Ending a rental lease in California can get tricky if the tenant is trying to do it earlier than the date already set in the agreement. However, there are a few cases where they could break the lease early without suffering penalties.

It's vital for landlords to prepare for any of these situations so that they avoid any legal/financial problems in the future. Generally speaking, understanding how the California landlord-tenant law works is the best way to ensure a healthy and effective leasing relationship with their tenant.

Here, we'll dive deeper into how the landlord-tenant laws in California work by explaining how breaking a lease in the state works.

Required Notice

There are certain requirements when it comes to breaking a lease in California that you may not find in other states.

Keep in mind that tenants (and landlords as well) are only required to provide notice before ending a lease in the following scenarios:

  • Weekly Leases - Seven days of notice.
  • Monthly Leases - 30 days of notice.

In any case, the tenant must keep paying rent during this period and while they're staying in the unit. Tenants don't have to provide their landlords with any notice for a fixed-term lease.

On the other hand, if the tenant is planning on breaking the lease early, they should still provide 7-30 days of notice in most cases so that the landlord can find and accommodate a new tenant.

Can a Tenant Break a Lease in California?

California tenants may be able to break a lease early without further rent obligation if certain conditions apply. We'll go over each of these conditions below:

When Can Tenants Break a Lease Legally?

Early Termination Clause

According to California law, landlords can include an "Early Lease Termination Clause," which allows both parties to end the agreement before it ends.

Typically, the landlord or property manager allows their tenant to break the lease early as long as they pay for a penalty fee. The fee is usually equal to two months of rent, and the tenant should give their landlord at least 30 days of notice.

There are some cases where California tenants could end the lease without any penalties. We'll cover them next.

Uninhabitable Unit

According to the California Civil Code (CIV § 1941.1), a rental unit could be considered uninhabitable if it lacks any of the following essentials:

  • Running Water
  • Floors/Railings/Stairways
  • Clean and Sanitary Premises
  • Garbage Containers
  • Weatherproofing for the Roof and Exterior Walls

Tenants have the right to request repairs within a reasonable amount of time. If the landlord fails to provide these repairs, then the tenant would be considered "constructively evicted," meaning they don't have to keep their end of the deal anymore.

If the landlord repeatedly violates these terms, then they will have problems finding more prospective tenants in the future. Generally speaking, they must always ensure their rental unit is fit for housing new tenants.

Active Military Duty

According to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), active service members are protected under the following conditions:

  • They're relocated due to deployment.
  • They get a permanent change of station.

Generally speaking, tenants areget protected from the day they enter duty and until 30-90 days after they get discharged.

Here's a list of people who are considered "Servicemembers:"

  • Armed Forces Member
  • National Guard Members
  • State Military Reserve Members
  • Naval Militia Members

Now, keep in mind that even if the tenant is able to break the lease early under this condition, they can't "break" it immediately. According to the law, tenants may only terminate the lease 30 days after the next lease term/period begins.

Another important thing to consider is that tenants must follow this process before breaking their rental lease due to "Active Military Duty:"

  • Deliver a written notice to their landlord/project manager. This notice must include a letter from their commanding officer regarding pending deployment, a copy of the PCS, or a copy of the deployment orders.

Moreover, the tenant must prove they signed their lease agreement before they entered active duty and that they will remain on that duty for at least 90 days after the notice was sent.

Landlord Harassment

If the tenant believes their privacy is being violated or that they're being harassed by their landlord, they may use that as justification to break their rental agreement.

There are three conditions where this may apply:

  • The landlord changed the locks of the rental unit without the tenant's permission.
  • The landlord didn't provide their tenant any notice before entering the property (California law requires landlords to give at least 24 hours of notice before entering their unit).
  • The landlord removes doors, turns off utilities, or does anything that may be considered "constructively evicting" their tenant.

Domestic Violence, Stalking, Sexual Abuse, or Elder Abuse

California (and many other states in the US), provides protection to tenants who are suffering from domestic/sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse.

Here are some of the conditions that apply:

  • Landlords can't refuse to rent their units to prospective tenants because they were victims of any of the factors mentioned before. They can't break or refuse to renew a lease in California under these conditions either.
  • If the landlord fails to replace the locks of their unit upon the tenant's request, the tenant may be able to legally change them themselves.

Now, landlords have the right to request proof of these claims. In some cases, the tenant may be asked to provide a copy of the temporary restraining order, police report, or any other supporting document. Typically, they must send those reports within 180 days after they were issued.

Other Conditions That May Warrant a Decision from the Court Before Breaking a Lease in California

All of the factors we just explained may allow a tenant to break their lease in California right away. However, there are a few other reasons that may allow the tenant to end the lease early as long as the decision is supported by a court.

Let's take a look at them:

  • Lease Agreement Violation: If the landlord repeatedly violates their rental agreement terms, the tenant may have the right to break the lease early. Some reasons include not providing repairs within a reasonable timeframe or raising rent illegally during a fixed-term lease.
  • Failure to Provide Mandatory Disclosures: California requires landlords to provide a few mandatory disclosures to their tenant before they move into the rental property. According to the law, sellers must only disclose known effects, although they're not required to get a home inspection first.
  • Illegal Agreements: If the California lease agreement is deemed illegal or unenforceable for any reason, the tenant may be able to break it early.
  • Health Issues: The Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act protect tenants who have a qualified health/physical condition. In some cases, they could request an early termination if they can prove the landlord didn't provide reasonable accommodation to them.

What Reasons for Breaking a Lease Are Unjustifiable?

Although there are many reasons that may allow tenants to break their lease in California before it ends, there are others that don't provide enough justification on their own. This could cause these tenants to pay penalties.

In any case, the tenant would have to either ask their landlord for a mutual termination or seek the court's approval.

These reasons include:

  • They're moving in with a partner/friend/family member.
  • They're upgrading/downgrading.
  • They bought another property.
  • They're relocating for new jobs or schools (this doesn't apply to active military duty).

Delivering the Lease Notice

There are three ways tenants can deliver a notice for breaking a lease in California:

  • Mailing a copy via certified or registered mail.
  • Delivering the copy to the tenant in person.
  • Delivering the copy to the tenant with a person of "suitable age."

In most cases, delivering the copy of the notice in person is the best option among the rest, although many tenants also like mailing it to avoid having to confront their landlord directly.

Breaking A Lease Without a Justifiable Reason

If a tenant breaks a lease in California without a justifiable reason, they may be exposed to several risks and penalties. The consequences depend on the landlord and what rules the California lease agreement established in the first place.

Some landlords, for example, only ask their tenants to keep paying rent until they find a new one. Many consider this the 'best' outcome of breaking the lease early.This is considered, by many, the "best" outcome of breaking the lease early.

Here's a list of other consequences tenants may face.

  • Penalty Fees: As mentioned before, you can ask your tenants to pay a penalty fee if they break their lease early. This penalty is often equal to one or two months of rent.
  • Bad Reputation: Tenants who decide to walk out of the property before the lease term expires may have trouble renting other apartments. Most landlords in California pay close attention to their prospective tenants' past renting history. Even one instance of breaking the lease early can affect them.
  • Bad Credit Score: Tenants who fail to pay associated fines and get asked to appear in a small claims court can have issues with their credit score. Overall, any unpaid rent/fines can affect a tenant's score.
  • Lawsuits: Although it's not common to sue tenants for breaking a lease, it can still happen.

Can Tenants Avoid Penalties?

There are a few things tenants can do to avoid penalties, although they may have to consult with their landlord first:

  • Asking their landlord for permission to sublet the property.
  • Offering help to find a new tenant.
  • Providing the right amount of notice.
  • Providing a reasonable reason for ending the agreement before the fixed-term lease expires.

To summarize, as long as the tenant complies with the lease agreement, is honest with their landlord, and provides enough notice, they may be able to pay lower penalty fees (or not pay them at all).

Enforcing Penalties

The best thing landlords can do to enforce penalties is to be as clear as possible with the clauses in the lease agreement, as they will be able to use that as evidence in case they have to take the case to a small claims court.

Moreover, you should explain the consequences of not paying penalties to your tenant and encourage them to ask as many questions as they want.

If none of that works, then you can seek legal counsel to come up with your next steps.

Preventing Tenants From Breaking The Lease

As with the previous section, the best thing you can do is draft a detailed and reasonable agreement for your lease. If your tenant knows and understands the risks of breaking a lease in California, they may be less likely to do it unless they have a good reason.

If a tenant decides to break the lease before it ends, landlords should review the agreement to determine the extent of their protection.When (and if) your tenant decides to break the lease before it ends, you must check your agreement to see how well you're protected. Then, you must check your state's legislation and consider working with a legal counselor to see what you can do.

The most common thing landlords do to protect themselves is ask for penalty fees, which are used to cover:

  • Re-advertising costs.
  • Re-letting fees.
  • Unpaid rent until the lease term expires or the landlord finds a new tenant.

Preventing Lease Problems

You must include an "Early Termination Clause" in your agreement, which will cover when your tenant can (or can't) break the lease.

Remember to be as clear as possible with the conditions, as that will prevent many issues in the future.

Can Tenants Sublease the Property?

It depends on what your agreement says. If you allow your tenants to sublet the property, then they may be able to do it to cover rent payments while they move out.

On the other hand, if your agreement doesn't have a subletting clause, then you can choose to either allow or refuse that kind of request from your tenant.

Landlord's Responsibility to Re-Rent Their Unit

According to California law (Civil Code - CIV § 1951.2), landlords must make reasonable efforts to re-rent their property if the tenant breaks the lease. If you can re-rent your unit successfully, the rent you receive from the new tenant will apply to the old one's debt.

This means you can't wait until the term ends and sue your tenant for lost money. You must make an effort to find a new tenant. However, you don't need to relax your standards in an effort to find a new tenant faster.

Bottom Line

We hope this article helped you understand early lease termination guidelines in California. If you're having trouble coming up with your lease document, feel free to download one of DoorLoop's templates to make everything easier.

What Happens If a Tenant Doesn't Pay Rent?

If a tenant doesn't pay rent, the landlord has the right to evict them. Landlords must provide at least 30 days of notice, and if the tenant doesn't move out by then, they can file a lawsuit.

What Does "Uninhabitable Unit" Mean According to California Law?

It means the unit doesn't provide habitable housing conditions according to local laws. In any case, landlords must ensure their property is fit for any tenant to live in.

What Happens If the Landlord Doesn't Include an Early Termination Clause in the Agreement?

Tenants may still be able to terminate the lease before it expires, as long as they pay the amount of rent they owe to the landlord.

Can Landlords Break a Lease Early in California?

Yes, although they need to have a valid reason. The Tenant Protection Act of 2019 requires landlords to have a justifiable reason to evict any tenant, as long as they've lived in the property for at least a year.

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David is the co-founder & CMO of DoorLoop, a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and real estate investor. When he's not hanging with his three children, he's writing articles here!