Breaking a lease 101: How an UES family paid less than $1,000 to leave four months early

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The lease on our Upper East Side apartment— which we had lived in for two-and-a-half years — was technically up at the end of July, but we began looking for a new place in March. With two kids, things were starting to feel rather small in our one-bedroom. Plus we wanted to try to move into a different school zone before we missed the cut-off to qualify our son for public preschool, which was in April.

We weren't originally planning on moving before the lease was up, but when I saw someone post an apartment in a Facebook group I belong to which met our criteria for both space and budget, I decided to check it out.

Though we didn't rent that place, once my husband and I saw that apartment we started to get antsy. Also, everyone — brokers, friends, people in the know about NYC real estate — told us that it would be better to move before April 1, when we'd have more negotiating power in terms of broker fees and even rent, and when movers were still offering off-season discounts.

We called Algin, the company which owned our building, and the woman whom we spoke to told us there was an automatic $500 cancellation clause written into our lease. That fee aside, they said they were happy to show the apartment and that we'd only be responsible to pay the rent until other tenants took it, which I think is pretty standard in New York.

A calculated risk

We knew we were taking a calculated risk by breaking the lease early. If the apartment had sat on the market we would have had to pay until our lease was up (which would have cost over $10,000!). But it's pretty desirable. It's in a well-kept Upper East Side doorman building and the rent was relatively affordable. (We were paying $2,800 and they only raised it to $2,900 when we left.) 

We also remembered that when we applied for the apartment two-and-a-half years ago, our broker had told us that other people put an application in on the same day. This wasn't the kind of place that sits for months.

Asking a broker for back-up

Algin told us they'd start showing the apartment, and they did. They called us before they planned to show it to alert us. (I straightened up a bit before and left the apartment while they showed it.) But we'd also enlisted the help of the broker who'd helped us find the apartment originally and was helping us on our search for a new one.

He showed it once and Algin showed it once and both people put in applications. The couple who ended up getting  the apartment were living in an alcove studio in the building and had inquired about any openings before we'd told the management company we were planning to move.

Paying the difference

We were told we would have to pay for any days the apartment was vacant from the time we moved out to the day the new tenants moved in. We vacated March 23, so we were prepared to pay through April 1, when we assumed the new tenants' lease would begin.

A neighbor actually told us that it looked like the people had moved in before April 1. When we told the management company this, they deducted some of the amount we owed. The total amount  — which was around $1,000 including the cancelation fee — was deducted from our security deposit, the rest of which we got back within 30 days.

Tricky timing

We had already started looking for apartments before telling the management company we were planning on leaving, but we hadn't had our application for the new apartment  approved yet. 

Telling your landlord that you want to leave is a gamble. You want to notify them with enough time so that they have time to find someone to take your place (and you don't end up paying for too much downtime while they list and show the apartment), but you also don't want to give them so much notice that you find yourself stuck with nowhere to live if they fill your old place quickly and your new place falls through.

Tips for those looking to do the same thing:

1. Figure out your landlord/management company's policy right away. Cancellation fees vary from landlord to landlord, as do lease-break policies. Don't assume anything.

2. Use a broker. You can always try reaching out to your social networks to find a replacement, but often having a professional on your side is a good idea. "Having a broker we trusted really helped," says Heather. "I'm not sure what the building's policy would have been about us posting on Craigslist or StreetEasy, but I know I would not feel comfortable doing it without a broker. I see people post their lease breaks on Facebook boards again and again, and the apartments just don't move as quickly." If you're using a broker to find you your next place, ask them to help list your current place.

3. Word your request carefully. "My husband — who's a lawyer — felt confident that we could stay in our apartment if the new one had fallen through after we notified Algin of our plans to break the lease," says Heather. "Our e-mail was carefully worded to say that we were considering moving. We never explicitly said we planned to move. We'd just said we were inquiring about breaking a lease."

4. Time it right. You don't want to tell your management company that you're planning to move too early, especially if you're not sure you'll find an apartment in time. Wait to see what's out there and then tell them. If  you prefer to be conservative, wait until your offer on a new place is accepted (or the lease signed); be prepared that there may be a longer gap between the time you move out of your old place and when they find a new tenant (which will cost you).

5. Budget an extra month's rent, especially during slower seasons. It's better to be well-prepared than face sticker shock. Obviously the desirability of your apartment and the season will affect how long your apartment is likely to be on the market. To be safe, make sure you have enough to cover the rent in case your old place stays empty for a while.


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