When and How Can You Legally Break a Lease in California?


While renting doesn’t necessarily come with the same level of commitment as buying a home, you’re still obligated to adhere to the terms of your lease, and that includes sticking to the lease until its expiry date. When tenants initially sign a lease, the contract length is typically for 12 months, after which tenants can become month-to-month or can renew their lease for another specified period of time.

Both tenants and landlords are bound to a lease for a specific time period. There are certain things that both parties are both obligated to do during this time, and there are also actions that are not permitted. For instance, tenants are obligated to pay rent on time every month, while landlords are not allowed to raise the rent until the lease term is up. Under a lease, the means in which a tenancy may be terminated will also be specified.   

But what if something happens in your life that prompts you to have to move out of your unit before your lease is up? Is there any way for you to break your lease without having to suffer any legal repercussions?

Here’s a quick rundown of your rights in California when it comes to breaking a lease without being liable for any monetary damages.

You’re Being Harassed By Your Landlord

As per California state law, tenants have the right to privacy and quiet enjoyment of their rental property. Your landlord can’t just barge in on you whenever they feel like it. At least 24 hours’ notice needs to be given by the landlord before entering your property.

By the same token, your landlord can’t harass you in other ways, such as shutting off your electricity or changing the locks on you without just cause. If they do, you can potentially break the lease early without suffering any consequences, and your landlord may even face some legal issues as well.

Your Unit is Deemed Unsafe as per California Law

A rental unit must be considered safe for habitation under California law. Otherwise, you have every right to vacate the premises on the basis that your landlord is not providing you with livable housing. Many things can cause a property to be deemed uninhabitable, such as nauseating smells, pest infestation, obnoxious noise from neighbors, and a high level of criminal activity in the building.

If any of these issues are present, the property may be considered unsafe or unlivable, which gives you the right to break your lease without consequence.

The Unit is Considered Illegal

A rental property must meet specific criteria in order for it to pass building codes and be considered a legal rental unit. There are many basement apartments, for instance, that do not meet code and are therefore deemed illegal units, even though there may already be tenants living in them.

Likewise, garages, attached rooms and structures, and other types of units that were previously used for another purpose but have been converted into rental units may be considered illegal if they don’t incorporate specific traits. In this case, the lease itself might not even be considered legal, which means there’s no lease to break if you choose to walk away.

You’re the Victim of Abuse

If you are the victim of some form of abuse – be it domestic violence, sexual abuse, elder abuse, and so forth – you may be eligible for early termination of your lease as long as specific conditions are met according to state law.

Your Landlord Agrees to it

The most ideal way to break a lease early is to have a civil discussion with your landlord and come up with an agreement whereby you will be released from the lease with no consequences. Taking tenants to court after they’ve broken their leases early without consent can be time-consuming, expensive, and frustrating for landlords.

Many times landlords simply allow their tenants to vacate before their lease term is up and use their energy and finances to find another tenant without bothering to carry out a fight. If your landlord is fine with this, you may be able to break your lease early without having to worry about meeting any of the above criteria.

The Bottom Line

As a tenant, there are ways to legally terminate your lease under specific conditions. But before you do, it’s important that you identify what these conditions are to make sure your reason to break your lease is not deemed to be illegal. If so, you could be on the hook for paying rent for the remainder of the time left on the lease. Your best bet is to see if it’s possible to work things out with your landlord in a peaceful manner.

Before you make any decisions, be sure to speak with legal counsel or get in touch with someone from the California Department of Consumer Affairs to see what your options are to break your lease with little or no repercussions.