When is it Legal to End a Lease?

Filed under: Real Estate Law

As long as people have been signing leases to rent a homes, they have also been breaking their lease agreements. In some cases breaking a lease warrants a lawsuit by the landlord, but in other cases it is legal for a residential tenant to move out and stop paying rent. Under California law, a lessee may “break” a lease under the certain circumstances, but understand that having the ability to terminate a lease is a far cry from simply walking away without repercussions. There are always legal nuances, depending on the fact situation, and few situations are simply black or white. And in some situations a tenant will be sued whether the tenant is right or wrong, resulting in potentially enormous expense. NEVER simply walk away from a lease without checking with a lawyer to find out the potential legal and practical repercussions. In general, however, under California law a tenant may be able to terminate a lease under the following general circumstances:

Uninhabitable conditions. If the home or apartment has become unlivable, the tenant can break the lease in most cases. Common uninhabitable conditions include infestations (such as cockroaches), excessive noise from neighbors, significant criminal activity in the building or neighborhood, and noxious odors. A noxious odor could be due to a sewage leak, mold or mildew, dead vermin trapped in walls, and so on. These situations are heavily fact dependent, however, so one cannot simply walk away due to a noisy neighbor.

The living unit is illegal. If a basement, garage, or other structure is illegally converted into living space, the landlord doesn’t have a right to enforce a lease.

The government is closing the building. This could be caused by a variety of events, such as fire, flooding, or earthquake damage. A building might be rezoned for development or demolition. In some cases, structure abnormalities, zoning violations, or buildings without the proper permits can be shut down under the law.

Death or incarceration of the tenant. Obviously, in these cases, the tenant can neither pay rent nor occupy the premises. In many cases long term physical or mental hospitalization may provide a legal basis for a tenant to terminate a lease.

The tenant is bankrupt. A lease can be legally abandoned via Chapter 7, 11, or 13 bankruptcy proceedings, but a tenant should take that action ONLY after consulting with a qualified bankruptcy attorney.

The building or land was repossessed. If the tenant has not yet paid rent to the bank or new owner, the lease can be canceled under certain strict conditions and procedures.

The lease was illegal. In some cases the person who rented the space was not the owner, or authorized to do so by the owner. The contracts of unlicensed property managers are also voidable. Occasionally, sub-lease situations are not valid because the original tenant was not allowed to sublet their space to another renter.

The lease was oral. An oral lease for a term of more than a year is void under the Statute of Frauds.

Again, we wish to stress that a tenant should never simply walk away from a lease without fully understanding both the rights and obligations under California law.

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