I’m Breaking A Lease. What Are My Rights?

At one time or another, most renters will consider whether breaking a lease is a good idea. There can be a lot of reasons to break a lease—a decrease in earnings, poor conditions on the rental property, or perhaps they just found a better deal. But people often stick it out because they’re worried about the potential fallout. Breaking a lease agreement can be done but it’s important to understand what happens if you do so and when it might be legally justified.

What Happens When You Break A Lease

When you move out of a rental property before the lease term has expired (i.e., “break the lease”), the primary consequences are financial. Simply put, you’ll probably owe the landlord money for the remainder of the lease.

For example, if you have a 12-month apartment lease with $2,000 in monthly rent, you’ve agreed to pay the landlord $24,000 in 12 monthly installments. If you move out after six months, you still owe them $12,000. If the lease is month-to-month and you leave without giving the landlord the required notice (usually 30 or 60 days), you would owe rent for that notice period.

The landlord does have a legal responsibility to “mitigate damages.” Rather than just leaving the property empty, they have to attempt to find another suitable tenant to take your place. If they do find another tenant, you would generally be responsible for paying rent for the time the property was sitting vacant, but not the period after someone else is paying rent.

Because breaking a lease is essentially like incurring debt and not paying it, it will also likely have a negative impact on your credit score and could make it difficult to find another rental.

Justifications for Breaking a Lease Agreement

The situation above may sound dire, but there are a number of legal justifications for breaking a lease, meaning that you could do so without paying the remainder of the rent due. Here are some of the justifications recognized in California:

1. The property is unsafe or uninhabitable

There’s a legal principle called “constructive eviction,” where conditions at the rental property are so poor that the tenant has no choice but to leave. These conditions have to be serious problems—e.g., no heat in cold winter, no lock on the front door, etc.—that are the landlord’s responsibility to fix. The landlord also must be given a reasonable amount of time to address the problem.

2. Harassment or violation of your rights

This is an extension of the constructive eviction principle described above. For example, suppose a landlord repeatedly enters the property without giving you at least 24-hour notice or performs deliberately harassing actions such as changing the locks. In that case, you may be able to break the lease without paying rent.

3. Active military duty

Under federal law, a member of uniformed services who is called to active duty may terminate their lease within 30 days of the next rent payment, regardless of how much time is left on the lease term.

4. Victim of domestic violence and other crimes

Under California law, if you or an immediate family member has been a victim of domestic violence, stalking, assault, or other crimes, this can justify terminating a lease early. In these cases, the tenant is only responsible for 14 days of rent following notice to the landlord.

If You Need to Break Your Lease

If you’re in a position where you need to break a lease agreement, advice from an experienced attorney can make the process much easier. An attorney can evaluate your situation to see if you have a legal justification for breaking the lease. Even if you don’t, they can negotiate with the landlord to minimize the negative consequences. Contact our office today for a consultation.


Written By

Hoffman & Forde, Attorneys at Law