are legally binding contracts. Once you sign one, you must stay for the entire lease term, which is usually one year. But, what are you to do if you are unable to pay rent? Or, when you need to move closer to your new job? 

In such instances, despite your best intentions to stay for the full lease term, you may need to break your lease early.

But first things first – what is breaking a lease? 


Breaking a Lease in California

Simply put, breaking a lease is leaving before the expiry of a fixed-term agreement.

Breaking a lease carries a number of consequences. They include:

  • Difficulty renting a new place. Most landlords ask for rental references or review prospective tenants’ credit reports. With information like an eviction, poor payment habits, or breach of contract on your report, getting a new place to rent might prove challenging.  
  • A judge can issue a judgment against you. A credit judgment is an order to pay a debt, and after hearing your case, he or she might issue one against you. 
  • You may face a civil lawsuit. Sure, a divorce, an illness, or a job loss can negatively impact your ability to pay rent. But sadly, in the state of California, these aren’t legally justifiable reasons to break a lease. In most cases, your landlord will win the lawsuit and a judge will order you to pay off the lease balance. 


Tenant Rights and Duties When Signing a Lease in California 

Usually spanning one year, a California lease agreement is a contract between a landlord and tenant outlining the rights and responsibilities of each party. 

Under a typical lease, unless the lease itself allows it, a landlord cannot raise the rent or alter other terms. Also, the landlord cannot force you to vacate the premises before the lease expires. The only exception is if you breach the terms of the lease. For example, if, for whatever reason, you are unable to continue paying rent. Or, you breach another significant term, such as disturbing the peace of the neighborhood by hosting raucous parties. 

But even supposing these breaches do occur, the California landlord-tenant law requires landlords to adhere to the lease laws when ending the tenancy. For nonpayment of rent, your California landlord must give you a 3-days “pay or quit” notice. Essentially, the notice gives you two options: either to pay due rent or simply move out of the premises. If you fail to do any of these things, the landlord can file for an eviction lawsuit against you in court. 

For illegal activities within the property, California’s rental law requires your landlord to hand you a 3-days’ unconditional quit notice. Unlike the previous notice, this gives you only one option – to leave. 

Once you sign a lease agreement, you are lawfully bound to pay rent for the entire lease term. Here is an example to better illustrate this. Suppose your monthly rent is $1,500 and the lease runs for twelve months, this means you owe a total of $12,000 for the entire lease period. 

Now if you break your lease, say, on the ninth month, you’ll end up still owing your landlord $4,500. 

However, this is not always the case. Not all renters who break their lease in California have to pay the remainder of the rent due under the lease agreement. It depends on whether the reason for breaking the lease is legally justified or not. 


When Breaking a Lease Agreement is Legally Justified in California


1. Your landlord agrees to it 

This is the most ideal way to legally break a lease without facing any consequences. Some landlords may prefer this route as opposed to taking their renters to court. The court process can be expensive, time-consuming, and utterly frustrating for landlords.


2. You are a victim of abuse

If you are the victim of some form of abuse – be it elder abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and so forth – you may terminate your lease early so long as specific conditions are met. 


3. The unit is considered illegal

For a rental property to pass building codes and be considered a legal rental unit, it must meet specific criteria. 

For instance, attached rooms, garages and other types of units that were previously used for another purpose but have been converted to rental units may be deemed illegal if they don’t meet code. 

Likewise, there are many basement apartments that don’t incorporate specific traits and are therefore deemed illegal units. Doesn’t matter if there may already be tenants living in them. 


4. Your unit is deemed unsafe as per California rental law

Under California rental law, a rental unit must be considered safe for habitation. If not, you can break the lease on the basis that your landlord is providing uninhabitable housing. 

Examples of things that can cause a home to be considered uninhabitable include:

  • A high level of criminal activity in the building;
  • Obnoxious noise from neighbors
  • Pest infestation
  • Nauseating smells


5. Your landlord is harassing you 

As per California landlord-tenant law, your landlord cannot just barge in on you whenever they feel like it. As a renter, you have a right to the quiet enjoyment of your home. Before entering the property, your landlord must give you adequate notice of entry. 

Similarly, your landlord cannot harass you. For instance, by changing locks on you or shutting off your electricity. 


6. You are starting active military duty

Federal law permits terminating a lease if you enter active military service. You must belong to the “uniformed services.” That includes those serving in the:

  • Activated National Guard
  • Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service
  • Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Armed forces

Once you get the change of station orders or military deployment, you’ll then need to notify your landlord of the same. Your tenancy will then terminate thirty days after the rent is due next.  


Both landlords and tenants have mutual responsibilities under the contracted agreements of a lease. If you must terminate the lease, understand California’s rental law first. Hopefully, this article has helped you in this regard. 


Pinnacle Property Management
CA BRE # 01905815
22700 Crenshaw Blvd.
Torrance, CA 90505
Ph: (310) 530-0606
Fax: (310) 626-9786
Email: pinnacle@pinnaclepmc.com

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