A lease is a binding contract. If either party of a lease violates the lease, they become subject to varying penalties under law. There are certain situations, in which tenants can “break” their leases and still retain their security deposits. This depends on the circumstances regarding the termination of the lease, how quickly tenants’ landlords are able to find new tenants for their apartments, and whether or not any damage was done beyond reasonable wear and tear to the property during the tenants’ stay.
If a tenant has a lease for an apartment that has become uninhabitable, and the tenant can no longer live at said apartment, the tenant is said to be a victim of constructive eviction. If a tenant wants to break his lease because he has been constructively evicted, he is within his rights to do so and retain his security deposit.
An example of this would be a flood, or a fire. If a tenant wants to break his lease for his own reasons and not because the property has become uninhabitable or because the landlord has done anything wrong, then he is generally not entitled to a return of his security deposit, and would instead be subject to varying legal penalties for violating his contract.
If the tenant wishes to break his lease and vacate early he may request permission to assign his lease to a third party pursuant to the Real Property law. If the landlord unreasonably refuses permission, the tenant has the right to be released from his lease and receive his security deposit back.
If a tenant breaks his lease and moves out and his landlord is able to immediately find another tenant to rent the apartment, the landlord would have no grounds for keeping the security deposit paid by the original tenant. If a tenant breaks his lease and moves out and his landlord, despite searching, is not able to find another tenant to rent his property, the landlord would be within his rights to sue the tenant for the remaining rent owed to him in accordance with their lease.
The security deposit, in this case, would go towards compensating the landlord for the unpaid rent. If a tenant breaks his lease and moves out and his landlord is able to find another suitable tenant to rent his property but refuses to rent his property to said tenant, the landlord would not be able to sue the tenant that had moved out, and would have to return the security deposit.
If a tenant breaks his lease and moves out but leaves the rented residence damaged beyond what would be considered reasonable wear and tear, the tenant would not be able to retain his security deposit. The landlord would use the security deposit to repair the damages caused by the tenant. To protect themselves from being wrongfully accused of damaging their apartments beyond reasonable wear and tear, tenants should carefully survey their properties with their landlords and record the condition of their properties with photographs.How to Break Your Lease and Get Your Security Deposit Back: A NYC Tenant’s Guide orignally published in StreetEasy's Blog on April 15, 2013.