COVID-19 has been harsh for everyone concerned. A marked uptick of tenants are unable to pay their fees and the impact is felt on both sides of the landlord-tenant dynamic, with landlords unable to make ends meet without the steady source of rental income. The situation has also seen a lot of tenants attempting to let go of their paid housing and move out to stay with relatives and the like. 

Why not just walk away? Slip out the back? Ghosting your landlord is often a plan?

There are shockingly real consequences for merely walking out on a pre-existing lease. Landlords who have had tenants exit without notice have legal protection under property laws of the state or city they’re in. In this article, we’ll examine the consequences of breaking a lease. 

First Off, What’s A Lease?

A lease is a document that sets down the conditions of the agreement to stay in a particular area. The “terms” of a lease or rental refer to how often the renter pays rent and how long the tenant is responsible for paying rent. What you pay and when you owe it, the length of your stay, all comes within the terms of your lease. 

There definitely is a difference between a rental agreement and a lease, although they are often used interchangeably. The terms of leases are generally for at least one year, even if lease payments are set off by the month. Meanwhile, terms for rentals are generally month-to-month, although they are occasionally week-to-week

State laws are what govern how to lease and rental agreements are drafted and enforced, which includes security deposits and anti-discrimination provisions. The latter must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws as well. In New York, leases and rental agreements limit deposits to the equivalent of one month’s rent.

So, What Does Breaking A Lease Mean?

A tenancy agreement is a legally binding agreement. If it is broken, compensation will probably need to be paid. An unexpected break in the agreement does not mean that the tenant is not liable to pay for the remainder of the rent that is owed and needs to compensate the landlord for the same. If a tenant or property manager/owner ends a fixed term agreement before the end date without grounds (i.e. without sufficient reason) they are breaking the agreement. This is also known as breaking the lease.

It must be noted that there are cases where a tenant has broken their lease and merely paid a fee or penalty to ensure that the landlord accepted their departure. Obviously, the terms in this situation are to be negotiated with the landlord themselves and cannot be thought to be very normative. An example of this happening is when a tenant is able to negotiate payment of three months’ rent to be released from a fixed end date lease. 

While a tenant is not always required to provide notice for fixed end date leases, written notice must definitely be provided in order to terminate a month-to-month lease, the conditions of which depend on the area of residence and the location of the property in the city itself 

Tenant’s Rights And Responsibilities

A lease binds and obligates both parties at the same time. The landlord and the tenant both develop legal responsibilities over the course of the lease period, which can’t really be changed midway. The terms of the contract agreed upon render it impossible for a landlord to raise the rent or change other terms until the lease runs out. This example does not hold true if the lease itself provides for a change. 

Consequently, a landlord will not make you vacate the premises before the lease is up unless the tenant themselves fails to deliver on their part of the agreement. If rent has not been paid or a violation of another significant term has been done, landlords do have the power to end the tenancy. Prior to the moratorium, for example, the landlord was beholden to give a tenant fourteen days’ notice to pay the rent before an eviction could be filed. Or if the individual was a holdover tenant, the landlord could have given them an unconditional quit notice with a thirty-day move-out period.

It must be clear that landlords are not obligated to renegotiate a lease. It is, after all, a legally binding document that was entered into by both parties on those specific terms. However, destabilized market conditions as they are coupled with the shaky ground that is the competition for a rental- means that a landlord may accept an early termination to re-rent the place or find a new tenant. The terms for this departure, however, need to be explicit. The release from your legal obligation needs to be done in a clean and efficient manner. 

Exceptions To Breaking A Lease

Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term, typically one year, whether or not you continue to live in the rental unit. However, exceptions to this blanket rule must be noticed.

Cases Of Domestic Violence. 

Early termination rights for tenants who are victims of domestic violence are provided in case they reasonably fear remaining in the leasehold premises because of potential further domestic violence. In this regard, they are released from any liability to pay for the time subsequent to the date of termination of the lease.

Conditions need to be fulfilled for this, however.  Notice has to be provided for thirty days from the date of termination and within twenty-five days of such notice, the tenant shall provide documentation demonstrating that the tenant or a member of the tenant’s household has been a victim of domestic violence. 

Cases for senior citizens

 As seniority catches up, a tenant is allowed to terminate their lease early in case they are 62 years of age or older. If an individual can no longer live independently and needs to move to a retirement home that provides better facilities, breaking a lease is justified

It must be noted here that this does not cover a shelter for adults, a residential health care facility, or a housing unit that receives substantial assistance of grants, loans, or subsidies from any federal, state, or local agency as per the statute. 

Starting active military duty

Under federal law, breaking a lease after entering active military service is a right. Being a part of the “uniformed services” is hardly a commitment one can ignore, and consequently will allow for unanticipated escape from the lease itself. 

The landlord is required to have written notice of intent to terminate the tenancy for military reasons. Upon delivery of the notice, the tenancy will be terminated 30 days after the date that the rent is next due. Even if this date comes months before the lease is up, there remains no obligation for the tenant to stay or to find another tenant during this time. 

Unsafe rental unit

Habitable housing is an obligation that a landlord is required to furnish. If a landlord does not provide this under local and state housing codes, courts conclude “constructive eviction.” Constructive eviction occurs when interference in a tenant’s use and possession of leased premises — from the landlord, from the landlord’s failure to repair defects in the premises, or from a third party — is severe enough to deprive the tenant of the “beneficial enjoyment” of the premises.

The quandary is that when the supply of unlivable housing has evicted the individual for all practical purposes and by extension excused the tenant of responsibility for rent, the question of unlivable surroundings must also be argued ahead.  If a tenant withholds rent, stays in the space, and demands that a landlord repair the premises, the tenant is unambiguously breaching payment obligations while asserting a non-monetary and fact-specific breach by the landlord. Consequently, New York Law sets specific requirements for the procedures to be followed before moving out because of a major repair problem as well as the parameters under which this exception may be held

By extension, violation of privacy, turning off utilities, and changing locks may also be considered constructive eviction. 

Ultimately, the consequences of breaking a lease cause a heavy impact on both the tenant and the landlord and make it harder to ensure an amicable housing environment. If you’ve broken your lease and taken off, a month’s rent is a standard loss. If you do sublet as an option, go through all the proper steps with your landlord, Whatever future options are to be taken, and understanding with your landlord is a good place to start. 

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1.General Obligations Law §7-108

2.N.Y. RPL §§ 232-b

3.One month if outside New York City (N.Y. RPL §§ 232-b). If in New York City, 30 days notice is required (N.Y. RPL §§ 232-a).

4.New York Real Prop. Acts Law § 711(2)

5.N.Y. Real Prop: Law § 232-a

6.N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 227-c

7.N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 227-a

8.War and National Defense Service members Civil Relief Act, 50 App. U.S.C.A. § § 501

9.Includes the armed forces, commissioned corps of the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard.

10.N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 235-b, Semans Family Ltd. Partnership v. Kennedy,


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