Not all tenants in California who sign a lease stay to the end. Unpredictable things can get in the way and the tenant may be forced to break their lease agreement. Now, depending on the reason for breaking the lease, a tenant may or may not be liable for penalties. Not being liable for penalties also means you can't make any deductions to the tenant's security deposit to try to cover lost rent.
Unjustified Reasons for Breaking a Lease in California
When your tenant doesn’t have a “justified” reason to break their lease, it means that they are still responsible for honoring their lease. The tenant is obligated to pay rent for the remainder of the lease term, no matter whether or not they live there.
The following are examples of insufficient justification to break a lease in the state of California.
- Moving to the new home they bought
- Moving to upgrade or downgrade their living space
- Relocating for school or a new job
- Moving in with a significant other
- Moving to be closer to family and friends
However compelling or legitimate these reasons may be, the tenant is still on the hook for the rent until the end of the lease or until the landlord has a new tenant in place.
Landlord’s Duty to Re-rent in California
After a tenant moves out, regardless of the reason, you must make reasonable attempts to re-rent the unit. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.2). This is referred to as the landlord’s responsibility to “mitigate damages.” You can’t just let the property sit vacant collecting rent from your old tenant with out actively trying to re-rent it. Also, once you have a new tenant in place you are not entitled to collect “double rent” by collecting from both the old tenant and new tenant at the same time.
Justified Reasons for Lease Breaking in California
Your California tenant has a right to break their lease under several scenarios. They are as follows.
1. Your Lease Has an Early Termination Clause
If your lease has such a clause, the only thing your tenant must do is fulfill all of the requirements. And in most cases, early termination clauses require tenants to do two things.
One, the clause requires that the tenant pay a fee. While the fee may vary, it’s usually the equivalent of two months’ rent. Landlords normally use the fee to re-advertise the unit.
The other thing an early termination clause requires is proper notice. Again, while it may vary, the notice requirement is usually a month. This allows the landlord sufficient time to find a replacement tenant.
2. The Tenant is Starting an Active Military Duty
Has your tenant received deployment- or permanent change of station orders? If so, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects them against any penalties for breaking the lease early.
The protection starts from the day the tenant starts active duty and ends thirty to ninety days after they are discharged from service. And according to the act, only the following armed members qualify.
- Armed forces (Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps)
- National Guard
- Naval Militia
- State Military Reserve
Besides being an active member, the tenant must also do the following.
- Prove that they signed the lease prior to starting an active military assignment
- Prove that they intend to stay on active duty for at least the next ninety days
- Notify the landlord of their intentions to move out and accompany the written notice with a copy of the deployment letters
The lease then officially ends 30 from meeting this criteria. At that point the landlord returns what remains form the tenants deposit and should probably thank them for their service.
3. The Unit is No Longer Habitable
The state of California requires that rental properties meet certain minimum habitability codes. If your property doesn’t, a court would probably rule that you have “constructively” evicted your tenant, which is different to a formal and legal eviction.
And in such a case, your tenant would have no further responsibilities for the rent.
The following are some of the requirements your California unit must meet under the state’s habitability codes.
- Clean and sanitary premises, free from garbage, rubbish, filth, rodents, and vermin
- Properly maintained stairways, floors, and railings
- Maintained and functioning electrical, heating, plumbing, and lighting facilities
- Availability of hot and cold running water
- Adequate number of trash receptacles
- Effective waterproofing and weather protection of the roof and exterior walls
Civ. Code § 1941.3 also requires that a rental building meet certain safety standards. Including, operable window security or locking devices, and an operable deadbolt lock on each main swinging entry door.
4. Harassing the Tenant
Your California tenant has a right to privacy. Under (Cal. Civ. Code § 1954). You can not spy or snoop on your tenants. You do not need to monitor their activity or investigate their personal life. Unless there is an emergency, landlords have the responsibility of notifying their tenants 24 hours prior to an entry.
Of course, landlords are responsible for the property and do have the right for reasonable entry. Some examples of reasonable entry include:
- To inspect the unit
- Under court orders
- In case of an emergency
- In case of property abandonment
- To show the unit to prospective tenants or buyers
California Civil Code Section 1940.2 makes all forms of landlord harassment illegal. Plus, many local ordinances are even stricter. Landlord harassment is never an appropriate way to get a tenant to move out.
The following are examples of landlord harassment.
- Repeatedly entering your tenant’s unit without permission
- Shutting off your tenant’s essential utilities
- Refusing to perform your maintenance obligations
- Locking out your tenant
- Serving your tenant an improper notice
- Threatening your tenant either verbally or physically
- Sexually harassing your tenant
5. Your Tenant Is a Victim of Domestic Violence
California allows tenants who’ve been domestic violence victims to legally break their lease. Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.7 provides them early termination rights if certain conditions are met.
In addition, domestic violence victims have the following special rental provisions.
- Protection from termination. It’s illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to rental prospects that have been domestic violence victims.
- Change of locks. Landlords have 24 hours to change rental locks after being notified by a tenant who’s been a domestic violence victim. If you don’t, your tenant may then make the changes themselves.
If you own a rental property in California, it can seem daunting to need to navigate every intricacy of state and local landlord-tenant law. Not to mention dealing with the ever increasing expectations of today’s tenant. Feeling confused about what to do? Give Mike Dunfee Group a call! We have the expertise to help you manage your property.
Disclaimer: This blog is only meant to be informative and not a substitute for professional legal advice. Also, certain aspects of the law may change and this content may not be updated at the time you read it. If you need legal advice please do so through an actual attorney specialising in the area of law in question. If you have a question or need help in any aspect of property management, Mike Dunfee Group can help.