One of the more distressing parts of buying a house, at least for me as a former landlord/tenant law intern, is breaking our lease with our landlords. Our lease doesn’t expire until October, but when we bid on the Long Island house in January, we know that staying in Bronxville until the fall is implausible. I’m already finding the four flights of stairs to our front door cumbersome and I’ve only just started my second trimester. “You need to talk to Jeff and Theresa,” my husband says the day before we are scheduled to meet with our attorney to sign the real estate contract. “You have to tell them.”
Naturally, concocting a way to worm out of a contractual obligation falls to me, the licensed- if not technically practicing- attorney. My husband deals with all the financial aspects of the transaction: Locking the mortgage rate, securing the insurance binder, shooting down my efforts to outfit each room as if it is destined to be featured in an upcoming issue of Architectural Digest. In other words, he gets all the easy tasks.
My palms are clammy as I dial Theresa’s number. Jeff and Theresa are about five years older than us and have two children of their own. They are perfectly lovely, reasonable people, but something tells me that they will not be as excited as we are about our forthcoming foray into homeownership.
To my amazement, I am wrong. “We’re so happy for you guys!” Theresa exclaims after I’ve finished rattling off the spiel I prepared on index cards and practiced at least six times in the shower. “And we kind of figured after we got your card.” She is referring to the announcement in our recent Christmas card that we are expecting our second child this summer. Theresa says that she and Jeff had preemptively discussed what they would do if we asked to terminate the lease, and they’ve decided to list the apartment for sale. “When do you think you’ll close?” Theresa asks. “Some time in April, I think,” I reply, though it’s hard to know for sure because in New York closing dates are approximate. Based on that, we agree that the last day of our tenancy will be April 30th.
“This could not have worked out any better,” my husband observes when I recap my conversation with Theresa later that evening. “I know,” I agree, but I still feel uneasy. I am certain that breaking a lease should not be this painless.
Again, I seem to be wrong. Within days I am standing in the kitchen with Jeff and Theresa’s listing agent, discussing plans for a photographer to take pictures for the listing and scheduling dates in February to hold an open house. A few days after that, when the listing is posted on the Internet, I feel a real sense of pride of ownership. The apartment appears warm and inviting, and our furnishings look fabulous. “I want to live there,” I say to my husband as we toggle through the pictures of our living room, our bedroom, our bathroom. And I mean it; I do want to live here, but I know that we cannot.
The second week of February, we go to Florida for six days. When we return our landlords are entertaining three offers on the apartment. The best is from an all-cash buyer bidding their asking price. The only catch is, he wants to move in by April 1st. “Would that be a problem?” Theresa asks over the phone. “Uh, sort of,” I reply honestly. Then I supplement my answer with some nervous babble about how we don’t want to impede the sale, and if we had to I’m sure we could make it work, and maybe we could put all our stuff in storage and temporarily live with my husband’s parents on Long Island.
Fortunately, the very next day a new buyer makes an even higher offer, and our landlords accept it. This buyer, Theresa assures me over the phone, does not need to move into the apartment by any certain date, but in honor of my first year contracts professor, Amy Boss, I have Theresa put it in writing that we can reside in the apartment until April 30th.
February melts into March. We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with our traditional Shamrock Shakes, begin decorating for Easter, and fill out our tournament brackets. The weekend before Easter, I receive another phone call from Theresa.
“Bad news,” she says. “Our buyers need to be out of their current living situation earlier than expected, so we are closing on April 8th.”
“Oh my God,” is all I can think to say. April 8th is two weeks away. “Theresa, I’m sorry, but it is physically impossible for us to be out by then.”
I’m not trying to be melodramatic. It’s just that I’m six months pregnant, I have a 2 ½ year old toddler, my husband works long hours, and the mere thought of cardboard boxes exhausts me. Unfortunately, Jeff and Theresa, who for months have been two of the loveliest, most reasonable people we’ve known, are suddenly not so lovely and reasonable.
“No,” Theresa says, “The bottom line is, you have to be out by April 8th. Otherwise our buyers will literally be homeless.”
I despise the overuse of the word literally. Please look up the word literally in the dictionary then tell me if that is really what you mean.
Regardless, I reply in similar fashion: “Theresa, if we have to move out by April 8th, we will literally be homeless.”
“What about your in-laws?” she retorts.
There is a lesson to be learned here, folks: No matter how lovely and reasonable your landlords seem, no matter how much they remind you of yourselves in five years, never, ever share with them that you have family living within a 50-mile radius. They will use it against you.
The lawyer in me wanted to fight. I could have argued that they were constructively evicting us without cause, that once we terminated the old lease and agreed on the April 30th move-out date, we converted to a month-to-month tenancy, which, under New York law, requires 30 days’ written notice from either party to cancel. Instead, I handed the phone to my husband and threw myself on our bed in a fit of tears.
In the end, we agreed to move out on Saturday, April 6th. Our landlords agreed to waive rent for the six days in April that we’d reside in the apartment, and they agreed to pay for our storage for the month of April. We had two weeks to hire movers, buy packing materials, and figure out how we were going to fit our life into a 10x13 storage unit.
I had a feeling it was going to require a lot of bubble wrap…