Whether you’ve just been offered a dream job in Austin or decided to ditch New York City for a farmhouse in New Paltz, if you have a lease, you have problem. Leases are generally a good thing: They give tenants the right to stay in an apartment on a year to year or even bi-annual basis. If you need to vacate early, however, a lease can quickly start to feel like vice grip on your future. Fortunately, tenants, at least those living in rental buildings, do have some legal ways to opt out early. This guide outlines the ins and outs of lease breaking, how to find a qualified tenant, and what to do if you are currently renting in a condominium or co-op where lease breaking is a far more complex process.
How to legally break a lease in a rental building
If you currently live in a rental building, breathe a sigh of relief. You can legally break your lease but only through an authorized lease assignment. Notably, a lease assignment is not the same thing as a sublet. By definition, in the case of a sublet, the tenant temporarily leaves the apartment but remains responsible for the apartment and the rent. In the case of a lease assignment or transfer, the apartment lease is given to someone else on a permanent basis and the current tenant is no longer responsible for the unit. However, the right to assign a lease is far more restrictive than the right to sublet.
If you want to assign a lease, the owner of your unit must first agree. If the owner does agree, the onus will likely still be on you to find a “qualified tenant,” which essentially means someone who can successfully meet the owner’s income threshold. In the past, finding a qualified tenant typically meant putting an advertisement on Craigslist and hoping for the best. Today, there are a growing number of online platforms, including LeaseBreak, that enable tenants to easily post apartments being rented on a lease assignment basis. Notably, Leasebreak and similar sites always indicate whether the lease assignment has been preapproved by the current owner, so ensure you have a green light from your unit’s owner before you post.
While this process may sound straight forward, lease assignments do not always work out as desired. From time to time, owners can and do reject qualified tenants. Once again, if this happens, you may still have an opt out. In New York State, if an owner unreasonably refuses consent to a lease assignment, the tenant is entitled to be let out of the lease within 30 days from the date the request was given to the owner, but this is where things can get murky. After all, what is an “unreasonable refusal”?
Unreasonable refusal cases typically arise when a qualified candidate (e.g., someone who meets the owner or management company’s income requirements) is presented by an existing tenant but still rejected. In this case, one can bring the case to a housing court judge. Of course, in New York City, just getting a date in a housing court can take months. For this reason, as a rule of thumb, if you have had longstanding tensions the owner of your unit, attempting a lease assignment may be more trouble than it is worth. After all, if you pursue a lease assignment, you need to trust that the owner of your unit will agree to play by the rule book and approve any qualified tenant you put forward. If you have any doubts, proceed with caution.
How to break a lease in a co-op or condo building
If breaking a lease in a rental is possible but complex, breaking a lease in a co-op or condominium is even more difficult. First, there is no legal obligation for an owner to accept a qualified tenant, even if you find one. Because most co-op buildings want to mitigate high turnover, they nearly always place restrictions on the minimum length of leases and sublets (generally, the minimum is one year). While a lease assignment is technically not a sublet, many co-op boards will simply argue that the initial lease assignment (e.g., for five months) fails to meet the board’s minimum threshold.
However, in some cases an owner may agree to let you find a new qualified tenant. After all, if you find the new qualified tenant, they don’t have to find one when you eventually do move out. If you’re renting at or under market rent, they may even have other financially motivations for getting you out sooner rather than later. However, once again, the board in your building may pose an obstacle. While every co-op board is different, co-op boards are granted great latitude when it comes to determining who is and is not a qualified candidate. In a co-op, for example, a tenant who meets or exceeds the unit owner’s income threshold requirements may not meet a co-op board’s approval for unrelated reasons (e.g., a co-op board could legally reject an opera singer because they prefer quiet tenants).
That said, where there is a will, there may be a way. If you’re on good terms with your unit’s owner, you may be able to work out a deal. If you have been renting at or under market rent, they may be motivated to move you out to raise the rent. If you also have good relations with owners in your building and even know the board members, use your connections. Good neighbors do exist, even in New York City and even in co-ops. The bottom line is that particularly if you’re currently renting in a co-op building, your best bet is to put on your negotiation hat and pour on the charm.
Exceptions to the rule
There are a few conditions under which one can break their lease in a rental, co-op, or condo without jumping through the hoops described in the previous two sections. First, if you enter active military service after signing a lease, you can break your lease. Second, if you experience domestic violence, under New York State law, you can legally break your lease. Third, if your property owner repeatedly violates your privacy or refuses to fix major repairs (e.g., you lack running water or a fully operational toilet), you can break the lease. Finally, for people over 62 who can no longer live independently, it is possible to legally break a lease to move into a long-term care facility.