Breaking a Lease in California: Tenants' Rights

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A residential lease is a rental contract for a set period of time, often one year. While a tenant can terminate a month-to-month tenancy in California by written notice to the landlord, she cannot usually end her lease responsibilities in the same way. However, she may be able to get out of a lease under certain circumstances.

Lease Vs. Month-to-Month Tenancy

In California, residential rental agreements can be periodic, by week or by month, and most of them are. They can also be fixed for a set period of time. These are termed leases.

A periodic tenancy runs for a set period of time, usually one month. The tenant pays rent at the beginning of the period for permission to live in the property for that period. Some periodic tenancies in California are weekly rentals but most run by the month and are called month-to-month tenancies. The payment of rent renews the contract for another month.

A lease, on the other hand, is for a set period of time, usually one or two years. By signing the agreement, the tenant promises to remain in the unit for the entire period of the lease, paying rent on a monthly basis. In exchange, the landlord agrees to allow her to stay for the term and not to raise the rent during the lease term. Generally, it is much harder for a tenant to break a lease than to terminate a month-to-month contract.

Read More: How to Evict a Month to Month Tenant

Terminating a Rental Contract

When a landlord and tenant enter into a period tenancy, the tenant is usually free to leave when she likes. That is, a California tenant can end a month-to-month tenancy simply by written notice to the landlord 30 days in advance of the termination date. A landlord must comply with the state's "just cause" rules for ending the tenancy, including written notice to the tenant stating a reason for the termination that is permitted by law.

Getting out of a lease agreement is more difficult for a tenant than ending a month-to-month tenancy. That makes sense since the very reason for entering into a lease agreement is to lock in a rental situation — a rental amount and a particular tenant — for a specific period. To that end, neither party to a lease contemplates a rapid change of circumstance during the rental period.

However, sometimes life gets in the way of plans, and the one-year lease that looked so appealing in January becomes untenable in May. Is it possible for a tenant to get out of a lease contract in California? Breaking a lease in California is possible, but the tenant may not always exit freely.

Walking Away From a Lease

A tenant who enters into a lease in California is not chained to the premises by law. She can, at any point, leave the unit and live elsewhere. The catch is that she is on the hook to pay rent for the entire lease period. If she is offered a fantastic, high-paying dream job in New York or loses her current job and can no longer afford the rent halfway through a one-year lease in California, she can tell the landlord, pack her bags, clean out the unit and leave.

At that point, the tenant is legally liable to pay the rent for the remainder of the time on the lease. However, the landlord is obliged under California Civil Code Section 1951.2 to look for a replacement tenant. This is called mitigating losses. If the landlord simply sits on his hands and waits for the original tenant to pay every month, that tenant will only owe the part of the lease that the landlord could not have reasonably mitigated.

If the landlord advertises for a new tenant and cannot reasonably find one, the original tenant must continue paying rent. If he can find a new tenant only by lowering the rental amount, the original tenant must make up the difference for the remainder of the lease term.

Exception for Victims of Abuse

California law sets out several circumstances in which a tenant who is a party to a residential lease can leave the property before the lease term is over without liability. One is found in California Civil Code Section 1946.7, which allows victims of abuse to terminate a lease.

The statute provides that a tenant has the right to terminate a lease tenancy if she is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking or elder abuse. The tenant must notify the landlord in writing of her intention to terminate the tenancy. She must attach proof of the abuse in the form of a police report, a temporary restraining or protective order, or a written statement from a sexual abuse or other counselor setting out the fact of the abuse.

The tenant terminating a lease under this statute cannot be charged for the rent for the remainder of the lease period. She can only be charged for a maximum of two weeks' rent after the date she notifies the landlord.

Exception for Active Military Service

Under a federal law called the Service Members Civil Relief Act (50 UCS APP 501-596), a tenant who joins the military during the term of a residential lease can terminate that lease without legal consequences. She must become an active member of the armed services, the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Public Health Service.

The tenant in this situation terminates the lease by giving written notice to her landlord. The notice should state that she is ending the tenancy for military reasons. This written notice serves as a 30-day notice, and the lease terminates 30 days after the date that rent is next due. She cannot be held liable for any remaining months on the original lease term.

Right to Leave Uninhabitable Unit

California law, specifically Civil Code Sections 1941 and 1942, creates a warranty of habitability that is implied into every rental contract in the state including residential leases. It doesn't matter if the actual word habitability appears in the contract since courts must read the contract as if the warranty were there. Under the warranty, a landlord promises his tenants that the dwelling units he is renting are fit for human housing. This is defined as including working electricity, plumbing and heat, among other things.

If a tenant's rental unit is unlivable, she has a number of options under the statute. One of them is to claim that she had been effectively evicted. Since the landlord has not fixed or maintained the dwelling, she cannot live there. That gives her the right to move without further responsibility for rent as long as she follows the procedures in the code.

Note that a breach of the warranty of habitability is meant to guarantee a tenant reasonable housing, not to give her a way to avoid her responsibilities under a lease. Only truly serious violations of which the landlord has notice will justify a tenant breaking the lease in California.

Breaking Lease for Privacy Breach

California law also states that rental contracts give the implied right to quiet enjoyment, meaning the right to use and enjoy the premises undisturbed by others. That means that neither the landlord, nor anyone working for him, can burst into a rented unit absent an emergency situation. Rather, under Civil Code Section 1954, the landlord must give the tenant statutory notice before entering the rented unit.

If a landlord repeatedly violates the tenant's right to quiet enjoyment, the tenant's remedies under California codes include to stop paying rent or move out. The rationale for moving out is very much like that in a breach of the warranty of habitability, claiming constructive eviction. This would justify a tenant breaking a lease in California.

Again, it's important to keep in mind that the right to quiet enjoyment is meant to protect a tenant's privacy, not serve as a way to avoid the terms of a lease. If a court finds that a tenant's rights were not violated, it will require her to pay rent for the remainder of the lease term.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.