california flag and state capital building

Breaking a Lease in California: Laws for Tenants & Landlords

Whether you’re a tenant or landlord considering breaking a lease in California, it’s wise to conduct some vital research before doing so. Hastily leaving a rental before your contract ends or unlawfully forcing a tenant to vacate without cause could have significant ramifications.

Luckily, we’re well-versed in California landlord-tenant law and have analyzed the fine print to help clarify the legal language for you. Reading this post will save you from sorting through hundreds of pages of documents to find the answers you’re seeking.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into the following:

  • Legal reasons tenants are allowed to break leases in California
  • When landlords are legally allowed to break leases
  • Consequences for those who unlawfully breach rental agreements
  • Tips for negotiating early contract termination with your landlord
  • Other frequently asked questions
Our Lawyers Built Your Next Lease
Discussions with a real estate attorney to decide which business entity works best.

First, Examine the Lease in Question

Before you consider breaking your lease in California, find your rental agreement and re-read it in detail. Reviewing your contract terms before making any significant decisions could help simplify your next move and save you a headache.

If you’ve agreed to a week-to-week or month-to-month lease, you may not even need to break your lease in the first place. Ending such leases is often as simple as giving a seven- or 30-day notice.

On the other hand, if you’ve agreed to a multi-month lease with a set end date, terminating the contract will likely be more complicated. Landlords often craft leases with built-in protections that ensure compensation should tenants leave the residence before their term ends.

Legal Reasons for Terminating a Lease in California

According to the California Tenant’s Guide, certain exceptions allow tenants to legally break their lease and avoid consequences for doing so. Here they are:

Victim of Domestic Violence and Other Crimes

If a tenant or immediate family member is experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, or stalking, they are legally allowed to terminate their lease early.

If you or someone you live with is a victim of a crime and feels unsafe in your residence, contact the police immediately, obtain a detailed police report, share it with your landlord, and explain that your safety is at risk and you need to terminate your lease.

Active Military Duty

According to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), If active military personnel are called to duty and must vacate their residence for 180 days or longer, they can legally end their agreement without penalty.

Remember that the SCRA is a federal law that applies to all 50 states, not just California residents.

Residence is Uninhabitable

If a rental unit violates health and safety codes and a landlord cannot or will not bring the property up to standards, tenants might have legal grounds to terminate their lease without consequence.

A few examples of code violations are:

  • Structural issues
  • Plumbing or electrical problems
  • Pest infestations
  • Mold
  • Lead paint
  • Air quality issues

If you suspect your unit doesn’t meet health and safety standards, document the issue thoroughly, contact your landlord, and consider contacting your local code enforcement agency.

Landlord Harassment

California tenants can legally terminate their lease if their landlord demonstrates harassing behavior that prevents them from living peacefully in their unit, as outlined in the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment. Examples of landlord harassment include instances when the landlord:

  • Violates the tenant’s privacy
  • Enters the rental unit repeatedly without warning
  • Makes threats towards a tenant or their visitors
  • Makes unwanted advances toward a tenant or their visitors
  • Withholds essential services from the tenant

If you’re experiencing landlord harassment, document the instances in detail, call the police if necessary, and contact the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Lease Agreement Clause

Sometimes, breaking a lease is as simple as exercising a clause in the rental agreement that allows the renter to terminate the contract due to particular circumstances. A few examples of lease cancellation clauses landlords might include are:

  • Tenant must vacate a property due to job relocation
  • Natural disasters that destroy property
  • Civil unrest that destroys property

Easily forgettable clauses like these are why you should always re-read your lease before breaking it and potentially subject yourself to fees, unpaid rent, and negative references.

Breaking a Lease without Legal Justification

If you’re a tenant who needs to break their lease but isn’t experiencing one of the scenarios above, try negotiating with your landlord first. Start an honest conversation with them, explain your circumstances, and attempt to compromise on a fair conclusion of your contract.

An honest chat, especially if you’ve been an upstanding tenant, can go a long way towards an amicable termination of your lease. Also, be sure to get any revised agreements in writing.

Further, you could find a landlord-approved subletter to take over the remainder of your lease and finish out the terms of the contract for you. Doing so would ensure that someone new fulfills the contract and your landlord (hopefully) collects their due rent.

Consequences of Breaking a Lease

If you and your landlord can’t negotiate an agreement and subletting isn’t an option, it’ll be unlikely that you can break your lease without penalty. Here are a few examples of what to expect:

  • Loss of security deposit: Landlords often recuperate missed rent by keeping some or all of their tenant’s security deposit if they break a lease.
  • Owed rent and/or fees: In certain cases, landlords might ask tenants for unpaid rent and/or fees exceeding the security deposit amount.
  • Legal action: If landlords cannot collect rent or fees, they might hire a lawyer and sue tenants for losses or money owed.
  • Negative rental references: Renters who break leases under less-than-desirable circumstances will receive negative references from past landlords, making it harder for them to secure future rentals. 
  • Credit score declines: Tenants who fail to pay rent or fees are often taken to collections and reported to credit agencies, which may damage their credit score.

Mitigating the Impact with TurboTenant

Tenants

If you’re a renter searching for a subletter to take over the remainder of your lease, TurboTenant’s platform will give you access to a large pool of potential renters. Its easy-to-use software will allow you to create a listing, connect with potential replacements, and find a subletter to relieve you of your contract.

Landlords

If your current tenant breaks their lease, TurboTenant can help streamline the process of finding new renters. Features like one-click rental marketing allow you to simultaneously advertise to dozens of listing sites. Plus, TurboTenant’s tenant screening services can help you find a suitable tenant to fill your vacancy quickly, minimizing the financial impact of a broken lease.

Navigate Broken Leases with Software

We hope we’ve helped clear up any burning questions you had about breaking a lease in California, but an FAQ section is below if you have more. Whether you’re a tenant or a landlord, understanding the consequences of prematurely ending a rental agreement is always the right move.

To continue streamlining your real estate needs, sign up for TurboTenant, our all-in-one rental property management software app that consolidates rent payments, property photos, lease agreements, maintenance receipts, and tenant records into a single dashboard. 

FAQs

Can a landlord break a lease in California?

According to the California Tenant’s Guide, “A landlord who wants to terminate (end) a periodic tenancy can do so by properly serving a written 30-day, 60-day, or, in certain instances, 90-day notice on the tenant.”

However, the landlord cannot terminate the tenancy or evict a tenant without just cause. Examples of just cause include: 

  • Failure to pay rent
  • A breach of the lease agreement
  • Engaging in criminal activity
  • Committing nuisance or waste at the rental unit

Additionally, as stated in the California Department of Justice’s Tenant Protection Act, a landlord must allow the tenant to correct their at-fault behavior before they can serve an eviction notice.

What are my options if I need to break my lease in California?

If you have legal justification to break your lease, provide your landlord with evidence supporting your claim, inform them that you’re legally backed by the California Tenant’s Guide, and discuss how to move forward.

If you don’t have legal justification to break your lease, you can attempt to negotiate an early termination with your landlord. 

If you don’t have legal justification to break your lease and cannot reach an agreement with your landlord, be prepared to forfeit your security deposit, pay early termination fees, and be held liable for future sums of unpaid rent.

Can my landlord charge me for breaking my lease?

California law requires that landlords make a good-faith effort to find a new tenant after old tenants vacate the unit early. In other words, landlords can only charge old tenants rent for the remaining lease term after making an honest effort to fill the vacancy. 

Once the landlord finds a new tenant, old tenants will only be responsible for paying rent for the period the property was vacant.

If the landlord struggles to find a replacement tenant, old tenants may be liable to pay rent for up to the remainder of their lease. A landlord might use a tenant’s security deposit to cover some of this cost, and in some cases, landlords might sue tenants to collect the rest of the money they’re owed.

Can I break my lease due to a job relocation?

Breaking a lease due to a job relocation is not a legally supported reason to end your agreement early, according to the State of California.

If you must end your lease early due to job relocation, search for a subletter or try to negotiate an early lease termination with your landlord.

Is it possible to break a lease due to a medical condition?

In certain instances, breaking a lease in California due to a medical condition might be possible.

If your medical condition qualifies as a disability and your current living situation isn’t suitable, you might have grounds to break your lease without penalty.

Discuss ways your landlord can accommodate your medical condition through renovations and updates to the property. If your landlord is unable or unwilling to perform renovations that accommodate your disability, speak with your doctor and ask them to provide paperwork explaining why you must move to a new property.

Most Popular Posts

Interested in streamlining your rental process?

TurboTenant makes managing your property simple with features like one-click rental marketing, extensive online applications, and free credit & background checks for landlords.

Newsletter SignUp

TheKey is the weekly newsletter for landlords, by landlords.

Subscribe to get tips, news, and hacks for even the most seasoned landlords.

TurboTenant Blog

Read Our Latest Articles

Join the 650,000+ independent landlords who rely on TurboTenant to create welcoming rental experiences.

No tricks or trials to worry about. So what’s the harm? Try it today!