How to Break a Lease Legally: 5 Ways to Avoid Penalty

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A lease is a legally binding contract a tenant signs with a landlord or property manager when renting a property. After signing it, the renter must inhabit the unit until the term of the lease ends, which is usually six months or a year. When a tenant wishes to vacate a rental earlier than her lease allows due to what seems like a legitimate reason, it may not be justification enough to legally release the renter from the obligations of her lease in California. If she chooses to break the lease early due to the purchase of a home; relocating for a job or school; a divorce; or an illness, she may have no legal protection against costly penalties or court hearings. For tenants wondering how to break a lease legally, there are some instances when they can do so.

Consequences of Breaking a Lease

A lease between a landlord and renter outlines the rights and responsibilities of both parties during the time in which the tenant rents the property. A tenant breaks a lease when he decides to move out before that term expires. Without legal justification, this usually results in unwanted consequences, including:

  • Difficulty finding a new place to live: Landlords and property managers typically ask for rental history references from potential tenants, as well as for credit information. A breach of contract, an eviction or late payments can make renting difficult due to a bad credit score and negative marks on a tenant's report.
  • A credit judgment: A judge hands down an order to get the former tenant to pay off his debt to the landlord. The judgment also appears on the tenant's credit report and can negatively impact his credit score. 
  • A civil lawsuit: A landlord can file a lawsuit against a tenant who breaks a lease. If the landlord wins, the court can order the tenant to pay the balance of the lease, as well as other fees. 

Legally Breaking a Lease

There are five ways in which a tenant can legally break his lease in California without penalty. He must prove one of these conditions exist:

  1. The tenant is a victim in an abusive situation: If the tenant is the victim of stalking, elder abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence, she may break her lease.
  2. The tenant lives in an illegal unit: If a rental unit does not meet the proper building codes or other specific criteria as required by state law, a tenant can break his lease. Structures and rooms, such as garages or basements previously used for another purpose but converted to rental properties, may be illegal if they don't comply with building laws and regulations.
  3. The rental property is unsafe: If a property isn't safe, a tenant is within her right to break the lease — she is constructively evicted. The landlord has neglected the property to the point that inhabiting it becomes dangerous or intolerable, forcing the tenant out. California law requires the landlord to perform regular maintenance on a rental unit to keep it safe for tenancy. Unsafe conditions include pest infestation, a high level of criminal activity on the property, or the lack of gas, water, electricity or other essential services. Environmental issues like lead paint, asbestos and toxic mold can also make a unit uninhabitable.
  4. Harassment:  A landlord must give the tenant 24 hours' notice to enter the rental property. If a landlord violates a tenant's privacy rights by going in without sufficient notice or changes the locks, turns off utilities to the unit, or removes the tenant's windows or doors, this justifies the renter in breaking the lease.
  5. Military duty: When an active-duty service member must relocate due to deployment or a permanent change of station, the Service Members Civil Relief Act protects him from incurring penalties when he breaks his lease. The Act includes full-time, active-duty members of the five military branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard); reservists on federal active duty; and members of the National Guard on federal orders for a period of more than 30 days. The service member must follow specific steps to break his lease: He must prove he signed the lease before entering active duty and that he will be on active duty for the following 90 days. He must also bring written notice and a copy of his orders to deploy to his landlord. Once he delivers the required documents, the earliest date of lease termination is 30 days from the beginning of the next rent period.

Agree With Landlord to Terminate Lease

If none of these reasons apply for legal termination of a lease, and the tenant still wishes to move out, she should speak to her landlord about the reasons for leaving. In some cases, they can come to an agreement that allows her to break the lease legally. Often, a landlord or property manager will want to avoid going to court, as it is costly and time-consuming for both parties. Most leases have a clause that allows tenants to move out before the lease expires, but there is often a penalty for doing so. Additionally, the landlord may allow the renter to sublet the unit in the event he wants to leave. However, the tenant is responsible for any damages incurred by the person subletting.

California Civil Code Section 1951.2 requires landlords to mitigate the damages after a tenant breaks his lease by taking reasonable steps to rent the apartment to a new tenant. If the landlord rents the property before the lease ends for the previous tenant, the rent received from the new tenant will apply to the previous tenant's debt. Even with the landlord's responsibility to rerent, the tenant who broke the lease may lose a month's rent regardless, as civil courts commonly award property owners at least that amount.

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About the Author

Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.