A lease is a binding contract—and, like all other contracts, it’s not supposed to be easily broken. Other than a few specific situations, including domestic violence and military deployment, the laws in California don’t allow tenants to end a lease without going to court. If a tenant does move out before the end of their lease, state law requires landlords to try and re-rent the property as quickly as possible (also known as "mitigating damages"). Once the unit is re-occupied, the original tenant is no longer on the hook for the remaining rent payments.
Leases can always be ended by mutual agreement
While leases are binding contracts, they can be ended at any time if both the landlord and tenant agree to it. (It’s best to do this in writing.) A tenant who needs to move—and is willing to work with their landlord to find a replacement—may be able to negotiate an end to the lease. Or a landlord who’s considering selling their property could negotiate an earlier move-out date by offering a buyout package to tenants.
Lease break fees should reflect the actual cost of re-renting a unit
According to California law, when a lease is broken, landlords can only charge the tenant an amount equal to the costs of an early termination (their “actual damages”).1 This can include three things:
- 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)
This means California landlords can technically charge an early termination fee—but since the maximum they can charge is determined by their actual costs, it’s pretty much impossible to figure out how much until the unit has been re-rented. So if a landlord sets an exact dollar amount for an early termination fee in a lease, it’s on shaky legal ground. A tenant could still decide to pay that amount, however, if they just want to wash their hands of the lease without additional back-and-forth.
Tenants can legally break a lease in certain circumstances
In most cases, tenants can’t automatically break a lease because of major life events. However, there are several legal justifications for getting out of a lease early without penalties:
- Tenant is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking2
- Tenant is entering active military duty3
- Landlord violates California’s warranty of habitability and the rental has become unlivable4
- Landlord violates the tenant’s privacy or harasses them5
In any of these circumstances, tenants aren’t responsible for paying all the rent remaining on their lease term as long as they follow the proper protocol. For example, a victim of abuse or assault must provide written notice to the landlord that includes a copy of the restraining order or protective order, a copy of any police report regarding the abuse or assault, and documentation that the tenant is receiving treatment for any mental or physical injuries. In addition, tenants must give notice within six months of the reported incident. If the renter follows the process outlined by the law, they’re only responsible for up to two weeks of rent after giving notice.
Landlord can break a lease if tenant violates the terms
There are also circumstances in which landlords can legally break a lease by filing for eviction, including when a tenant:
- Fails to pay rent
- Violates any terms of the lease
- Commits an illegal act
- Illegally subleases the unit
- Substantially damages the property
In any of these situations, the landlord must first give written notice to the tenant. They must typically give tenants three business days to pay rent, fix the violation, or move out.6 If a tenant fails to fix the breach, the landlord can file for eviction—essentially ending the lease.
Landlords must look for a replacement if a tenant vacates early
Landlords in California are required to mitigate rent when a tenant breaks their lease.7 That means they must do their best to re-rent the unit so that it doesn’t remain vacant for the remainder of the lease term—and the tenant isn’t liable for the remaining lease payments.
Landlords must make their best effort to find a new tenant through such methods as advertising and showing the unit, much as they would when looking for any tenant. If they still can’t find one despite their reasonable attempts, tenants who improperly break their lease must pay the remaining rent due on the lease.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.