How to wash my hands of this lease?
December 21, 2009 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Breaking my lease: landlord barely making an effort and raising the rent. What are my chances in court? YANML, I want to know where I stand before I start pouring lawyer money after rent money.

Pennsylvania, since that's probably applicable.

I gave my landlord ~2 months notice I'd be breaking my lease. He's decided to raise the rent $100/month ($1100->$1200) which we feel is not at all competitive given other listings in the area. The not-as-newly-rennovated place directly next door is renting for $1050/month.

He has put minimal effort into advertising -- he's posted a total of 2 posts on craigslist over the past two months.

We're posting on a daily basis, showing the apartment a few times a week -- and time and time again, every person that we follow up with mentions that the rent is the sticking point. There have been at least two people that have said they would have taken the place at our rent, but not at the new rate. We have this in writing (email).

For what it's worth, we've tried to communicate with him regularly -- stopping paying rent is not our first choice, but we've gotten nowhere talking to him. The landlord is the owner of the house and previous resident. He is/was a great and friendly guy, but turned positively *icy* when we told him we were moving. Sorry dude, getting a new job is not personal.

Right now he has our 'last months' rent + a security deposit. I'm *very* tempted to stop paying him rent when I move out, because I don't feel he's making a good faith effort to rent the place out. Is this an awful idea? If it comes to court, do I stand a chance? I just can't afford to pay rent on an empty apartment he's making minimal effort to rent out.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total)
IANAL (obviously) but...

Did you sign a contract? Does that contract contain a specific length of agreed rental/payment? Does that contract have any information on how each party can terminate the lease? Sometimes they require both parties to agree, or sometimes they only require one party to give the other a specified notice time. Two months seems adequate, unless the contract states otherwise.
posted by cp7 at 7:54 AM on December 21, 2009

IANYL, but your liability for breaking your lease should not exceed your monthly rent in the lease. That is, if you just walked out, your landlord couldn't sue you for (your rent + $100) per month. He can only expect to get whatever the rent was in your lease. (Of course, he can sue for other random fees, and the total bill could be higher than just your rent for the number of months left on your lease, but you get the idea.)

You could also look into subletting the apartment. Your lease probably contains clauses that discuss that (typically, the landlord must approve of the tenant), but if you did that, you'd only owe the landlord whatever your rent was, and your deal with the subtenant is your own business (you could charge more or less, as you see fit). That's really what it sounds like you're doing, if you're trying to bring in renters yourself.

Anyway, it sounds like your landlord is being (slightly) unreasonable. If you can get somebody to take your apartment at your current rent, you might want to investigate subleasing. Keep in mind that, in a sublease, you're still responsible to the landlord for damage done by your tenant. That's why it's better to get the subtenant to deal directly with the landlord (you're out of the loop) but if the landlord won't deal, you can still do something.

If you present a tenant who is willing to pay your current rent, and the landlord won't accept them, you might want to consult with a lawyer to review your options.

Good luck. TINLA.
posted by spacewrench at 8:12 AM on December 21, 2009

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
I got a new job in NYC, so I am moving 6 months into a 12 month lease. Obviously I am liable for the remaining months -- though the landlord has obligations to fulfill if he expects my continued payment. I do not feel he is fulfilling them.

I am breaking the lease at the $1100/month rate specified in the contract. The landlord is (and I know he is legally allowed to do this) seeking a replacement tenant at $1200/month. While it's legal for him to seek a replacement tenant at a higher rent -- it *may* constitute him not making a good faith effort to lease the place (or at least lend credence to my argument that he is not doing so).

He's not attempting to charge me $1200/month -- he expects my regular monthly rent of $1100/month until a new tenant is found. My grievance is with the fact that the $1200/month rent is not competitive, and he has no reason to be competitive since in his eyes I'm going to pay him for the next 6 months or until someone accepts the new higher rate.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:25 AM on December 21, 2009

Seems like it depends on where in NYC you live. I find such fact hilarious.

"Generally speaking, if you break your lease the landlord can claim part or all of your security deposit for "unpaid rent." He could also go to court to enforce the terms of the lease (i.e., ask you to pay additional rent until a new tenant is found). Under current rulings, landlords have no duty to promptly re-rent the apartment." NYC Rent Guidelines Board

"As far as New York City is concerned, in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, a landlord is usually required to mitigate damages by making reasonable efforts to find a new tenant. In Manhattan and the Bronx, however, an appeals court ruled in 1997 that the owner has no such obligation." NY Times Q&A.
posted by saeculorum at 8:31 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

If the landlord is not required to make reasonable attempts to rent the apartment, maybe you should consider paying the extra $100 a month. Sure, it would suck on principle to give him $600 for what seems like extortion, but it's better than $13,200. In either case, it seems like a 30 minute consultation with a lawyer would be well worth it.
posted by grouse at 8:38 AM on December 21, 2009

IANAL, and IAN in NY, but maybe do a google search for "failure to mitigate damages" and "landlord" or something like that.
posted by ishotjr at 8:39 AM on December 21, 2009

IANL, and don't know about Pennsylvania, but I believe in most jurisdictions the landlord owes it to you make an effort to find new tenants. However, I don't see why he can't try at first to find tenants who will pay more than you. Of course, if the landlord keeps the asking for an above market price after you've moved, then I think he's taking advantage of you.

You could maybe look at your breaking the lease as causing damages roughly equal to the local vacancy rate times your monthly rent plus broker fees, prorated according to the time left on your lease. My back-of-the-envelope logic: If the vacancy rate were 10%, you might expect an apartment to take .1*365 = 36.5 days to rent. There's also the cost of whatever your local advertising / broker listing fees are (for example, in Boston, the going rate used to be 1 month's rent). But if you were going to move out in 4 months anyway, then it's fair to take that into account and adjust the damages to 4/12 * 36.5 = ~12.17 days of rent + 4/12 * advertising/broker fees.

Does that make sense? Perhaps you could offer your landlord a sum based on the above calculation to terminate the lease. Maybe bump it up a little for good will. This would free you from the risk that he can't rent the place again, and compensate him for expected lost income and cost of finding a tenant. If he doesn't accept your offer, then you could still think of that as a reasonable amount of extra rent to pay after you've moved out.
posted by monstrouspudding at 8:39 AM on December 21, 2009

I was just going to suggest what grouse mentioned. Paying the overage might be the easiest path for all involved, if it's just the extra $100/mo. that is the sticking point for people who are looking to rent it.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:53 AM on December 21, 2009

Most leases will have language in them about how far in advance you need to give notice to vacate. The last one I had was 3 months.

Also, is the property listed as a rental property with the state / county? If your landlord is renting to you illegally (meaning he is renting to you while claiming the house is a personal residence of his) he would likely not sue if you walked out and stopped paying rent.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:26 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sounds to me like the OP is moving to NYC and is currently living elsewhere, so NYC borough-level case law may not be relevant. (New York is made up of five boroughs which were formerly counties and thus separate parallel court systems.) Anyway....

Nolo, in Every Landlord's Legal Guide, is pretty cautious in terms of recommending legal action against an absconding tenant, but that may not describe your landlord. They do recommend landlords offer buy-outs as a means of cutting through the thicket of various legal obstacles they face ranging from state laws that exclude certain classes of tenants to murky questions such as the best time to sue an absconder for damages (they say after you re-rent it, because you know the extent of your loss).

For the same reason it might be worth it for you (as suggested above) to offer to buy out the remainder of the lease at an agreed-upon price. This might -- may even probably -- be more than you would pay if you just walked and he never sues, but it will allow you to get a lease termination in writing and avoid ever worrying about a judgement against you. So offer, say, one extra month's rent (which is probably the minimum your landlord would consider) and see if you get a counteroffer.
posted by dhartung at 9:48 AM on December 21, 2009

I wanted to mention.... As an unofficial rule of thumb, please do not pay more than 2 months rent, or the average time it takes to rent a vacancy in your area as a penalty for breaking your lease. One month would have been fine back when things rented quicker, so you'd be pretty generous at 2. More about this later.


Most landlords should (and do!) work with tenants when they must re-locate for work. It's good karma, although I don't what the legal side of that entails. I do know this situation is common, and owners have policies and make accommodation. It sounds like your owner is new to the role of landlord, and that could be the hiccup, somehow.

Also, it can be VERY expensive to file against you for breaking the lease. It's unlikely he'll take you to court if you just left. He might sell the debt to a collection agency, though. If you do simply bail out, your landlord will be less inclined to go after you in any way if he knows you've been documenting every little thing surrounding this situation and that he'd eventually have to prove his case in court to win, and not just threaten you with a big stick to get money.


If I were you, I'd keep negotiating with him in writing. And keep showing the house, keeping logs of each showing. Chief among my communications with this landlord would be a detailed and documented email/letter showing that market rents are less than he's demanding - convince him to keep the rent what it is so that the vacancy can be filled. Every owner is dropping prices in this market, your owner knows this. He's LUCKY to get the same rent he got from you. Also, ask him what sort of a buy-out he thinks would be fair. Again, do this in writing (emails count for court.) Be professional and business-like, and hope he meets you on the same playing field.


What he is doing right now may be petty malice (does he think he can get you to pay the full six months left on your lease? I'm fairly certain no court would grant him that judgement, even if the property didn't rent during the full six months after you left...) OR, he might not know what to, he might not know anything better than being stubborn right now.

I'm betting on the former. Get yourself more educated than him, and you'll do well.

Your county or state has a landlord/tenant helpline - call it. Confirm if the house you rent is considered a legal tenancy, find out what procedures constitute legally breaking a lease in your jurisdiction, check into that $100 thing. Get the facts and continue to negotiate. I predict your landlord will come around in the end.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 11:29 AM on December 21, 2009

As was suggested before; tell the new occupants that they need to pay $1050/month (or whatever) and you make up the difference. Hopefully you can swing the extra $100-$200/month.
posted by spaltavian at 12:34 PM on December 21, 2009

Can you just sublet to new tenants for the remainder of your lease, at your current rent price? After the lease is up, it's up to the tenants to deal with the landlord, whether or not he raises the rent then. If I were looking to rent, I'd be more OK with subletting at $1100/month than starting a new lease at $1200/month with some alleged guarantee from former tenants that they'd pay me $100/month to cover the difference.
posted by citron at 1:50 PM on December 21, 2009

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