A Guide to Breaking a Lease In California

Is breaking a lease in California legal? In some contexts, yes—but you’ll need to know the laws governing early termination rights to avoid losing money.
Written by R.E. Fulton
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
Breaking a lease in
is only a legally protected right in certain special circumstances—such as if you’re starting active military duty or facing domestic violence. But a solid understanding of California’s Civil Code can help get you out of your rental commitment early without breaking the law.
In general, when you sign a rental agreement, you’re accepting a responsibility to pay rent for a certain period of time (typically a year) on that property. But life happens. Maybe your income changed and you can’t afford your apartment anymore—or maybe it’s changed for the better, and you’re ready for an upgrade. Getting out of your lease might seem impossible, but it isn’t. 
Whether it’s a shift in your finances, a family emergency, a new job, or just a simple desire to move, you have options when it comes to breaking a lease in California. Here to walk you through them is
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In general, California law doesn’t guarantee a tenant’s right to break a lease early without penalties. There are just a few exceptions where a right to early termination does apply. That right is available to: 
  • Tenants who are starting active military duty with any branch of the uniformed services, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Guard, and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service
  • Tenants who are victims of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, stalking, human trafficking, and certain other crimes outlined in
    California Civil Code 1946.7
  • Tenants being harassed by their landlord or whose landlord has violated their privacy or constructively evicted them, e.g. by changing locks
  • Tenants living in unsafe conditions, especially those that violate health and safety codes
Even if you’re not entering a new military career or caught in a dangerous situation, you may be able to claim the right to break a lease under that last clause.
California Civil Code 1942
states that if your landlord fails to repair any damage that makes the unit uninhabitable after reasonable notice, you have the right to move out without any ongoing responsibility to pay rent. 
But what counts as uninhabitable? Well, that’s a little murkier. Infestations of roaches or other vermin, criminal activity on or around the premises, or a serious problem like lack of heat or water may all qualify—but there’s
room for interpretation
MORE: California tenant rights

What are the penalties for breaking a lease in California?

If you’re able to demonstrate that you’re in any of the eligible situations outlined above, you should be able to terminate your lease with no extra expenses and go along your way. But outside of these exceptions, you’ll be facing potential penalty fees, continued rent responsibility, or even a lawsuit from your landlord in small claims court. 
There’s no legally set fee or penalty for breaking a lease in California, but the maximum amount that you could be forced to pay includes: 
  • The entire rent remaining on the lease (until the property is re-rented)
  • Any costs, such as advertising fees, associated with finding a new tenant 
  • The difference between the new tenant’s monthly rent and your old rent, if the landlord is forced to lower the rate 
There are a lot of variables involved in calculating that final amount, which is why many landlords will simply set an early termination fee, often equal to about two months’ rent. Depending on your reasons for breaking the lease, you may be happy to pay that money and run, but if that isn’t an option—or if you’d simply like to minimize your losses and assert your rights—there are ways to avoid paying a penalty. 
MORE: California security deposit laws

How to break a lease without a penalty in California

The key to avoiding steep lease break fees in California lies in
Section 1951.2
of the state Civil Code. Part of this law specifies that your landlord has a legal responsibility to make reasonable efforts to find a new tenant instead of simply charging you for the rest of the lease period for an apartment you’re no longer occupying.
In certain areas with super-active rental markets, such as the Bay Area, it shouldn’t be hard for the landlord to find a new tenant—which is good news for you! 
Rather than relying on your landlord to conduct a prompt tenant search (the legal term is “damage mitigation”), you can move proactively to set yourself up for a fee-free lease break. Here’s how: 
  • Notify your landlord well in advance of your departure. This gives the landlord time to line up a new tenant quickly, minimizing the amount that you’ll have to pay when you leave. 
  • Check your lease. Knowing the terms of your lease could save you major headaches. Some landlords will outline their provisions and fees for early termination, giving you a good starting point for planning your move. 
  • Find a replacement tenant yourself. If you’re able to present your landlord with someone ready to move in after you, you might not even have to pay advertising fees. Just make sure the new tenant’s income and credit score are comparable (or better!). 
  • Negotiate with your landlord. Remember, it’s always legal to break a lease without extra fees if you can reach a mutual agreement with the landlord. Come prepared to show your landlord how your departure could actually benefit them—maybe they’ll be able to rent the unit at a higher rate, or set themselves up for a more competitive leasing schedule. 
No matter what approach you choose, communicate early and clearly with your landlord to maximize your chances of a successful move. Every landlord is different—some may dig in their heels and work to wring every last drop of money out of you, but many will be happy to let you move early as long as you tell them well in advance! 
MORE: What you need to know about eviction in California

How to save on renters insurance in California

Finding your way out of a lease can be tricky in California. Finding affordable renters’ insurance shouldn’t be. 
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Despite its serious impacts on public health and individual finances, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a legally approved reason to break a lease in California. However, depending on the circumstances, you may be able to negotiate an early termination with your landlord—for instance, if you’re forced to move due to a family emergency.
Not necessarily. As long as you’re able to promptly pay all of the associated costs your landlord charges, including termination fees and any ongoing rent, your credit score shouldn’t see a drop.
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