You shacked up, and now you broke up. Here's how to stay sane

By Virginia K. Smith  | August 27, 2015 - 8:59AM

So, you met someone, moved in together, gave things the old college try, and now you want out. (It happens.) But how do you break up civilly when you're sharing a small space with your sanity, finances and real estate situation intact?

We asked experts for their best tips—and cautionary tales—to help keep the peace when you're ready to peace out of your relationship:

  • GET  OUT AS FAST AS YOU CAN .This one will probably be pretty intuitive, but with your security deposit in the hands of your landlord, and your name on the remainder of the lease, it can be easier said than done. Still, Citi Habitats agent Jared Cross tells us, "I would have one of you remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. When you have this physical proximity, it's hard to mentally and emotionally break away—you're still surrounded by that bad energy, and after a couple of months, you'll want to start dating again." If it's amicable, Dean Roberts, a real estate attorney with Norris, McLaughlin, & Marcus recommends formally asking the landlord to release (from the lease) whoever's moving out, and signing whatever paperwork it takes to get that done. As we've written previously, you should never, ever, ever, leave your name on the lease of an apartment you're no longer living in. This is doubly true when there are raw, post-breakup emotions involved. And keep in mind that if you and your S.O. happen to own the place, one of you can leave without formally forfeiting their rights to the property. 
  • BUT TAKE A DEEP BREATH BEFORE SIGNING A NEW LEASE. Yes, you should do everything in your power to get out of dodge, but that doesn't necessarily mean moving into a new apartment that might not be the right fit. "People tend to be in a rush to find a new place when they break up, but I think it's of so much importance to take your time," says  Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist who acts as a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate. "If you can stay with a friend for a week or two, then you can get your head a little calmer before you make the decision." Another option if no one will let you crash: Cross has seen clients spend a month in an extended stay hostels or hotels before committing to new digs (for instance, a place like the Central Park Inn on the UWS). "If you rush into something, you'll end up spending more money than you really can or should," adds Siderow Residential broker Peggy Dahan. "Plus, sometimes after the situation has passed, people end up reconciling and not wanting to live apart."
  • OWN THE APARTMENT? GET YOUR PAPERWORK IN CHECK. If you actually own your shared home, extricating yourself will, unsurprisingly, be that much more complicated, especially since your financial obligations are co-mingled in a mortgage. "Every situation is a little different but most couples end up having one party buy the other out, or they sell off the unit if it doesn't work for one person to refinance it into just their name," explains Brittany Baldwin, a loan officer with National Cooperative Bank. And as we've written previously, most lenders will require you to re-finance if you're hanging onto the apartment (and your mortgage) solo, and are often harsh in their assessments of whether or not you can afford the place on your own. "You would think that banks would have figured this out because it’s not like divorce is an amazingly rare thing," says Roberts, but "They do not make it easy to get rid of a shareholder [in an co-op]." One other potential snag to look out for once you've figured out how to divvy the place up: Even if your divorce decree specifies that one party will keep the apartment, you'll need to do the extra legwork to update the names on your deed or stock certificate, Roberts warns, otherwise you'll run into legal headaches down the road if someone eventually wants to sell. "The key thing is to understand your ownership rights, especially in co-ops," he adds. "If you are Tenants in the Entirety [Editor's note: legal-ese for spouses who co-own property], you should know what that means, and make sure to do the due process to get names off titles."
  • ONCE YOU DO GET A NEW PLACE, MAKE IT A TRULY FRESH START. "Keep your ex out of your apartment as much as possible," advises Saladino. This doesn't just mean that you should refrain from inviting them over at 2 am: Keep pictures out of sight, and don't use your new place as a hovel from which you extensively stalk their every move on social media. Instead, Saladino advises, devote your restless energy into finding the best bodega, grocery store, coffee shop, etc. in your new neighborhood so you can settle into a new routine as soon as possible. Starting new, positive routines apart from your ex—and your shared apartment—will help you move on more quickly.
  • IF YOU'RE STUCK TOGETHER, RESIST THE DRAMA. Sometimes, there really isn't another option other than to stick it out with your newly-minted ex until the lease is up and you can go your separate ways. "I've had friends who've broken up with their significant others, and had to stay in the apartment because they had three months left on the lease, and the landlord still had their security deposits," says Compass agent Scott Sobol. "You have to be reasonable, and understand that you've signed a legal contract." Whatever you do, don't take a page from the playbook of one of Cross's former clients, who found himself stuck in an apartment with an ex who'd cheated on him, unable to afford to move out. "He ended up getting so upset that he moved his ex's stuff onto the street, and put an ad up on Craigslist for the bedroom, so his ex was flooded with calls from strangers," says Cross. "But the apartment wasn't actually his, so his ex eventually threatened legal action and kicked him out." Suffice it so say, attempts at revenge aren't what you'd call a wise move—especially if you aren't named on the lease.
  • NEXT TIME AROUND, PLAN FOR THE WORST. No one wants to plan for their breakup when they first move in together—it's the real estate equivalent of signing a pre-nup—but it's well worth a couple of uncomfortable conversations to make things as painless as possible if worse every comes to worse. "I've seen custody battles over rent-stabilized leases," says Roberts. "Optimism tends to prevail in these situations, but if you're both on the lease, you both have rights, and you can't really force one or the other of you out." Instead, Roberts recommends having one party as the leaseholder, and one as an authorized occupant. "That way you can kind of cut and run, and you don't have to worry about a complicated legal situation," concurs Sobol. "If they're not married, I strongly suggest couples [only put one person on the lease.]" Case in point: Roberts cites a client who had a high-end apartment with a "favorable, long-term lease" to which she wanted to add her new boyfriend. He nixed the idea, and tells us, "I got a lot of pushback about it at the time, but sure enough, six months later she found him in bed with someone else." Love may be fleeting, but a good deal on apartment? If you play your cards right, that's forever.


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How singles in New York City date, by the numbers

Shacking up: the do's and don'ts of cohabiting for the first time

After a divorce, how do I take on our mortgage solo?

Who gets the apartment after a divorce?

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