A lease is a binding legal contract, and your landlord has no obligation to let you out. Even if you may think it’s in your landlord’s best interest to let you out of the lease that likely won’t happen. New York City landlords are notoriously conservative when it comes to financial matters, so even if you may see other apartments like yours renting for hundreds of dollars more per month, it’s improbable that your landlord will let you out without any obligation. Doing so would mean they'd have to bear the costs involved with finding a replacement tenant as well risking to have the apartment sit empty without collecting rent.
The first thing you should do is to review your lease. Is there an opt-out clause? Does it contain details specific to subletting or breaking your lease? Does it detail the fees involved?
After reviewing your lease, you’ll need to speak with your landlord. Explain your situation, and see what your options are. Landlords understand that it’s in their best interest to have a tenant who is happy, stable, and financially secure in place, and will likely have a specific policy in place for how you can get out of your lease. Most commonly, they will ask you to either find a new tenant to take over your lease via a lease assignment or to find someone to sign a brand new lease with them before they let you break your lease and surrender the apartment.
Tip: Make sure you follow all landlord procedures and are clear with your intentions. Let your landlord know that you will be actively working on getting out of your lease, and ask for their permission in writing. Many times tenants will ask their landlord if they can break or assign their lease, but not follow the proper procedures, delaying the process significantly. The last thing you want is to find someone who wants to move in only to be told that their application can’t be processed until you send a certified letter to your landlord’s corporate headquarters formally asking for permission to assign/break your lease.
Breaking the lease
Many leases will have an out clause, essentially allowing you to pay to break the lease. This fee can range from anywhere between a thousand bucks to 3+ months rent but is typically set at either 1 or 2 months rent. You'll also likely need to give your landlord at least 30 days notice of your intention to break the lease. An alternative in many cases is to find a replacement tenant to sign a new lease in your place. In this instance, you'll need to market your apartment and find a suitable candidate to present to your landlord. They'll sign a new 12-month lease at the market rate, and then your lease with the landlord will be broken. It used to be that most landlords wouldn't charge you a fee in this scenario, but nowadays fees ranging from $250 to $1000+ are commonplace.
Assigning your existing lease
Another alternative to breaking your lease is to assign your existing lease. This is similar to finding a new tenant to sign a new lease, except for the fact that they'll actually just be taking over your lease. Some landlords may force your hand and accept either only an assignment or only a break with a tenant signing a new 12-month lease so make sure you speak with your landlord to find out what your options are before you start marketing your place. The advantages of a lease assignment are that the incoming tenant will be grandfathered into your current rental price, which will typically be lower than current market rates, and that you'll typically have lower fees associated with an assignment. The main disadvantage of a lease assignment is that the unit is usually rented "as-is" meaning the landlord won't come in and clean, prep and paint before the new tenant moves in. This, combined with the fact that the lease will likely be for a shorter period of time than a traditional 12 month might make it less attractive to prospective renters.
Subleasing for the remainder of your lease
While some owners may not entertain a lease break or assignment (they have the legal right to refuse any such request outright) you are entitled to a right to ask for a sublet in NYC (the landlord does have the right to charge an additional 10% sublet fee). It's rare however that an owner would prefer a sublease over a lease break or lease assignment as those are typically cleaner for everyone involved. Sublets involve an added element of risk for all parties. For you "the sublessor" you'll still be responsible to the landlord for the apartment and rent so if the new tenant "the sublessee" skips rent payments, damaged the apartment, or overstays the lease you may be on the hook. For the sublessee, there's typically an element of uncertainty as there is no long-term guarantee that the landlord will offer them a new lease. The landlord also usually incurs additional risk as they do may not necessarily get to qualify and screen a sublessee as thoroughly as they'd like (sublets typically do not go through the standard application process with the landlord and sublessees, therefore, do not have to meet the landlord's income requirements).
What's the best option?
We always recommend trying to assign or break your lease as subletting presents additional risk. If you do decide to sublet the safest thing you can do is to ask for additional security deposits or pre-payment of rent for the entire sublease upfront. It is also essential to get the landlord's approval. Ideally, your landlord will put in writing that you will not be held accountable for any damages or monetary liabilities that occur upon the termination of your lease with the landlord (for example if the sublessee does not vacate the apartment and refuses to pay rent past the expiration of the lease).