The idea behind most leases is for tenants to reside at the property for the term's duration. But despite best intentions, life happens and sometimes tenants need to break their leases.
For example, some tenants are servicepeople and receive change of station orders. Sometimes tenants get new jobs that require them to move to a new town.
There are unfortunate circumstances in which tenants or their children are victims of domestic violence and need to move immediately.
That being said, a lease is a contractual agreement. It binds both you and your tenant for a duration that is typically one year.
If your tenants don't follow the correct protocol, they can face a number of repercussions—financially and legally—for breaking their leases.
You can see why it's so important to be familiar with what the specific laws are for breaking leases in New York, as well as fair housing laws, which dictate how leases may be written.
It's always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the landlord-tenant laws in your state. In this article, we’ll cover everything there is to know about a tenant breaking a lease.
Tenant Rights & Responsibilities
New York landlord-tenant law bestows tenants certain rights and responsibilities. For one, your tenant has a right to be notified when changes are made to the lease or rental agreement.
Also, your tenant has a right to remain in the property until the proper eviction procedures have been followed. In other words, you cannot force the tenant out unless they violate a specific policty, such as refusing to pay rent or repeatedly disturbing their neighbors' peace.
Even then, only a sheriff can enforce the court order on the tenant. Particuarly now during the ongoing global pandemic, eviction is a sensitive topic that requires the highest degree of care. Be sure you're familiar with eviction laws in New York.
Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the entire lease term. This is regardless of whether they continue living on the property or not. Exceptions to this blanket rule, however, do apply.
Legal Justifications for Breaking a Lease in New York State
A tenant may be able to break their lease without further obligations to the lease in the following circumstances.
If you harass tenants or violate their privacy rights.
The state of New York doesn’t have a law that specifies how much notice landlords should give their tenants prior to accessing the rented premises. What that being said, the frequency and reason for the entries must be reasonable.
If you repeatedly violate your tenant’s privacy, or do things like change locks or turn off utilities, a court will probably rule that you have “constructively evicted” your tenants.
That would give the tenant justification to break their lease without further rental obligations.
If your tenant starts active military duty.
If your tenant enters active military service, they have a right to break the lease under federal law. To qualify, though, the tenant must be a member of the uniformed services.
Members of the uniformed services include the armed forces, the activated National Guard, the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The tenant must also provide you with a notice indicating their intent to move out due to military reasons. After doing so, the tenancy will terminate thirty days after the date the next rent is due.
Your tenant is 62 years or older and can no longer live independently.
New York law stipulates that tenants who are 62 years or older and can no longer afford to live independently are to be given early termination rights.
Your tenant or their child is a victim of domestic violence
Victims of domestic violence in New York State have special protections. So long as the tenant meets the conditions, a domestic violence victim has a right to terminate the lease early.
There is an early termination clause
Some leases contain specific terms that allow tenants to terminate their leases early in exchange for a fee or other penalty.
Usually, the penalty is equivalent to the rent of 2 months. To terminate a lease in this fasion, a tenant would need to pay the fee as well as provide the landlord with notice.
If the rental property becomes uninhabitable.
As a landlord, it’s your responsibility to ensure your premises meet all local and state housing codes. If they don’t, a court would probably conclude that you have “constructively evicted” your tenant. Then, a tenant would be free to break their lease.
A habitable property generally means one that has:
- Properly repaired floors, stairways and railings.
- Adequate trash receptacles that are in good repair.
- Clean and sanitary buildings and grounds, free from rodents, rubbish, filth, and debris.
- Functioning gas, heating and electricity.
- Functioning plumbing.
- Leak-free doors, walls, windows and ceiling.
A property that meets this and other habitable conditions is deemed to be fit to live in.
Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking in New York
The following reasons don’t offer enough justification for lease breaking. Consequently, they don’t provide any legal protection against penalties for not honoring the lease or rental agreement:
- The tenant is moving closer to family.
- The tenant is moving in with a romantic partner.
- The tenant is looking to downsize or upsize.
- The tenant is relocating to get closer to a new job or school.
- The tenant is moving into a new home they recently bought.
Landlord’s Duty to Find a Replacement Tenant in New York
Generally, tenants are responsible for paying the entire amount remaining under their lease, whether or not they live in the property. The costs can run the gamut.
To mitigate damages, most states have laws that require landlords to make reasonable efforts to re-rent their units. This means tenants may end up paying only a fraction of the total rent remaining, if their landlord is able to re-rent the property quickly.
In your efforts to re-rent the unit, you aren’t required to relax your leasing standards. You can still subject new prospective tenants to the same qualifying standards you use for other tenants.
The Bottom Line
Breaking a lease can be complicated, but there are certain situations in which it's permitted. As a landlord in New York, it's your responsibility to ensure you're familiar with the conditions that can lead to a lease being broken without penalty.
Do you require more help? If so, Essential Property Management can help. With over 25 years of real estate experience, we can help you handle every task required to manage a property professionally.
Disclaimer: This blog is in no way a substitute for professional legal advice. Laws change and this information might not be up-to-date at the time of your reading. If you have questions in regards to any part of this content, please get in touch with us.