Can I break an apartment lease if the complex is all noise and activity?

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Question:

I picked this apartment complex because it seemed like a clean and somewhat quiet environment, especially since the rent was sky high. After two weeks of living there I realized what a total zoo I moved into: I have a neighbor above me who constantly fights with her mate, and dogs barking on almost every balcony at every hour of the day and night. I was offered another apartment in another building, but was told I'd have to pay for the cleaning of the apartment I was currently in. I didn't see why since I was only in the apartment for about three weeks at the time.

I want to break the lease but am afraid I won't get my deposit back, even if I give written notice. The manager also told me when I do decide to move out, the tenant is always charged for cleaning the apartment, which he says is legal (I happen to live in California). Is this true?

Answer:

Contrary to the bill of goods your apartment manager is attempting to peddle, in California and a number of states it is against the law to collect a fee at the beginning of the tenancy and call it a nonrefundable cleaning fee. In these states, your landlord may charge for cleaning at the end of the tenancy only if the unit is left in a condition worse than when you moved in -- minus normal wear and tear. Your landlord's foolproof policy of charging for cleaning, regardless of the unit's condition, is foolish. And illegal.

If you truly cannot live peacefully and quietly in your newish digs, you do have the benefit of a quaint-sounding legal right that tenants in all states have: the right to quiet enjoyment of their homes. When the landlord allows other tenants to destroy your quiet enjoyment, you have grounds to break the lease and move out -- without liability for future rent. This means that the landlord should not keep your security deposit to cover some of that rent, either. But it sounds as if your particular landlord is likely to make a play to do so -- and he might try to sue you for the remainder to boot.

For you, there is no time like the present to become prepared, just in case you need to sue for the return of the deposit and in case the landlord turns the tables and sues you for breaking the lease. If you can locate any quiet and nonbarking neighbors, ask them to listen to the racket and give you signed descriptions of what they hear; see if they will come to court to back you up. Get any other unbiased witnesses you can bring over to do the same. Put your complaints in writing to the landlord. Keep a log of the times and types of noise you are hearing. Tape record the baying hounds. In short, get ready to show a judge as much proof as possible that the place was Bedlam and no reasonable person should have been expected to put up with it.

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