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Breaking a Lease Can Entail Steep Costs

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- Robert Griswold
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Answers are provided by Robert Griswold, a property manager certified by the Institute of Real Estate Management and author of "Property Management for Dummies"; and lawyers Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.

Q: I have a lease that runs for nearly eight more months. I needed to break my lease because I was laid off from my job.

My landlord has re-rented the flat to another tenant, who will move in the day after I leave. My landlord rented the flat for $130 less per month, and he is trying to collect the difference from my $3,900 security deposit for the rest of the lease, 7 1/2 months, or $975.

I know I owe him for the costs of re-renting the flat, but according to the lease and the Civil Code, it says he can't collect double rent. Can he do this?

Landlords' attorney Smith replies: When tenants break their leases, they are responsible for rent for the balance of the term.

As the landlord's attorney, I am going to give the landlord the benefit of the doubt on the facts.

It appears that $130 per month on the shortfall is the best he could do in the present market at the time of your move out.

Consider the landlord's dilemma. He could hold out for the same rate or higher. This could take some time. Or, as here, he could re-rent the unit immediately for $130 a month less.

If the landlord can prove that was the best rent he could get, then you're going to be responsible for the difference.

Holding you responsible for the shortfall is not collecting double rent.

Q: I am two months into a one-year lease agreement in a rental house.

I recently was given an opportunity to change my career. However, the job change meant moving to another firm more than 45 miles away.

I spoke with my landlord before I accepted the job and asked if he would be willing to work with me regarding getting out of the lease.

I suggested a three-month notice and that I would pay any expenses he may incur, and I also proposed that he keep my entire $500 security deposit.

He said we could work something out, so the next day I accepted the job. Later that same day, I received a call from my landlord advising me that he was going to require me to fulfill the full terms of the lease.

Is there any way I can get out of the lease due to a change in my career in another city?

I am even willing to give a six-month notice and pay further expenses.

Smith replies: I'm afraid not. Your job transfer is not legal justification for your breach of lease. The landlord can hold you to the term.

California law requires the landlord to mitigate damages, that is, make a diligent effort to market the property to qualified replacement tenants.

Such efforts include advertising, listing, showing and posting signs.

As long as the landlord can show proper diligence, you will be held responsible for the vacancy factor, together with advertising expenses and administration costs.

Hopefully, the landlord will be successful in releasing the property so that your liability can be minimized.

Questions can be submitted to Rental Roundtable, Real Estate Section, San Francisco Chronicle, 901 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103, or by e-mail to rgriswold.chronicle@retodayradio.com .

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