Property leases, which typically run for a year-long period, can present challenges to owners when a tenant chooses to break a lease. Covering rent for the terms of the lease, recompense for property damage, and the costs of finding new tenants are not only hassles, but may lead to time spent in small claims court trying to recoup what you are owed.
Every state has its own set of regulations governing the lease of a property, and while many of the laws are similar regardless of location, you, as a landlord, should be aware of the codes specific to your state. California legislation allows, for example, for tenants serving active duty military to break leases when they are assigned elsewhere and it also provides protections for the victims of domestic abuse who need to relocate. However, in other cases, legal rights to break a lease are not as clearly protected.
Here are some other common ways that tenants may try to break a lease, either intentionally or unintentionally:
- Nonpayment of rent: Whether because of circumstances or because they seek to break a lease, tenants may refuse or be unable to pay rent. In this situation is important to know what you should or should not do as a landlord. You are required by state law, for example, to give a three-day pay or leave notice for nonpayment of rent. You are also required regardless of the reason for breaking the lease to make reasonable and good faith efforts to re-rent the unit as soon as possible (see Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.2 (2022)). You should not try to force a tenant out by such means as turning off utilities, changing locks, or holding their belongs. This could result in what is known as a “constructive eviction,” which is seen as the landlord’s fault.
- Unsafe living space/violation of health and safety codes: It is important to be aware of codes governing safety and health of a rental space and to maintain these standards in order to prevent such claims. Keep clear records of requests made by tenants for repairs and document the time and materials spent on these repairs.
- Harassment or violation of privacy rights: According to California law, you must give at least 24-hours notice before entering a rental unit (48-hours for a final move-out inspection). Failure to do so opens grounds for privacy violation and justifiable breach of lease
- Illegal conduct: Tenants can try to break a lease by engaging in illegal conduct. If you have proof of illegal activity, you as a landlord must provide a 3-day unconditional quit notice to be within your rights should you have to take matters to court.
Ultimately, there are other reasons that are not valid for breaking a lease, such as a breakup, a new living situation, or moving closer to a job. As a property owner or landlord, you can prepare and protect yourself by knowing which measures are valid, which are not, and how you can approach each situation to minimize loss.
Written by Ivan Young in partnership with bauhaus furniture retailer, Bauhaus 2 Your House