Tenant Rights: When Can You Legally Break a Lease?

California is proudly one of the strongest states in the nation when it comes to tenant’s rights. When renting a property, a rental lease is a legally binding contract that makes the tenant responsible for following terms within the lease agreement and making payments for the property for the duration of their lease period on the agreed payment plan. However, a lease also holds the landlord responsible for holding up their end of the contract as well, and as a landlord, there are certain rules and state laws they must abide by. 


According to the rental experts at Utopia Management in Redondo Beach, under certain circumstances, a tenant may be able to legally break a lease or be exempted from their payment responsibilities before the end of the lease. Whether you’re a tenant or a landlord, it’s important to be knowledgeable about the conditions when a lease can be broken. These  are some of the reasons a tenant can break a lease. 


Tenant is Active Duty Military 


Under the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA), active duty military members have unique protections that may offer the ability to terminate a lease. If an active duty military member requires relocation for a period of 90 days or longer, they are legally allowed to break a lease. However, notice of breaking the lease must typically be given 30 days before the termination date of the lease and include change of station orders or proof of deployment.


Landlord Breaches Entry or Harassment Laws


By law, a landlord is usually required to give a minimum of 24 hours’ notice before entering an occupied rental property and must have a reason for entering which may include inspections, maintenance, and repairs, or showing the unit to potential tenants. The tenant may have legal grounds to break the lease if the landlord doesn’t abide by these laws and attempts to enter illegally, attempts to enter without notice, or harasses the tenant. A court order usually must first be obtained against the landlord and if it is violated the tenant can then terminate their lease legally. 


Property Doesn’t Maintain Habitability Standards


Every state requires landlords to maintain a rental property in habitable and safe conditions for the duration of the lease period. While laws may vary from state to state, every law typically includes:


  • Following safety and health codes
  • Providing access to running water
  • Providing proper waste management
  • Conducting repairs or maintenance to vital facilities promptly
  • Maintaining cleanliness and safe conditions in all common areas


If a rental property does not meet these standards, a tenant has the right to file a health or safety complaint to the city. Once a complaint is filed, an inspector will inspect the property to determine if the complaint is justified. Upon discovery of violations, the landlord will be granted a specific time period to correct the violations. 


In the majority of states, if the landlord fails to make the required repairs or changes in the time period granted, the tenant can legally break the lease contract. Typically the tenant must provide written notice with reasons to terminate the lease unless the violations are critical.


Rental Property is Not Legal


If a tenant becomes aware that the property they are renting is illegal, by law they can terminate their lease without penalty. Depending on the residing state, the tenant could be entitled to a return of a portion of the rent they paid during the lease term or potentially additional funds from the landlord to assist in finding a new rental unit.


An incident of Domestic Abuse or Violence 


Under most state laws, tenants have protections as victims of domestic abuse or violence. They may be able to terminate a lease contract under unique circumstances. For these protections to be granted, the act of abuse typically must have occurred within three to six months and the landlord has the authority to request proof of the incident. This may include a copy of a police report and/or an order of protection. However, tenants may be required to give 30 days’ notice of breaking the lease. 


If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, it’s important to seek help right away. You can receive free guidance and support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233).


Lease termination laws can vary by state, that’s why it’s important to be aware of the rental laws in your state to protect yourself or your property. Tenants who terminate their lease illegally can face legal consequences. However, if a tenant would like to terminate their lease based on a situation outside the laws, they may be able to come to an agreement with the landlord and an early termination fee may apply. Hiring a professional property manager can help you protect your rental property, screen tenants, and ensure you and your property are always protected. 



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