Q: Over the summer, my husband and I broke the lease on our Chelsea apartment and moved to the suburbs. Our landlord told us that we could only get out of the lease if a replacement tenant were found. We completed the walk-through, handed in the keys and have continued to pay rent every month while the landlord looks for the replacement. But how do we know if he found someone? Is it possible that the apartment has been rented and we’re still paying rent?
A: If you decide to break a lease in New York, your landlord must make a reasonable effort to re-rent the apartment at the same rent or the current market rent, whichever is lower. If he takes those steps, you would be on the hook for the rent until he finds a new tenant. So how do you know if the landlord is even trying to rent it? Look on sites like StreetEasy to see if it’s been listed.
If you can’t find the listing, do a little sleuthing and call the leasing office. Ask if the apartment has been rented, and if it hasn’t, ask if it is even listed for rent. If it’s not rented or on the market — which is certainly possible, given how slow rentals are moving — you’d be free from your responsibility.
If the apartment has been rented at a lower rent, you would be responsible for the difference. But if the landlord hasn’t attempted to find a new tenant, then you are not obligated to pay the rent anymore. You could even sue the landlord for the months that you paid when the apartment was sitting idle.
Regardless of what you find out, you may want to stop paying rent now. “That will put more pressure on your landlord to re-rent the apartment,” said Samuel J. Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants. “What pressure is this landlord under to re-rent if he’s getting rent from the old tenant?”
The landlord could sue you for the balance of the lease. But he would have to show that he made a good-faith effort to find a new tenant. If he didn’t, you’d be released from your obligation and the case would be dismissed. If he did, you would negotiate a settlement in court, which might be less than what you owe now. So, you don’t have much to lose at this point by holding onto your money.