Renters already in a lease who want to exit before the term of their contract is up face several questions. Do you lose your security deposit? Will you get sued by the landlord? Answers to these common yet important questions are discussed below.
To end a periodic rental agreement (i.e. month-to-month), you must give your landlord proper written notice before you move. You must give the landlord the same amount of notice as there are days between rent payments. This means that if you pay rent monthly, you must give the landlord written notice at least 30 days before you move. For tenants in a fixed term lease different rules apply.
In California, the general rule is that a tenant is legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term whether or not you live in the rental unit with four exceptions: (1) you or a family member are a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or elder abuse; (2) you are starting active military duty; (3) the landlord fails to provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes; and (4) your landlord harasses you or violates your privacy rights.
If none of the aforementioned exceptions apply then you might still be able to break the lease without having to pay all of the remaining rent due for the term because of the burden placed on the landlord to make reasonable efforts to find a new tenant. If your former landlord re-leases the unit for a lesser amount than what you were paying then you will be obligated to make up the difference until term maturity. However, if the landlord tries to find a new tenant but is unsuccessful you will owe the landlord rent until the end of the lease and you will lose your security deposit. Worse, you might get sued.
To mitigate any liability that might come your way, it is wise to have a conversation with your landlord and to give as much notice as possible prior to terminating the lease. You can offer to help find a replacement tenant too. Your landlord is not obligated to break your lease simply because you want to. To protect yourself, ensure you document all correspondence with your landlord.
Under California law a landlord can use your security deposit for four purposes: (1) unpaid rent; (2) for cleaning the rental unit when the tenant moves out, but only to make the unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in; (3) for repair of damages, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant or the tenant’s guests; and (4) for the cost of restoring or replacing furniture, furnishings, or other items of personal property including keys. Any other use of the security deposit is disputable and should be supported by a detailed summary of how the monies were spent.
Finally, it is best to be on good terms with your landlord because if you enter a new rental it is plausible that your new landlord will contact your former landlord and you want the reference to be strong.
By David Pruitt
Author David Pruitt lives in Laguna Beach and is a realtor at Zenith Real Estate Services Inc.