Can I break my lease if my apartment complex is noisy and rowdy?

Question

Despite sky-high rent, I picked my apartment complex because it seemed like a clean and quiet environment. After two weeks of living here I realized what a total zoo I moved into: I have a neighbor above me who constantly fights with her roommate, and dogs bark on almost every balcony at every hour of the day and night. I complained, and the property manager said I could move into a different apartment in another building, but would have to pay for the cleaning of the apartment I’m currently in. I’ve only been in the unit for about three weeks, so I don’t see why I should have to pay to clean it.

I want to break the lease but am afraid I won't get my security deposit back, even if I give written notice. The manager also told me that they always charge tenants for cleaning the apartment at move-out—he says that’s legal here in California. Is this true? What are my options?

Answer

Tenants have the right of quiet enjoyment of their home. This means that landlords can’t disturb tenants’ peaceful and reasonable use of their rental. If another tenant is violating your right to quiet enjoyment, your landlord must take reasonable measures to remedy the situation. Because what’s disturbing to one tenant might be pleasant to another (for example, the sound of a passing train in the night), courts apply a reasonableness test to determine if something rises to the level warranting action: Would the disturbance prevent a reasonable person in a similar situation from the quiet enjoyment of their rental?

Shouting neighbors and barking dogs might qualify as a breach of your right to quiet enjoyment. Your remedy depends on the law where you live. Many state and local laws allow tenants in similar situations to withhold rent or move out without obligation to pay the remaining rent due under the lease.

In California, when a landlord breaches the right of quiet enjoyment, tenants can move out and not have to pay any further rent. (And the landlord can’t keep your security deposit to cover any of that rent, either.) Alternatively, they can stay in the rental and sue the landlord for money damages and possibly injunctive relief (an order from the court that the landlord must do something to fix the problem).

Before you take action, try to collect evidence of the noise and disruption. You’ll need this in the event your landlord keeps your security deposit when you move out or sues you for breaking your lease. If you can locate any quiet and non-barking 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. Record the racket, and keep a log of the times and types of noise you are hearing. In short, get ready to show a judge as much proof as possible that the place was a zoo, and no reasonable person should have been expected to put up with it. Consider consulting a local landlord-tenant attorney if your landlord sues, or make an appointment with a lawyer just to talk about how to best deal with your landlord.

As far as the nonrefundable cleaning fee is concerned, in California (and many other states) state security deposit laws prohibit landlords from collecting a fee at the beginning of the tenancy and calling it a nonrefundable cleaning fee. In these states, your landlord may charge for cleaning (by deducting from your security deposit) 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. The landlord must give an accounting of how the money was used, and return to you any unused funds. Your landlord's policy of charging for cleaning regardless of the unit’s actual condition is illegal.

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