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Can you legally break your lease?

If you signed a lease when you moved into your California home or apartment and now find that you must move even though your lease term still has several months to go, you probably wonder if you can legally break your lease. The answer is yes, but only under certain circumstances

Bear in mind that having a valid reason for breaking your lease is not necessarily the same as having a legal reason to do so. For example, if you must relocate because of your job, that is a valid reason to move, but not a legal reason to break your existing lease. Without a legal reason, your landlord can continue to charge you for each remaining month’s rent and does not have to return your security deposit. If you simply move out without giving a reason, and giving your landlord the opportunity to fix any problems that exist in your home or apartment, you face the possibility of losing your deposit and paying potentially substantial amounts for a dwelling in which you no longer live.

How legal is your lease?

Before resigning yourself to remaining where you are, carefully reread your lease. It is possible that your lease never was a valid one. Check to see whether or not it contains the following:

  • A specified beginning date and end date
  • A list of responsibilities that your landlord must assume
  • A list of responsibilities that you must assume

If your lease contains no end date, it is not a legal lease. In addition, if it does, but that date has passed and you are still living there, you are not currently living under a lease, but rather under a month-to-month tenancy. If this is the case, you have no lease to break. All you need do is give your landlord 30 days’ notice that you are moving.

Did your landlord breach the lease?

A lease is like any other contract. It must spell out what each of you agreed to do during the lease term. For instance, most leases say that your landlord will provide the stove, refrigerator and other specified appliances, but that you will pay the gas and/or electric bills you incur for their usage. If your refrigerator has stopped working and your landlord refuses to repair or replace it, (s)he has breached the lease and you have a legal reason for moving early without penalty.

Whether or not your lease talks about habitability, you have the legal right to live in a home or apartment that is, in fact, fit for human habitation. Under California law, your landlord cannot force you to live in or pay rent for a building or unit that does not meet housing code requirements. Housing code violations are one of the most common reasons why tenants can legally break their leases.

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