Q: My husband and I rent an apartment on Roosevelt Island for $6,000 a month. We’ve encountered some financial setbacks recently due to my unpaid maternity leave and changes to my husband’s salary, leaving us unable to afford our rent. But we still have 18 months left on the lease. When we spoke with the management company, they said they would only let us out of the lease if we were able to reassign it to someone else, which would be difficult. What would be the worst-case scenario if we simply broke the lease and moved?
A: New York State law gives tenants the right to assign their lease to someone else, but not without jumping through some hoops. So I can understand why you might want to walk away.
To reassign the lease, the tenant, not the landlord, has to find the replacement. So you would have to play the role of real estate broker and find a suitable candidate — usually someone with an income of 40 times the monthly rent and good credit. You would then submit your request in writing to the landlord, who could reject it. If the landlord rejects a qualified tenant, like someone who can afford the rent and has a clean background check, you would be released from your lease, according to Samuel J. Himmelstein, a tenant lawyer and a partner at the Manhattan law firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue and Joseph. But if the landlord makes a reasonable rejection, you would still be on the hook.
There are websites that can help you find a tenant. For one-month’s rent, Flip, a company that matches tenants with people looking for sublets, will assume your lease and return your security deposit at the end of the term.
If you take your chances and just break the lease, you’ll be exposing yourself to financial risk. First, you’ll lose your security deposit. If the landlord re-rents the apartment, he can sue you for any shortfall, like the month when it was vacant, or the difference between your rent and what the new tenant pays, if the new rent is less. Worse, if the landlord does not find a tenant — and the law does not even require that he try to — you could be responsible for the full balance of the lease.
However, Mr. Himmelstein said, “most landlords will look for a new tenant because that’s better than suing somebody.”