how to break a lease

(From a listing at 149 W. 12th St. #15)

Some landlords are now offering big incentives to lure back renters who temporarily left the city due to COVID-19. But many renters who feel that suburban pull are left wondering, “how can I get out of my NYC lease?” Don’t panic! Even if you still have several months left on your lease, there may be a way out. Here are some important things to consider if you’re trying to figure out how to break a lease.

Note: This guide is for informational purposes only. This resource is not a substitute for the advice or service of an attorney; you should not rely on this resource for any purpose without consulting with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

How to Get Out of a Lease Legally

Technically, a lease is a legally binding contract. You’re on the hook to pay for the length of the lease terms. Here are a few key things to consider about leases if you’re hoping to break yours.

  • Put it in writing. If you’re asking to be released from a lease, always do it in writing, says longtime NYC tenant attorney Sam Himmelstein. “The first step is to write a letter to the landlord saying you’d like to surrender possession of the apartment,” Himmelstein tells StreetEasy. “While this doesn’t guarantee you’re off the hook, it does start the legal process of breaking a lease.”
  • Understand the landlord’s legal obligations. “If a landlord were to sue a tenant for breach of lease, one prerequisite is that they must mitigate their damages,” Himmelstein says. “So, your letter triggers the landlord’s obligation to make a ‘reasonable and customary’ effort to re-rent the unit. If they don’t, and they sue for breach of lease, the case will be dismissed.”
  • Know the legal reasons to bail. To protect tenants, reasonable requests to break a lease without penalty do exist. “If your building is in desperate need of repairs, for example, you have the legal right to leave your apartment and not pay,” Himmelstein says. “If the landlord isn’t doing his job, you don’t have to stay.” Financial hardship, however, is not one of those reasons.

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What to Do if Your Landlord Won’t Break Your Lease

So you wrote a letter asking to break your lease, and your landlord won’t budge. Now what? Here are a few tactics you can try.

  • Negotiate. If you ask to break your lease and you get a hard “no,” ask what the landlord is willing to do. They might be willing to lower your rent or offer another kind of concession. “When I faced financial hardship, I asked for a reduction in rent since other units in my building were going for less,” says Battery Park City resident Ali Puliti. “They wouldn’t lower my rent, but they did offer a payment plan.”
  • Offer to find a substitute tenant. To make breaking your lease more appealing to your landlord, consider finding them another tenant to take your place. They can withhold consent within reason (like if they do not think the new tenant is financially viable), but it’s worth a shot. Important note: You can’t reassign your lease to a new tenant if you’re renting in a co-op or condo.
  • Sublet. Andrea Shapiro, Director of Program and Advocacy for tenants’ advocacy group the Met Council on Housing, notes that you may also have the right to sublet your apartment. (Again, this is not the case if renting in a co-op or condo.) “A landlord must ask for additional information within 10 days of a written request for a sublet,” Shapiro tells StreetEasy. “They have 30 days from the initial request to make a decision. If they fail to do so, that’s by default consent.” Keep in mind that with a sublet, unlike with a lease reassignment, you are legally on the hook to pay if the subletter doesn’t.
  • Hire a tenant attorney. Housing laws are complicated, and it might be worth hiring a tenant attorney to look into your case. This option isn’t cheap, though. Expect to pay around a $1,500 retainer for a non-litigated case and between $5,000 and $10,000 for a case that’s litigated. Most leases specify that whoever loses the case is on the hook for the other party’s legal fees. So you could pay nothing if you win, or a lot more if you lose.
  • Contact a tenants’ right organization. Thankfully, tenants’ rights organizations like the Met Council, Make the Road New York, and the Legal Aid Society can provide free services and advice. “We have a hotline to answer tenant questions on their housing situation,” says Shapiro.
  • Try the Landlord-Tenant Mediation Project. The city has implemented several protections and services for tenants regarding COVID-19. One, the Landlord-Tenant Mediation Project, helps tenants and landlords resolve issues outside of housing court. And it’s free.

The Consequences (and Cost) of Breaking a Lease

Whether you’ve worked out a deal with your landlord or plan to just move out and stop paying rent, there are financial and legal ramifications. A few possibilities to consider:

  • You may owe a penalty fee or lose your security deposit. In many cases, a landlord will let you out of your lease early as long as you pay a termination fee. The amount can vary. For Puliti, it was two months’ rent, plus whatever she owed until her move-out date. When Greenwich Village resident Andrew Edward broke his lease, he says, all he had to pay was his one-month security deposit.
  • You might get sued. If a landlord has done everything legally on their end, they could choose to sue you for breach of lease. “If the landlord wins, you would be on the hook for the unrented months, plus lawyer fees,” says Himmelstein.
  • Your credit score could be damaged. Technically, your landlord could report you to the credit bureaus if you are delinquent in your payments. And if a collection agency is hired, any debt collection could wind up on your credit report. But this is unlikely, Himmelstein says: “I don’t think most landlords report rent to credit agencies, and they’d have to go out of their way to report delinquent payments.”

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Is It Easier to Break a Lease Now Because of COVID?

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 makes housing more complicated. While everyone understands that people are facing extreme circumstances, landlords are also hurting. But, according to brokers, many of them are trying to figure out a happy medium.

“I have talked to landlords who don’t believe that a lease holds much weight these days,” Becki Danchik of Warburg Realty tells StreetEasy. “If a tenant needs to break it due to anything COVID-19 related, it’s pretty difficult to hold someone to it.”

Compass agent Philip Scheinfeld adds, “Landlords are people too. They can be more understanding than people think, especially during a pandemic when tenants may have lost their jobs. A candid conversation may result in a positive outcome.”

That said, if you do get sued for breach of lease, tenant lawyers hope that the courts will be more lenient than usual about financial hardship, under the circumstances. “We’re going to argue that this situation is different than anything in modern history,” Himmelstein says. “This is not just ordinary economic hardship. This is a government-ordered, economic, and health crisis. The law historically has not been good. But we’re hoping that the courts will be more sympathetic.”