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What If You Need to Break Your Lease?

You signed it, but now you need to break it. How can you break your lease and not incur any legal charges?

In New York, where transient lifestyles and job relocation and apartment hopping are standard operating procedure, there’s an art to breaking your lease. Just learn the basic brush strokes and you should be good to go!

What does your lease say?

A lease is a legal document that states the terms of your rental agreement, including how much you pay, due date for payment and how long you can stay, among other things.

The first step is to know your lease terms so that when you approach your landlord, you can begin a discussion that may indeed yield the results you want – or something close to it.

What are your choices?

In New York City, as most places, landlords are not obligated to renegotiate your lease. However, given the frothy market conditions and the competition for rentals, it’s possible that your landlord may accept your early termination as a way to re-rent the place at a higher rate. They might even help you find a new tenant. If that’s the case, just make sure you get the terms of your departure in writing, so that your release from obligations is legally clear. Here are some other options:

  • Pay a fee: In some instances, a landlord may be willing to accept your departure if you pay a fee or penalty. Again, if the landlord is willing, have these terms documented. For instance, you may be able to negotiate paying three months’ rent in order to be released from the lease. If the landlord wants to charge you a daily fee until a new tenant moves in, make sure the number of days is capped and the fee is firmly established. Again, get it in writing.
  • Sublet or “assign” your apartment. In some instances, a landlord may be willing to allow you to find a new renter. This may sound like a fast way out of your lease, but beware of the risks because it could come back to haunt you since you’re still responsible for the rent should the tenant you found never move in or stop paying.

Difference between subletting and assigning

Finding a renter for your place, or subletting, is a right under state statute in buildings where there are more than four apartments. But, you still need your landlord’s permission.

The New York State Attorney General’s office is pretty clear on what subletting entails. A tenant who subleases an apartment is called the “prime tenant” and the person temporarily renting the premises is called the “subtenant.”

This is different from “assigning” your lease, which is when the tenant transfers the entire interest in the apartment lease to someone else and is permanently vacating the premises.

The law is pretty clear: A tenant’s right to assign the lease is much more restricted than the right to sublet.

Read the AG’s Tenant’s Rights Guide closely to make sure you are following the rules.

Don't put your head in the sand

The gist of all these options is the same: Do not move out and hope no one bugs you for that rent check because this will all come back to haunt you one day and the fees could multiply over time.

While tenant laws in general give a lot of rights to apartment renters, the courts are not exactly friendly to renters who skip out on leases. You will not only be legally obligated for the rent should you be taken to court, but you will likely lose your security deposit and could suffer credit issues should the landlord file a claim against you for non-payment. And once you develop bad credit, it means you will also have difficulty renting or buying a place down the road.

The moral of the story is work out an agreement with your landlord and don’t worry about their reaction – they are used to renters breaking leases all the time and nice ones will actually help you!

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