Dealing With Runaway Tenants




Ideally, every tenant would fulfill their lease term and give proper notice before moving out, but it’s not a perfect world we live in. Life happens.


Maybe your renting to a student at UC Berkeley and they want to leave after school is out. Perhaps they are moving in with a significant other, or want to move closer to a new job. In an earlier post, we noted that droves of residents are disaffecting from the Bay Area because of high rents, congestion and other factors that lead them to seek greener pastures, so this phenomenon of runaway tenants only stands to rise.


When a tenant decides to break the lease and leaves like a thief in the night, this is a stressful event for the landlord left holding the bag. But with some exceptions, tenants are legally bound to pay rent until you can lease the property out again to a qualified renter or the lease expires, whichever happens first.


All too often at Bornstein Law, we see consternated landlords that do not know what recourse they have after a tenant flies the coop, when this contingency should already be covered in the lease. Once again, we don’t live in a perfect world, and oftentimes, the lease does not provide anything that spells out the consequences in the event a tenant leaves before the entire lease term. This glaring absence is a problem.


A recurring theme of our practice is landlords using stale, outdated lease agreements that do not adequately prepare for tenants that break the lease and other worst-case outcomes. We recommend going through your current documentation with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that it addresses abandonment of the rental unit, among other breaches.


In many cases, the would-be absconding tenant will be discouraged from leaving if they are informed of the binding nature of the lease and that measures will be taken to recoup the lost rental income amount. Like most other orbits of your rental business, communication is key.


However good of a motive the tenant has for leaving, it won’t legally release them from liability for the damages occurred by the untimely exit, which may include leasing commissions, advertising expenses, utilities maintained to show the premises, and unpaid rent through the term of the lease.


In some cases, your lease may not even be legally enforceable. A legal lease must specify an end date and if it does not, it’s considered a month-to-month tenancy that merely requires a 30-day written notice to terminate.


There may be other problems lurking, as well. For example, let’s say the end date expired and the lease was never renewed, but the tenant continues to pay the rent. You now have a month-to-month agreement.


Look for whether your lease has a 30-day termination clause or a blank line where the end date should be entered. These are just some of the many flaws we find with the lease agreements of even successful clients that come into our office.


In parting thoughts, we want to admonish landlords to make timely repairs in their rental unit, as a tenant may attempt to legally break the lease by claiming the unit is inhabitable. The implied warranty of habitability in California requires the landlord to maintain their rental property in a condition that is fit for occupancy and failure to do so may give the tenant a free ride out of the lease under California Civil Code Section 1942.


To ensure that your lease protects you against the runaway tenant, or if you are unsure of what to do when the tenant signals their intention to breach the lease, turn to Bornstein Law.
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As the founding attorney of Bornstein Law, Broker of Record for Bay Property Group and expert witness, Daniel Bornstein is a foremost and well-respected expert in landlord-tenant disputes and other property management issues with over 23 years of experience in handling real estate and civil litigation related disputes in and throughout the Bay Area. More than a litigator, Daniel manages rental properties, assists in completing real estate transactions and is well known for his educational seminars. He is always eager to answer questions and engage with Bay Area landlords, property owners and real estate professionals. Email him today.