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Jason Gabbard
Founder of justLaw
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How to terminate your lease without a penalty (COVID-19 ed.)

You waited all your life, sat through decades and decades of school, and finally got to move into your dream apartment in your favorite city, NYC of course. Your job is reachable by subway or even by foot, your favorite restaurant is around the corner, and you’re living with your best friends. Life is great. Then, boom. The pandemic hits. Life as you knew it drastically changes. Your back at home in the suburbs with your parents, locked away under quarantine as your beautiful apartment sits empty. Yet, at the end of the month, your landlord asks for your rent. You’re stuck. But maybe not. You may be able to break your lease with little to no penalty fee. Here’s how:

1. Familiarize yourself with New York real estate law

a. How can you legally break a lease
Under New York law, there are a variety of ways that you can legally end a lease early. Such ways include, but are not limited to:

  1. You are 62 years old or older and wish to move to senior housing. The same applies if you are 62 years old and cannot live independently. The law does require though that a physician deem you incapable of living on your own.
  2. You are entering active military service.
  3. You are considered disabled and want to move into a residential healthcare facility.
  4. Your landlord has failed to make a major repair to the property and as a result has created an uninhabitable living space for you.
  5. You are the victim of a crime and fear your safety. Such crimes include stalking, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.
  6. Your landlord has violated your privacy or harassed you.

b. Provisions of your lease to keep an eye out for

i. Lease Break provision
These are fairly uncommon, but as a tenant you should always keep an eye out for them as a provision in your lease agreement. In most scenarios, lease break provisions take effect when a tenant ends a lease early. As a result, they will have to pay a fee displayed in the lease break provision. Ordinarily, this fee is equal to one months rent at the minimum and three months’ rent at the maximum.

ii. Job Loss/ Job relocation/Buying a house/ Family emergency
You should always ensure these provisions are in your lease agreements. Unlike the scenarios above where if one occurs, you can legally break your lease, these are not exhibited in New York law. Instead, you must negotiate these into your lease agreement in order to have the use of them if needed.

c. Duty to mitigate damages

This fairly new law has been adopted in quite a few state jurisdictions. The duty is placed on landlords and they are required to make reasonable efforts to rent the premises as soon as you vacate them. Once they find a new tenant, you will only be liable for the rent between the time you vacated the premises and when the new tenant moves in. The rationale behind the law is to push landlords to not let the premises sit empty and charge the tenant who vacated the premises for all the future rent.

2. How to break your lease without penalty

a. Read your lease provisions

This is vital to potentially having a simple opportunity to vacate the premises without any penalty. Your lease may include a provision like the ones above: job loss, job relocation, or purchasing a house. If it does include any of the above, there is your one-way ticket to moving out.

b. Negotiate with your landlord

Don’t have any of those provisions in your lease agreement? Not to worry. Talk to your landlord. Make it clear to them that you are in a dire situation and that the pandemic has eliminated your income. Try to also present them with proof of any job loss, purchase of a house, or family emergency.

In addition, you can also help the landlord. Do some research for them and find out if they could raise the rent and still receive a new tenant. Further, help them in finding a new tenant. Landlords are humans too and they will understand and (hopefully) be sympathetic to your situation.

c. Move out and rely on your landlord to rent the property fairly quickly

This may seem drastic, but remember, your landlord has a duty to mitigate damages. Therefore, you can leave your apartment early and hope that your landlord finds a new tenant fairly quickly. However, be mindful of the fact that you will be liable for the lost rent that the landlord is entitled to before they find a new tenant.

d. Sublet your apartment

While some states forbid subletting, New York permits tenants to sublet their apartments. A sublease is essentially a tenant leasing out the apartment to a subtenant.

e. Document everything and ask for a letter of recommendation if
possible

Finally, get everything on paper. Oral agreements may be unenforceable. Therefore, put the whole agreement in writing and ensure that your landlord signs it. Furthermore, if possible, ask your landlord for a letter of recommendation. This could be helpful for leasing apartments in the future.

* * * * * *

This may be a difficult and pressure-filled event in your life, but it will prove so beneficial for your future. Plus who doesn’t like to save money? If you need any help along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out to your friends at JustLaw! Goodluck!