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I am planning to enter into a 12 month lease in California. However, circumstances may arise which require me to move out before the lease ends. I looked at what typically happens with early termination and none of the options sound good:

  • If you try to sublet, you have to spend much effort and time finding a tenant. Some contracts prohibit subletting. The landlord can easily hold you hostage by refusing to approve any tenant you find.
  • Many early termination clauses are incredibly unfair to the tenant: A common example is that tenant is liable for all the months of lost rent during which the landlord is looking for a new tenant. So if you break the lease on month 1, the landlord could drag his feet and you can be on the hook for 11 months' worth of rent.
  • If you simply stop paying rent, the eviction goes on your record and you can't rent a new house.

I'm not really comfortable making a commitment to stay in a place for 12 months, no matter what. All sorts of things can happen in life, nobody can predict what will take place up to a year out. You could lose your job, you could suffer some emergency. It seems a foolish thing to accept such an agreement. However, almost all landlords ask for 12 months so there's not a realistic alternative.

What are my options as a leasee for protecting my family from ruin due to early termination of a lease? Are there any defensive clauses I can request to be included in the contract (that the landlord is actually likely to agree to)? Are there any legal protections I can take advantage of?

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    "So if you break the lease on month 1, the landlord could drag his feet and you can be on the hook for 11 months' worth of rent." Just no. In more generous jurisdictions, they can get by with two months rent from you, but in the majority of cases they can only demand one additional month of rent. They certainly cannot drag their feet and do nothing to remedy the problem. – animuson Aug 22 at 20:14
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The ability to bargain for clauses that are more favorable varies with the type of landlord. Termination clauses are no different in this regard.

If the landlord refuses to negotiate/modify early termination clauses, the tenant's subsequent decision to enter the lease evidences that he knowingly and willfully agreed to those terms. The tenant is not allowed to disavow them thereafter. Hence the importance of negotiating the clauses, although rental corporations are unlikely to be any flexible.

Unless you find a flexible landlord or manage to arrange alternative housing, entering a standard 12-month lease is a risk you would have to take.

Legislation typically requires landlords to mitigate damages in the event of early termination by finding as soon as possible a new tenant. However, in reality it is usually too difficult for a leaving tenant to scrutinize the landlord's efforts of finding a new tenant. The best chances to be able to conduct that scrutiny occur when the matter is brought to court.

A landlord could have the incentive to find a new tenant soon if the early termination coincides with certain season. A typical example occurs in college towns, since students need to arrange housing by the time the school year begins.

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