Wondering how to break a lease in NYC? Well, breaking up is hard to do.
You thought it was your dream place. Turns out it’s not. Now you’re stuck there. Why did you sign that two-year lease?
There are actually a lot of legitimate reasons you might be in the delicate and unpleasant situation of having to break your lease. You might have landed a new job. Maybe your current job is insisting on relocation. Or there’s a new bundle of joy in the house and your budding family needs more room.
If you are going to take this plunge, there are some things you should know and this article intends to inform you. In most cases, under the law, should you vacate the apartment before the contractual term expires, you are financially responsible for the entire value of the full term of the contract.
Luckily, you are in New York City, where laws, while constantly shifting, are at least trying to protect the many tenants that make it such a colorful town. First, take a look at some of the reasons that by law, you may be permitted to legally make a clean break from your lease.
- You are leaving in service of the nation – More specifically, you are protected if you are going on active military duty. There are some caveats: You must notify the landlord in writing and once the notice is delivered, your lease will terminate in thirty days. You must be a member of “uniformed services”. This designation covers armed forces, certain members of the Public Health Service, the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Guard.
- You need care – If you qualify as disabled under state law, you can break your lease to move to a residential care facility or move in with a family member because you can no longer take care of yourself independently.
- You are in your golden years – You must be 62 or older for this one, in which case you can relocate to senior citizen housing or a nursing home, if you cannot live independently anymore, without fear of owing the duration of your lease.
- You are in danger – Specifically, domestic violence, stalking or sexual abuse. The law covers spouses and children who are victims of domestic abuse. They can terminate their lease early, if they fear for their safety. But there are certain steps you must take, such as securing a court protection order.
- The rental doesn’t meet standards – like Health and Safety Code violations, or a major repair that has gone unattended to and makes the rental a health risk, such as lack of any essential services like heat or electricity. However, there are procedures which must be followed for this to happen. Those will be discussed in further detail a little later in the article.
- The landlord is harassing you – this can take various forms and can include violating your privacy by entering without permission, removing doors or windows or changing the locks.
A new job, loss of income or other personal reasons like buying a house are not covered. If none of the above reasons covered by law apply to you, read on to explore your further options.
Why is it so hard and stringent to just move out of a place? Well, you have to first consider the landlord’s concerns. Finding a new tenant is not easy. If it doesn’t take money, like hiring an agent, then at the very least it takes time.
In addition, the property just sits there not generating revenue and once filled, who knows if the new tenant will be responsible, pay on time, keep the place clean, etc. Assuming you are doing that now.
You don’t want to turn your landlord into the Hulk. They can do things like sue you at the very worst and it’s fairly easy for them to enter a negative judgement on your credit report, which will follow you for a long time.
You have both rights and responsibilities as a tenant. You have the right to no rent increases and no sudden evictions. Your responsibilities include paying rent on time and keeping noise to a reasonable level, whatever that is. This is New York City after all.
Before exploring your options, re-read your lease. Yes, Dovstoevsky in the original Russian language is easier and less boring to read than an apartment lease. It feels like those terms and conditions online, you just have to agree. But there are some terms that benefit you and knowledge is power.
Alright, what are your options if you do have a compelling motivation to break your lease?
Option #1: Ask First
Yes, you can do this. Get yourself released. This is rare. Most times you won’t get out of paying. But like mama said, it never hurts to ask. Of course, the landlord will be reasonable if you pay.
One circumstance in which your landlord may be amenable to this arrangement might be if you are paying rent below market value and he can charge more with a new tenant. But if you have the apartment at such a great price, why would you do that?
Is it legal: Of course, it just doesn’t happen often.
Option #2: Find a replacement tenant
This is also known as lease assignment. Sounds like an easy solution. But that new tenant is going to have to jump through the same hoops you did.
The prospective tenant will have to possess a good credit score, gainful employment and an income sizably larger than the rent.
Is it legal? Perfectly
Option #3: Pay a lease break fee
There may already be a clause in your lease specifying what the penalty is for breaking the lease or at least a description of the procedure to follow should the need arise.
You can be certain your landlord will administer a penalty of some kind. It might be as little as losing your security deposit, in which case you are getting off easy. It could also be a fee equivalent to between one and three months rent. In the worst-case scenario, they can take you to court.
Is it legal? Of course it is, the landlord doesn’t mind.
Option #4: File a Constructive Eviction Claim
A constructive eviction claim is when you can prove that the landlord is not making repairs that are essential or putting you at risk. Or not following state health codes. Or denying you basic services. Basically, if they are negligent in any way. In the eyes of the state, by doing so, they have effectively “evicted” you.
Long story short, you are finding a reason the landlord is breaching his side, as opposed to you being the one doing the breaching.
This option takes some effort and fortitude. The state has a particular procedure you will need to follow. You will have to be ready to back up all your claims. It’s kind of fighting dirty, but that’s how some landlords play too.
Is it legal? Yes, of course, but more of a hassle for both parties. It can be expensive if it goes to housing court.
Option #5: Consult an Agent
A Rental Agent will know inside out the laws and clauses, since it is their field to negotiate these contracts. They will know the legal and technical terms in your lease.
They can often help find a solution for you to walk away and if you haven’t found a new place yet, can help with that too. Always good to have an ally in real estate. Fees for the services may vary depending on your needs.
Is it legal? Yes, just more expensive.
Option #6: Sublet
This is a common but not so desirable option. In fact, in some places, like France, it is illegal and you can lose your right to the property as well.
In New York City, it happens to be legal if you live in a building with more than four units. The thing to watch out for is you might have to stealthily conceal it from your landlord and if your subletter should not pay the rent or have constant loud parties late into the night, it is you who will ultimately be held responsible.
Is it legal: Questionable.
Option #7: Get yourself kicked out
This method is most definitely not ethical. You can not make rent payments, but there may be a late fee for that. You can try to annoy your neighbors or instigate complaints.
The thing is, the landlord might take you to court or slap something on your credit report, not just kick you out. Your ‘bad behavior’ will be a matter of public record. And it makes it harder for future tenants and leads to ever more rules and regulations, making life more difficult for everyone.
It is not recommended.
Is it legal? Questionable.
Should you decide to seek assistance, which is always a prudent move, there are a few avenues you can take.
- Get a Tenant Attorney – You can get an attorney specializing in these cases to take a look at your case. Expect to pay a retainer fee which could be as much as if not more than fifteen hundred dollars. If the case goes to court, it could cost up to ten thousand dollars. Plus you will be responsible for court costs if you lose. Housing laws are complex, so exercise this option as a last resort.
- Consult a Tenant Rights Organization – If you don’t want to go so far as hiring an attorney, look in your neighborhood at community centers or churches for public meetings with tenants rights organizations. They can answer many of your questions. Keep in mind this is not legal advice. Many of the participants are lawyers who are fulfilling obligations for pro bono work. They can only go so far holding your hand.
- Landlord-Tenant Mediation – This is an initiative from the administration of New York City. The service helps landlords and tenants resolve their issues without going to court. Best Part? It’s free!
Finally, below are some Pro Tips to tuck into your back pocket as you negotiate a clean break from your lease.
Try Not To Break Your Lease In Winter
Landlords have a harder time re-renting properties in the winter. It’s in the middle of the school year and nobody wants to risk being out in the cold, so they don’t usually switch living situations. In the winter, people prefer to stay cozy.
So your landlord will probably not be as amenable to breaking your lease this time of year. Even if it’s Christmas. The landlord may have to offer more concessions including lower rent, to entice new tenants. In the summer, prices are higher so it’s a better time.
Beware Zee Black List
Urban Legend? Who knows? While it is unlawful to deny a tenant based on a black listing, it is also pretty much unenforceable in the authorities eyes. Simple answer: Don’t get on it. The Black List comes from NYC Housing Court Records.
Get It In Writing!
Whatever agreement you come to with your landlord, make it official. Get it in writing. Whether your landlord is kind enough to release you free of charge – good luck with that! – or you find a replacement tenant, just make sure it is on the books!
Timely Is The New Black
At the very least, be courteous and give the landlord fair notice. 30 days is nice, but the ideal time period for a new apartment to be on the market is 60 days, to ensure it is swiftly re-habitated.
To really get on the landlord’s good side, be gracious about showing the apartment to potential tenants.
Records Are The Best Defense
It’s best to record any potential claims from the very beginning, in case you do want to go the constructive eviction route. This can be photographs, receipts, a ledger of some sort. Write them down in detail with supporting evidence.
You will be taken more seriously should the time arrive to prove your case.
Know Your Rights
According to a law that went into effect in July 2019, landlords must make good faith efforts to re-rent the apartment should you vacate early. If and when they fill the apartment, you are no longer liable for the remainder of the rent.
A fairly new law states that landlords do not have a right to your security deposit just because you break your lease. This would interfere with the above mentioned re-renting law.
That doesn’t mean they won’t take it for repairs or painting or if you still owe utility bills. They will find a way. Try to keep your security deposit issues separate from whatever agreement you and your landlord decide upon regarding breaking your lease.
As mentioned at the top of this article, the rent laws are constantly getting updated and changing, usually, in the case of New York City, to the benefit of the tenant. Some of the most recent changes include:
Early in 2020, brokers fees were declared illegal. This meant the practice of taking fifteen percent of the rent as a fee for finding an apartment went the way of the dinosaur.
Or maybe. That’s why this section is called continuing controversies. The new law is currently not being enforced while it waits on a countersuit.
Another recent law new to the books relates to security deposits. Landlords can no longer demand more than one months rent as a security deposit. And they must return it to you within fourteen days.
The golden rule, of keeping your own records and making thorough inspections and holding your landlord to his obligation to give you an itemized report of any amounts he deducts, remains in full effect. Protect yourself.
That was the whole point of this article. Advising you on how to protect yourself. Hope it hits the mark.
Native New Yorker. Travel addict. Hardcore thinker. Analyst. Pop culture fanatic. I live in Queens with my wife Linda and our dog Clemenza.