Breaking a Lease in California

Tenant's Right to Break a Rental Lease in California

How breaking a lease can affect you credit

Tenant Rights and Responsibilities When Signing a Lease in California

A lease obligates both you and your landlord for a set period of time, usually a year. Under a typical lease, a landlord can’t raise the rent or change other terms, until the lease runs out (unless the lease itself provides for a change, such as a rent increase mid-lease). A landlord can’t force you to move out before the lease ends, unless you fail to pay the rent or violate another significant term, such as repeatedly throwing large and noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in California must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you three days’ notice to pay the rent or leave (California Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(2)) before filing an eviction lawsuit. If you have engaged in any illegal activity on the premises, your landlord may give you an unconditional quit notice, giving you three days to move out. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(4)).

Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term, typically one year, whether or not you continue to live in the rental unit—with some exceptions, as follows.

When Breaking a Lease is Justified in California

There are some important exceptions to the blanket rule that a tenant who breaks a lease owes the rent for the entire lease term. You may be able to legally move out before the lease term ends in the following situations:

  1. You or a Family Member Are a Victim of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Stalking, or Elder Abuse 

    • State law (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.7) provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of domestic or sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse, provided that specified conditions are met (such as the tenant securing a temporary restraining order).

  2. You Are Starting Active Military Duty

    • If you enter active military service after signing a lease, you have a right to break the lease under federal law. (War and National Defense Service members Civil Relief Act, 50 App. U.S.C.A. § § 501 and following.) You must be part of the “uniformed services,” which includes the armed forces, commissioned corps of the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard. You must give your landlord written notice of your intent to terminate your tenancy for military reasons. Once the notice is mailed or delivered, your tenancy will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months be
  3. The Rental Unit Is Unsafe or Violates California Health or Safety Codes

    • If your landlord does not provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes, a court would probably conclude that you have been “constructively evicted;” this means that the landlord, by supplying unlivable housing, has for all practical purposes “evicted” you, so you have no further responsibility for the rent. California law (see Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal.3d 616 (1974) and Cal. Civ. Code § 1942) sets specific requirements for the procedures you must follow before moving out because of a major repair problem. The problem must be truly serious, such as the lack of heat or other essential service.
  4. Your Landlord Harasses You or Violates Your Privacy Rights

    • Under state law in California, your landlord must give you 24 hours’ (or 48 for the final move-out inspection) notice to enter rental property (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954). If your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy, or does things like removing windows or doors, turning off your utilities, or changing the locks, you would be considered “constructively evicted,” as described above; this would usually justify you breaking the lease without further rent obligation.

Other Resources

Does Breaking a Lease Affect Your Credit Score?