When Tenants May Legally Break a Rental Lease in California

Although most tenants who sign a lease plan to stay in their apartment for the full amount of time stated in the lease, for some people life events or situations arise (such as roommate disputes or dropping out of college) that make them want to leave before their lease is up. When a tenant signs a rental agreement for a set amount of time, this is known as a fixed-term lease. Leaving the apartment before this type of lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent due under the contract terms is called breaking the lease.

Here is a brief review of when and how a tenant may legally break a lease in California without further liability for the rent.

What Are the Tenant’s Rights and Responsibilities When Signing a Lease?

In California, signing a lease obligates both tenant and landlord for a set amount of time, usually month-to-month, six months, or one year. Under a standard lease, a landlord cannot raise the tenant's rent or change the terms of the contract until the end of the lease term. Additionally, the landlord cannot force a tenant to move out before the end of the lease term unless the tenant fails to pay the rent or violates some other condition. In these instances, landlords in California must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy.

When the landlord takes steps to end to tenancy, this is known as beginning the eviction process. To start this process, the landlord must give the tenant three days' notice to pay rent or leave before filing an eviction lawsuit (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(2)). However, if a tenant has engaged in any illegal activity on the premises, the landlord also has the option to give the tenant an unconditional quit notice that allows them three days to move out (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(4)).

Tenants have a legal responsiblity to pay rent for the entire lease term whether they continue to live in the rental unit or not, with some exceptions.

When Breaking Lease Is Legally Justified in California

Under California law, there are a few exceptions to the general rule that tenants cannot break a rental agreement without owing rent for the entire lease term. A tenant may be able to legally move out of a rental unit before the lease term ends in the following situations:

1. Tenants Who Are Victims of Assault or Abuse

California state law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.7) provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of violence or abuse, including:

  • Domestic violence,

  • Sexual assault,

  • Stalking, or

  • Elder abuse.

Victims of these crimes have early termination rights provided that specified conditions are met such as the tenant securing a temporary restraining order.

2. Tenant Starting Active Military Duty

If a tenant starts active military duty after signing a lease, they have a right to break the lease under federal law. To qualify, the tenant must be part of the uniformed services, including:

  • The Armed Forces,

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Corps,

  • The Public Health Service Corps, and

  • The National Guard.

Before a tenant can terminate a lease for military reasons, they must give their landlord written notice that they plan to terminate their lease. Once the notice is mailed or delivered, the tenancy will be terminated 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months before your lease expires.

3. The Rental Unit Violates California Health or Safety Codes

The rental unit must be uninhabitable (Cal. Civ. Code § 1942) under local and state housing codes—typically, the problem with the apartment must be severe to violate the law. However, if the unit is unsafe or uninhabitable, the court will probably conclude the tenant has been constructively evicted and has no further responsibility to pay their rent. Under California law, there are specific steps a tenant must take before they can move out due to unlivable housing conditions.

4. The Landlord Harasses Tenant or Violates Their Privacy Rights

Landlords must give a tenant 24-hour notice to enter a rental property. When a landlord repeatedly violates this notice requirement (i.e., the tenant's right to privacy), or does things like turns of utilities without notice, removes doors and windows, or changes the locks, the tenant would be considered constructively evicted; this would justify the tenant breaking the lease without further rent obligation.

If you’re facing issues when breaking your lease, you should know that an experienced tenants law firm can provide you with the guidance you need. Contact Tenants Law Firm located in Beverly Hills to gain access to the tools that can mean a world of difference when it comes to your lease issues.