Breaking a lease with a minimum of pain and drama (NYC-filter)
August 11, 2018 8:00 PM   Subscribe

The good news is that I've put in an offer for a co-op apartment, they've accepted my offer and now I am making my way through the mortgage application process. The bad news . . . well, I'm not sure I would call it bad news so much as a complication, an issue that needs to be worked through, is that I'm still on a lease at my old rental apartment and there are several months remaining on that lease.

The seller is eager to get the process out of the way and move on from the apartment so I'm reasonably sure that I will be taking occupancy of my new home by October or (maybe) November. The lease on my apartment runs through the end of January 2019. The landlord is holding two months of rent as a deposit. I have been a tenant for about fifteen years now. I don't have a particularly close relationship with my landlord. We don't chat on the phone or anything. But he has been pretty good about not imposing drastic rent increases. And I for my part have been pretty good about paying on time and in full.

So what's the best way to break this lease? I am about 90% sure that I will be moving out before the lease is up. I'm considering sending the landlord a letter in the next week or so to inform him that I'm in the process of closing on a mortgage for a new home and that I will probably be leaving shortly. Is there any language I should use that might improve this proposed letter or any other actions I should take (or definitely not take?)

Additional information: both the coop apartment and my current rental are located in Queens, NYC. The landlord is based out of Long Island. I have no objection to his keeping the deposit.

Thanks for your time and assistance.
posted by the hot hot side of randy to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Source: I lived in NYC for 14 years. I would send him a letter and then just not pay the last 2 months of rent.
posted by 8603 at 8:47 PM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your lease will indicate the early release terms. It's part of the contract. It will tell you how to do it, what your timeframes should be, and what the penalties are. You can't just not do something, you'll need to go about the process the way the lease says to. Sometimes when you "forfeit" a deposit it's a more complicated procedure than just not paying.

Culturally, lease-breaking is treated as something in between a divorce and putting someone's dog down without them knowing, but it's really just the early end of a contract. If you're wanting to break the lease without paying the penalties noted therein, there will be drama. Otherwise this should be a fairly boring set of transactional steps that you and landlord can go through calmly and cheerfully and then he can raise the fuck out of the rent after you're gone, so frankly this is a win for him and you should not make any unnecessary concessions out of guilt.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:50 PM on August 11, 2018

I've had many friends run into this scenario (although not in Queens), and for the most part, they've been able to just break the lease without repercussion. Wait until you have the closing date, send the landlord a nice note, see what happens. Your timing might work against you as it's so close to the holidays, but for the most part, vacancy rates are low enough that many landlords won't care. Especially if your rent has been kept under market as a retention tool.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:05 PM on August 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Not a New Yorker, but I would wait to send the letter until you have closed the deal on your new apartment and you know your firm moving date. You don't want to find that you gave notice, he re-rented the place and your schedule slips and you have nowhere to live and/or have to put things in storage in ways you hadn't planned.
posted by metahawk at 9:33 PM on August 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Gentle reminder that real-estate laws vary quite a bit by jurisdiction, and rental laws in big cities are particularly likely to be idiosyncratic, so advice based even on experience in one big city might not apply in another.

I infer from your post that your apartment isn't rent-stabilized. This means you have three options:

(a) if your lease contains early-termination provisions for the tenant (it may well not), and you find them not excessively unfavorable, invoke them;

(b) call up your landlord once you know when you need to move and negotiate with them concerning termination;

(c) find a subletter for the remainder of your lease. Under the law, your landlord may not unreasonably withhold consent to a sublease. This means that you are theoretically on the hook for the rent til the end of your lease if the subletter doesn't pay, but it also means you could bring in another tenant right away after you leave and thus possibly have to write off very little money. This kind of arrangement can attract someone who would like to stay on after the end of the lease, as it allows them to evade most or all of the typical broker's fee.

I mean, the final option is just walking out and not paying the last two months, but doing that is just gratuitously pissing the landlord off and inviting them to find lots of damages to justify a suit.

Regardless of what's in the lease, if I thought finding a subletter was just too much work, I'd try negotiating with the landlord directly anyway. You never know, they might be willing to agree to let you out without forfeiting the whole deposit, at the cost of a couple of phone calls/emails. I'd go in quite ingenuously: "What's the procedure...?" Two months' rent is a lot to give up without a fight when you've presumably just signed over your first-born for some NYC property!
posted by praemunire at 9:35 PM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Source: I lived in NYC for 14 years. I would send him a letter and then just not pay the last 2 months of rent.

I've done this multiple times and have never had a problem with it, but it's always been with large landlords who want tenants to move out so they can renovate and then jack up the rent for the next tenant. If you're renting from a smaller landlord with fewer units, I would talk to them about it instead of just not paying the last two months rent. A smaller landlord might be more inclined to enforce the terms of the lease.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 11:56 PM on August 11, 2018

Check your lease first, see what your options are, then talk to your landlord. You never know, he might be willing to work with you. When I was in this situation (also in NYC), my landlord let me move out whatever day I wanted and he prorated my rent the exact number of days. He was planning to renovate right after I left and he could start that anytime, so it didn't matter to him (and he was a nice guy as well).
posted by sunflower16 at 12:26 AM on August 12, 2018

Really before you approach the landlord you should figure out where your lease is relative to market. If you are materially below market the solution will be fine. You might also find your landlord is happy to be marketing the apartment in October instead of January. Your big complication is the the rental market is weak right now.

The problem happens if you are at or above market. Theoretically you are on the hook for the entire amount. But your landlord and you have to be acting in good faith to find a replacement.

Ultimately if the liability is only a few thousand dollars more than the deposit no one rational is going to court.
posted by JPD at 7:03 AM on August 12, 2018

the liability is only a few thousand dollars more than the deposit no one rational is going to court

From experience (USA, not NYC): small-time landlords may be quite willing to recover a couple thousand dollars by suing you in small claims court, and they will probably win.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:40 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

NYC housing isn't small-claims court. Its a Housing-Specific court that has expenses associated with it.
posted by JPD at 6:24 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

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