If you want to ‘break’ your lease

Why are most tenants not usually allowed to break their leases? 

It comes as a surprise to many tenants that, in most circumstances, tenants do not have the right to ‘break’ the lease for their apartments (i.e. they cannot move out before the end of their lease – and if they do, they can be charged for the remaining months). The good news, however, is that the same rule works the other way around: Your landlord is similarly unable to ‘break’ your lease (i.e. you cannot be told to leave before the end of your lease) because, for instance, another tenant comes along who is willing to pay more than you. The purpose of a lease is to legally bind both parties to certain conditions, including the length of time the tenant will rent the apartment, and the rent to be charged during that time period.

What are my options for moving out before the end of my lease?

If you want to move out of your apartment before the end of your lease, you may be able to get your landlord to agree to do so – especially if you’re willing to bend a bit. (See question below “What’s the best way to approach my landlord if I want to break my lease?”)

If your landlord agrees to let you end the lease early, get the agreement in writing, signed by both you and your landlord (preferably in front of a notary) and keep the signed document for your records. This ‘satisfaction of contract’ should establish that you and your landlord no longer have contractual obligations with each other. It is advisable that you do not hand in the keys or otherwise give up possession of the apartment if you don’t have an agreement signed by the landlord. Moving out doesn’t end your lease. If you leave without a written agreement that releases you from paying the rent for the remaining months on your lease, your landlord may charge you for those months.

In certain limited situations, you may be able to establish that your landlord has sufficiently breached his/her end of the contract, and that as a result, the contract is void. A partial list of circumstances that may qualify, as well circumstances that clearly do not, is explained further in this information sheet. Be advised that establishing this legal argument is complicated, and you should seek legal counsel before trying this. If you believe that your landlord breached the contract, but your landlord disagrees, be prepared to defend your position in court, and to face the consequences (such as potentially being held liable for back-rent, and ending up on the ‘tenant blacklist’.)

What happens if I move out mid-lease without my landlord’s permission?

If you move out before the expiration of your lease and don’t pay the rent for the remaining months, your landlord might sue you for the uncollected rent. If you no longer live in the apartment, your landlord will not be able to sue you in Housing Court, and will instead have to sue you in Small Claims Court, Civil Court or Supreme Court (depending on the amount owed). As of 2019, landlords in New York who sue tenants over breached leases have a “duty to mitigate”, meaning they must show that they made every effort to find a new tenant for the remaining months on the lease. If your landlord does find a new tenant and that tenant pays rent for part of your lease period, your landlord cannot sue you for those months that he collected rent from someone else.

What are the exceptions which allow tenants to break their leases?

Exceptions: Seniors

If you or your spouse is 62 or older, you can break the lease if you are re-locating to a nursing home, senior housing, or other adult care facility. You can also break the lease if a physician certifies that you can no longer live in your home (for example, you can’t walk up the stairs in a walk-up, or you can’t live alone any more) and you plan to move in with family members. You must give your landlord 30 days notice (the 30 days must include a full rent payment period) and your notice must be in writing and include proof.

Exceptions: Military Personnel

If you are going into active military service, you can break the lease if it’s in your name. You must notify the landlord in writing and provide a full month’s notice.

Exceptions: Victims of Domestic Violence

If you have a court order of protection and your safety is jeopardized by remaining in the apartment, you may be able to break the lease with ten days’ notice to your landlord. If your landlord does not voluntarily release you from the lease after you provide proper written notice, you can ask the Family Court judge to order the lease terminated.

What if I am unable to pay the rent?

Inability to pay is not grounds for terminating a lease. Your landlord may take you to court in a nonpayment case if you fall behind in the rent. You might be able to reach  a settlement agreement in the court case which releases you from the lease and releases you from the obligation to pay ongoing or back rent, but this must be done through a negotiation. Be sure to ask for help from the judge, the judge’s court attorney, or the court’s Help Center, to make sure that your settlement agreement releases you from all future obligation to pay rent and makes clear the moving out requirements. 

For options on coming up with the funds to afford your apartment, read Met Council on Housing’s information sheet entitled If you just can’t afford the rent.

What if my landlord has refused to make essential repairs or provide essential services?

All tenants in New York City have the right under the law to certain basic services (heat, hot water, plumbing, extermination), to timely repairs, and to a standard of living conditions. You may have rights to additional services (such as an elevator or security) which are outlined in your lease.

If your landlord fails to make repairs or provide these services, you can use the law to force your landlord to provide these things by taking your landlord to court or complaining to state and city agencies. (Read our information sheets on: Getting Repairs, Heat and Hot Water, Broken appliancesBedbugs, and Mold.) Since you have recourse under the law to compel your landlord to make repairs or provide services, your landlord’s failure to do so does not usually constitute a breach of the lease. That means: in most cases your landlord’s failure to make repairs or provide services does not allow you to break the lease, but you do have many ways to force your landlord to make the repairs or provide the services.

However, if the apartment is “unfit for human habitation” or if your landlord deprives you of access to the apartment, the law gives you the right to break the lease, move out, and not owe the rent going forward. Be prepared for your landlord to sue you for the unpaid rent anyway – including additional months remaining on your lease. The determination of whether or not the apartment is unfit to live in, or whether you were deprived of access to it, would be up to the judge if your landlord sues you for the unpaid rent. Before pursuing this path, you are strongly advised to discuss the situation with a lawyer.

What if the apartment was not ready for occupancy on my move-in date?

If the apartment wasn’t ready for move-in at the start of your lease, either because renovations were not completed or because the previous tenant was still there, the landlord must release you from the lease and refund all the money you paid. Generally “wasn’t ready” means that your landlord would not allow you to move into the apartment, not that it needed minor cleaning nor that minor alterations hadn’t been completed.

What if the condition of the apartment was different from what how it was represented by my landlord, an agent of the landlord, or by a real estate broker?

Most apartments are rented ‘as-is’; some initial leases indicate work to be completed or appliances to be installed, and in these case, tenants are entitled to whatever is described in the lease. However, your landlord’s failure to provide these services on the move-in date doesn’t entitle a you to break the lease unless the apartment isn’t habitable.

What is the best way to approach my landlord if I want to break my lease?

If you want to break your lease, try to think about the situation from your landlord’s point of view. Is the apartment a rent regulated apartment? If so, your landlord might be happy to release you since there will be an opportunity for your landlord to get a higher rent from the next tenant. Can you find a reliable tenant to replace you? If so, your landlord might be willing to accept an “assignment” of your lease. If your landlord isn’t providing services or repairs and is generally negligent, it can be hard to get the landlord to negotiate and you might have to take your chances or wait until the lease expires.