Many tenants who sign a lease for their apartment or rental unit plan to stay for the full amount of time required in the lease, such as one year. But despite your best intentions, you may want (or need) to leave before your lease is up—for example, if you’re a student at NYU and want to stay in your apartment only for the period of time that school is in session. Or perhaps you’re moving in with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, you may need to move in order to be closer to your new job or an elderly parent who needs your help.
Leaving before a fixed-term lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent due under the lease is called breaking the lease. Here’s a brief review of tenant rights in New York to break a lease without further liability for the rent.
A lease obligates both you and your landlord for a set period of time, usually a year. Under a typical lease, a landlord can’t raise the rent or change other terms, until the lease runs out (unless the lease itself provides for a change, such as a rent increase mid-lease). A landlord can’t force you to move out before the lease ends, unless you fail to pay the rent or violate another significant term, such as repeatedly throwing large and noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in New York must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you fourteen days’ notice to pay the rent or leave (New York Real Prop. Acts Law § 711(2)) before filing an eviction lawsuit. If you are a holdover tenant in New York City, your landlord may give you an unconditional quit notice, giving you 30 days to move out. (N.Y. Real Prop: Law § 232-a).
Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term, typically one year, whether or not you continue to live in the rental unit—with some exceptions, as follows.
There are some important exceptions to the blanket rule that a tenant who breaks a lease owes the rent for the entire lease term. You may be able to legally move out before the lease term ends in the following situations.
State law (N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 227-c) provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of domestic violence, provided that specified conditions are met (such as the tenant securing a court order of protection).
New York law (N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 227-a) provides early termination rights to tenants who are 62 years of age or older and can no longer live independently, and must move to a nursing home or other senior citizen housing.
If you enter active military service after signing a lease, you have a right to break the lease under federal law. (War and National Defense Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 App. U.S.C.A. § § 501 and following.) You must be part of the “uniformed services,” which includes the armed forces, commissioned corps of the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard. You must give your landlord written notice of your intent to terminate your tenancy for military reasons. Once the notice is mailed or delivered, your tenancy will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months before your lease expires.
If your landlord does not provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes, a court would probably conclude that you have been “constructively evicted;” this means that the landlord, by supplying unlivable housing, has for all practical purposes “evicted” you, so you have no further responsibility for the rent. New York law (N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 235-b, Semans Family Ltd. Partnership v. Kennedy, 675 N.Y.S.2d 489 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct., 1998) andJangla Realty Co. v. Gravagna 447 N.Y.S.2d 338 (Civ. Ct., Queens County, 1981)) sets specific requirements for the procedures you must follow before moving out because of a major repair problem. The problem must be truly serious, such as the lack of heat or other essential service.
New York does not have a state law that specifies the amount of notice your landlord must give you to enter rental property. If your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy, or does things like removing windows or doors, turning off your utilities, or changing the locks, you would be considered “constructively evicted,” as described above; this would usually justify you breaking the lease without further rent obligation.
Landlords in most states must make a reasonable effort to re-rent their units when a tenant breaks a lease, rather than charge the tenant for the total remaining rent due under the lease. As of July 2019, landlords in New York have this responsibility to “mitigate damages,” by trying to rerent their property reasonably quickly. Once the new tenant begins paying rent, the old tenant's responsibility for rent for the balance of the original rent term ends.
If you live in New York and want to break your lease but don’t have a legally justified reason, such as one of those described above, don’t just move out and hope your landlord gets a new tenant quickly and doesn’t charge you for the remaining time on your lease. Provide your landlord with as much notice as possible and write a sincere letter explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally, you can offer your landlord a qualified replacement tenant with good credit and references to sign a new lease.
But keep in mind, that if the landlord doesn’t agree to let you off the hook, you will be liable for paying rent for the remainder of your lease until the landlord gets a new tenant in place. This could be a substantial amount of money if you leave several months before your lease ends, or the market is soft. Your landlord will probably first use your security deposit to cover the amount you owe. But if your deposit is not sufficient, your landlord may sue you, probably in small claims court where the limit is $5,000 in New York (or $3,000 in town and village courts).
Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo) provides extensive legal and practical advice that every tenant needs, from move in to move out, including how to get your landlord to cancel your lease, plus dozens of forms and sample letters.
To learn more about landlord-tenant laws in your state, see the State Landlord-Tenant Laws section of the Nolo site.