So, you need to get out of your lease early—and it’s not for one of the specific reasons allowed by California law. If you’re set on terminating your lease completely, rather than subletting or assigning to a new tenant, then it’s probably going to cost you some money. In almost all cases, landlords aren’t legally required to let you break your lease before the agreed-upon end date. That means they typically charge big fees to release you from your lease. But the rules in California about early termination fees are a little more complicated than in other states.
Are early termination fees legal in California?
Yes and no. There are no state laws that explicitly ban landlords from charging early termination fees. What the laws do say is that California landlords can only demand an amount equal to their actual costs related to you moving out early. This is limited to:
- The rent remaining on the lease (until the landlord is able to re-rent the property, since they are required to mitigate damages—more on that below)
- The costs associated with re-renting the property (typically advertising)
- Any difference in the monthly rent between the original tenant and the new tenant for the rest of the lease term (if the landlord had to lower the price to re-rent)
As you can see, it's impossible for a landlord to know the precise amount upfront. So any landlord that includes a specific lease break fee in the written lease is probably on shaky legal ground. Instead, if you move out, a landlord should technically continue to bill you for rent until the unit is re-rented (or, more realistically, they'll subtract from your security deposit until it runs out, at which point they’ll come after you). Once it's re-rented, it would be within their rights to ask you to refund them for their advertising costs, plus any difference between your original rent and the new rent (although if you live in a hot rental market like San Francisco, likely it won’t be lower).
Practically speaking, it may be easier just to pay the fee your landlord included in the lease and walk away from the unit, especially if it’s reasonable (one month’s rent, for instance). That way there’s no uncertainty about whether or not the unit will be re-rented. As long as you and your landlord agree on the terms and sign a written agreement to end the lease, you’re off the hook.
What is the typical penalty for breaking a lease in California?
There’s no one answer, although fees tend to be lower in California than in New York City. We’ve seen fees between one and two months’ rent, and a lot of landlords ask for at least 30 days’ notice. Some real-life examples across California we’ve found include:
- A landlord in San Mateo charges one month's rent
- Two months’ rent if you give 30 days’ notice, or one month's rent if you give 60 days’ notice (spread out over a three-part payment plan)
- One month's rent with 30 days’ notice
- A flat fee of two months' rent
Keep in mind, though, that California landlords are legally required to make an effort to re-rent your apartment after you leave (something known as “damage mitigation”). Depending on how much your landlord is asking for, you might be better off informing them that you’re leaving and continuing to pay rent until they find a new tenant. (You could even do some of the legwork yourself to try and track down a new tenant.) In a strong rental market, like San Francisco or Los Angeles, there’s a good chance most units will be re-rented in less than two months.
Can I try to negotiate the fee down?
Yes, definitely. You’ll probably be more successful if you’re renting from a small landlord, though—big property management companies are often less flexible. There are a few things that will make your case stronger:
- You live in a rent-controlled apartment, and you’ve been there for more than a year. If you break your lease, your landlord will have the opportunity to charge the new tenant a higher monthly rent than if you stayed.
- Breaking your lease will improve the leasing schedule for your landlord. If your original lease is up at the end of December, in the middle of the holiday season—but you want to leave in the summer, during peak moving season—you might have some leverage.
- You’ve already found a qualified replacement tenant with credit scores and income that meet your landlord’s requirements.
Keep in mind, though, that your landlord is never required to agree to terminate the lease. So, by all means, negotiate—but understand that you’re generally in the weaker position.
If I’m willing to pay, does my landlord have to agree to a lease break?
Unless there's a clause in your lease to that effect, the answer is no. A lease is a contract, and those are binding until the agreed-upon end date—unless both parties agree to break it off. (And while it may not seem like it right now, it’s actually really important for renters that leases are so ironclad. It keeps bad landlords from breaking leases whenever they feel like it and pushing out tenants for discriminatory reasons.) But you have other options if your landlord just isn’t interested in taking your money, including subletting, assigning, or moving out and letting your landlord re-rent.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.