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How to Break a Lease with No Penalty Fees in New York

Breaking a lease usually means paying between one and two months of rent as a penalty—which in New York can be a significant chunk of change. Try these tips to reduce or get rid of your penalty fee.

Landlords in New York—and, in particular, New York City—tend to charge high penalty fees in order to let you break your lease. These can range from one to three months’ rent. Considering that the average rent price in New York City is north of $3,500 for a one-bedroom apartment, that’s going to be a major blow to your wallet.

But armed with a thorough knowledge of New York rental law—and a good argument for why you need to leave—there's a chance you can break your lease with a reduced fee. This will depend on your negotiating skill, the time of year, and your landlord's preferences.

Try these tips to reduce or get rid of your penalty fee.

Make sure this is the best option for you

A lease break is when your landlord terminates your lease completely and signs a new lease with a new renter. You no longer have any claim on the apartment, and you are no longer responsible for rent payments. But if your biggest priority is avoiding fees, consider subletting. Unlike residents of most other states, New Yorkers have the right to sublet, no matter what the lease says—and subletting is typically the cheapest way to get out of a lease agreement early.

Figure out if you can break your lease under New York law

In New York, there are only a handful of scenarios where renters are allowed to break their lease early without a landlord’s agreement (and without paying any kind of fee).

According to federal and state law, you can automatically terminate your lease if:

  • You are entering active military duty
  • You are 62 or older and want to move to senior housing, or you can no longer live independently and want to move in with a family member
  • You are considered disabled under New York State law and want to move into a residential healthcare facility, or you can no longer live independently and want to move in with a family member
  • Your landlord has refused to make a major repair and your rental has become uninhabitable
  • You're the victim of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual abuse, and you fear for your safety
  • Your landlord has violated your privacy or harassed you

There are a lot of other reasons to break a lease: buying a house, relocating for a job, or being laid off. None of these are covered by the law, however. Instead, you'll need to double-check your lease.

Re-read your lease agreement

Go through your lease carefully to see if it mentions any situation where you might be allowed to end your lease early. There's a chance that it includes a clause about family emergencies or deaths, or even a sudden job loss or relocation. Some leases also lay out the process for ending a lease early, including exactly how much you’ll be asked to pay in fees. These are called “lease break provisions,” and they're legal under New York law.

Negotiate with your landlord

If your situation isn’t covered by the law or your lease, then you’ll need to talk to your landlord. Make it clear to them that the situation is out of your control. If you can back up your story with hard evidence—such as a letter from an employer, or a doctor's note testifying that a family member is seriously ill—that will strengthen your case.

Another approach is to convince your landlord that a lease break actually benefits them in some way. Out of all the different angles that we describe in our general guide to breaking a lease, there are two that are most relevant for New Yorkers.

  • First, figure out if your landlord could raise the rent if they put the unit back on the market. (You can even do some research into other, similar units that are being listed in your neighborhood to determine the going rate.)
  • Second, if you want to break your lease during the spring or summer—rather than the winter or early spring—you’ll be improving their leasing schedule.

Large buildings in Manhattan are nearly always going to be managed by companies that won't be willing to negotiate on their lease break fee. Smaller buildings and one to four-unit structures in the outer boroughs, on the other hand, will offer a lot more flexibility.

Move out and hope your landlord re-rents quickly

If your landlord's lease break fee is just way too high—and you live in an area that's popular with renters (so, pretty much anywhere in New York City)—then you may be better off relying on something called "damage mitigation." Laws passed in New York in 2019 now require your landlord to make a reasonable effort to re-rent as soon as you leave. They can only charge you for the time that your unit wasn't occupied by a new tenant.

If you know that you’ll be leaving a month or two in advance, you can give your landlord the heads up so they can get started showing the place. You can also search for a new tenant yourself and refer them to the landlord—if you can get someone lined up to move in as soon as you move out, you may not owe anything to your landlord at all. Just make sure the applicant is as qualified as you when it comes to income and credit history. Otherwise your landlord can legally reject their rental application.

Make it official with paperwork

So, you've been able to work something out with your New York landlord. Congratulations! Now make sure to get it in writing. The best way to do this is to prepare a document—often called a "mutual termination of tenancy agreement"—that outlines the specifics of your arrangement with your landlord.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.