A lease is a contract, and contracts are not designed to be easily broken. Other than a few specific situations (including senior citizens, victims of violent crimes, tenants with disabilities, and service members), New York State does not allow tenants or landlords to break a lease without going to court.
But new rental laws passed in 2019 now require landlords to make an effort to re-rent a vacated apartment if a renter leaves before their lease is up—making it more likely a tenant won’t have to pay the entirety of the remaining rent.
Without landlord approval, leases can typically only be broken in court
A lease is a binding contract—and for this, tenants should be grateful. A landlord can only end a lease via an eviction proceeding, which is a lengthy and complicated process that offers tenants many protections. But the flipside is also true: tenants can only break a lease without their landlord’s approval if a court of law says they can.
Tenants can break a lease if their rental has become uninhabitable
In New York, all landlords must ensure that their rental units are habitable and free from dangerous or unhealthy conditions.1 If an apartment becomes unlivable, the so-called “warranty of habitability” has been breached.
A breach means that a landlord must take steps to repair the rental and return it to habitable condition. If a landlord doesn’t do so within the time frame set by the state, technically, the tenant has been constructively evicted, and a tenant can then sue the landlord to end the lease without penalties. But there is one major catch: a tenant must first actually leave the rental unit in question. If the tenant stays, it is considered a tacit admission that the rental unit is livable.2
Tenants need to understand that this is a risk. Even if they leave their apartment, a court may find that their landlord did not actually breach the warranty of habitability. If that happens, the tenant is on the hook for both unpaid rent and rent moving forward.
Landlords can charge lease break fees
New York State does not ban so-called “lease break provisions” in leases. This means that before entering into a lease, a landlord and a tenant can agree that if one side or the other wishes to end the lease, they must do so in a prescribed manner—which may include a penalty and a schedule. These provisions aren’t common, but the first thing tenants who want to get out of a lease early should do is: read their actual lease.
Victims of certain crimes can break their lease without court approval
New York State has laws that allow victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual abuse, who are imminent fear of their safety if they remain in a rental unit, to break their lease.3 The tenant should inform the landlord, in writing, that they are a victim of one of those crimes and fear for their safety. The tenant can leave the unit immediately and isn’t responsible for paying rent from that date forward.
However, within 25 days of vacating the unit, the tenant must provide the landlord a copy of an Order of Protection, medical documents, legal documents, or the statement of a victim advocate, as proof that the tenant has been a victim of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual abuse.
Senior citizens and tenants with disabilities can break their leases
If a tenant is either 62 or older (or will turn 62 during the lease term) or they are considered disabled under state law, then they can break their lease without going to court in one of two scenarios:4
- A physician has certified that, for medical reasons, they are no longer able to live independently in their apartment, and they are planning to move in with a family member
- They have the opportunity to move into a residential healthcare facility, adult care facility, subsidized low income housing, or senior citizen housing and plan to relocate permanently
A tenant who meets these criteria must give their landlord at least 30 days’ written notice of their plan to terminate the lease. In the first scenario, their letter must include a physician’s note and a notarized statement from the family member stating that the senior is related and that they will be moving into their home for six months or longer. In the second scenario, the tenant must provide documentation of their admission (or pending admission) to an acceptable facility—and, in the case of a tenant with disabilities, a physician’s note as well. Thirty days after notice is delivered, the tenant’s lease is considered terminated. These laws also apply to any spouses or dependants who live with the tenant in question.
Abandoning a lease can have severe consequences for a tenant
If a tenant has pursued every option they have to end a lease and still come up short, they may be forced to simply abandon an apartment, cease paying rent, and hope for the best. But beware—if a tenant stops paying rent entirely, their landlord can sue them for eviction and unpaid rent.7 If the landlord wins in court, a tenant can be forced to pay not only back rent, but also legal fees, court costs, late fees, and interest, depending on the terms of the lease.8
New York landlords now have a duty to mitigate rent
Historically, a New York tenant who vacated their apartment early—without coming to an agreement with their landlord—was still on the hook for all the remaining rent. But, as of 2019, landlords must now make a reasonable effort to find another renter (in legal terms, they have a duty to “mitigate damages”).7 The law specifically says that landlords should take “customary actions to rent the premises at fair market value,” meaning that they should do the same things they normally do when trying to rent out a unit.
If a landlord does manage to re-rent the unit, the original tenant’s lease is terminated and they are no longer required to pay rent going forward.
If a landlord doesn’t make a good faith attempt to re-rent the apartment, it’s illegal for them to sue the tenant for any rent owed on the remainder of the lease.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.