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Can a tenant ever validly break a lease?

When you moved into your California apartment, you thought you would live there “forever.” Now, however, you feel you must move and your lease has not yet expired. What, if anything, can you do?

HomeGuide explains that in California, you have the legal right to break your lease, but only under certain circumstances. The first thing you must realize is that “valid reason” is not synonymous with “legal reason.” For instance, if your company decides to transfer you half way across the country, you have a valid reason to move. It is not, however, a legal reason to break your lease. Nor is it a legal reason why your landlord must return your security deposit and must not charge you for the remaining months of the lease.

Is your lease legal?

Legal reasons to break a lease generally arise from the lease itself. Therefore, the first thing you should do is reread your lease. You may be surprised to discover that it is not a legal one and may never have been. As an example, a legal lease must contain an end date. If yours is a “boilerplate” form with a blank line for the end date to be filled in by hand, but it never was, your lease was never legal in the first place.

Likewise, if the end date is filled in but it is now months later, you never signed a new lease, but obviously you are still living in the apartment, what originally was a valid lease is now a de facto month-to-month rental arrangement. Consequently, you have no lease to break and can move out with no negative consequences after you give your landlord 30 days’ notice.

Did your landlord “breach” the lease?

A valid lease must specify what both the landlord and tenant must do and must provide. For instance, it is likely that your landlord provides your appliances, but you pay the utility bills. If your stove now does not work and you advised your landlord of this when it first happened, (s)he must repair it within a reasonable time. If (s)he fails to do so or the repairs were insufficient, you now have a legal reason to break your lease without negative consequences because (s)he did not live up to her end of the bargain.

There are many legal reasons for you to break your lease. Your best strategy may be to contact a landlord/tenant attorney. (S)he can assess your lease and your situation and determine if you can break your lease with impunity. This is general information only and not intended to provide legal advice.

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