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How to Break a Lease with No Penalty Fees in California

Breaking a lease early in California usually means paying your landlord a termination fee of one or two months' rent—but not always.

Let's start with the bad news: tenants in California hoping to break their lease early don't have a lot of legal leverage. Your landlord isn't required to let you terminate your lease, except in a handful of very specific scenarios. So, even if your landlord agrees to let you out of the agreement, there's a good chance it will cost you.

But if you go into the process with a thorough knowledge of California rental law—and a good argument for why you need to leave—there's a possibility you can break a lease with a reduced (or nonexistent) fee. Read through the tactics below and decide if one or more of them could work for you.

Make sure this is the best option for you

If you’re dead-set on leaving your rental without paying a fee, your best bet is to either find a subletter or transfer your lease. Why? Except in a handful of scenarios, landlords in California aren’t legally required to let you out of your lease early—which means they often charge hefty lease break fees in return. So make sure you’ve weighed your options for getting out of a lease early before moving forward with the lease-breaking process.

Figure out if you can break your lease under California law

In California, there are only a few scenarios where renters are allowed to break their lease early without a landlord’s agreement. According to state and federal law, you can definitely terminate your lease if:

There are a lot of other good reasons to break a lease: buying a house, relocating for a job, or being laid off. None of these are covered by the law, however. Instead, you'll need to double-check your lease.

Re-read your lease agreement

Go through your lease carefully to see if it mentions any situation where you might be allowed to terminate your lease early. There's a chance that it includes a clause about family emergencies or deaths, or even a sudden job loss or relocation. Some leases also lay out the general process for ending a lease early (which is legal), while others include a specific dollar amount for the early termination fee. Based on the way California law governs these fees, that part of the lease probably wouldn’t hold up in court—although if it’s a reasonable amount of money, you're still allowed to take your landlord up on it.

Negotiate with your landlord

If your situation isn’t covered by the law or your lease, then you’ll need to talk to your landlord. Make it clear to them that the situation is out of your control. Even better if you can back up your story with hard evidence, such as a letter from an employer or a doctor's note testifying that your parents are seriously ill.

Also, think about whether moving out early could actually benefit your landlord in some way. Are you improving the leasing schedule by moving out during the spring or summer? Do units in your area rent for even more now than you're currently paying? (California has statewide rent control—and many cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles have even stricter regulations—but your landlord will have the opportunity to raise the rent as much as they want if you move out.) You'll probably be more successful with smaller landlords, rather than a large management company with less flexibility.

Move out and hope your landlord re-rents quickly

If your landlord's lease break fee is just way too high—and you live in an area that's popular with renters—then you may be better off relying on something called "damage mitigation." Under California law, a landlord is required to make a reasonable effort to re-rent as soon as they find out you're leaving. They can only charge you for the time that it wasn't occupied by a new tenant, plus any extra charges they incurred by showing or advertising the unit. (Plus, if your landlord had to price the unit lower to rent it out, you're also required to pay the difference in rent for the rest of your lease.)

If you know that you’ll be leaving a month or two in advance, you can give your landlord the heads up so they can get started showing the place. You can also search for a new tenant yourself and refer them to the landlord—if you can get someone lined up to move in as soon as you move out, you may not owe anything to your landlord at all. Just make sure the applicant is as qualified as you when it comes to income and credit history. Otherwise your landlord can legally reject their rental application.

Make it official with paperwork

Congratulations! You've been able to work something out with your landlord. Now make sure to get it in writing. The best way to do this is to prepare a document—often called a "mutual termination of tenancy agreement"—that outlines the specifics of your arrangement with your landlord.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.