The Lease Busters

by Brendan O’Connor


220 West 98th Street, #4
$3,650 per month
2 bedrooms / 1 bathroom
Nearest subway: 1/2/3 trains at 96th Street

Flip is a startup which makes it easier to break leases. The app is still in beta, but its founder, Susannah Vila, who is finishing up her MBA at Columbia University, has introduced to fellow students at Columbia who are looking to get out of their leases. “The idea came about just because I am the number one customer for it,” Vila told me. “I just love to move. I’ve moved three times since starting business school.” Vila is currently on two leases: She lives in Lower Manhattan, on East Broadway, and sublets her previous apartment. “It’s silly that you get constrained and stuck into leases by the year — you should just be able to move in and out of apartments whenever you want.”

“By signing a lease, you commit yourself to financial obligations not too far removed from a car loan or a home mortgage,” reads a New York Times article about lease-breaking from 2012. “Those who break a lease should expect to shell out some money, as they could wind up paying rent for the remaining months of the contract.” One way around this, though, is to find a new, qualified renter to whom you can “assign” the lease — New York state law requires landlords to let you out of your lease within thirty days if you provide such a tenant.

On Flip, users apply to take over the lease on other user’s apartments, for a price — this two-bedroom on the Upper West Side costs two hundred dollars, for example. “We want to make it really frictionless for people to get in and out of leases, and by virtue of removing that friction we actually make the lives of landlords and property management companies a lot easier,” Vila said. “They waste a lot of time dealing with the kind of admin work and holding renters accountable when it comes to renters breaking their leases, and with a lot of people coming in to try and take over those leases who might not be qualified.”

“What property management companies have said to us is, if you send us people who aren’t going to waste our time because they’re qualifiable financially, and you make sure that everything we need to check all our boxes is done the first time, you’re saving us time and we would sign up for that,” Vila said. “We need to include them for it to work.”

The apartment at 220 West 98th Street, which I found through Streeteasy, is currently leased to Eliza, a classmate of Vila’s who is also finishing her MBA at Columbia, and who wants to travel this summer — or maybe found a cookie company, she said — before starting a job in November. “If I had just broken my lease, which I was planning to, I’m probably not going to tell them ahead of time,” Eliza said. “So it’s not until I am about to move out that they realize they need to start marketing the apartment, whereas if I find somebody they basically could turn this apartment around in a few days or a week as opposed to the month that it would take for them to find a broker and to take photos and bring people and show it and all that kind of stuff.” She added, “And I’m sure I would lose my deposit.” Her security deposit is seven thousand dollars.

“I feel like in New York if you’re a renter, the landlords hold all the power, they hold all the cards,” Eliza said. “I was just like, ‘Yeah, I guess I’ll pay a seven-thousand-dollar security deposit because I literally didn’t have another day in New York to find an apartment.’”

“Our long-term goal is really to solve this problem for lease-breakers,” Vila said, “but also change the way people think about lease contracts, to reimagine the way that people think about leases, so it’s not necessarily by a year, or two years, or three years.”

215 West 90th Street #5C
$8,900 per month
3 bedrooms / 2 bathrooms
1,622 square feet
Nearest subway stop: 1/2/3 trains at 96th Street
or 1 train at 86th Street

On Tuesday, the previous owners of a spacious apartment at the Upper West Side’s Haroldon Court condominium building were still living in their home of nearly six years. In early February, an investor bought the apartment from the Elefant family, and agreed to rent it back to them while they conducted renovations on their new apartment, which, conveniently enough, is in the very same building.

“It’s crazy town up there,” Tammy Elefant told me when I visited with her and her broker, Jennifer Kalish. A broker with Douglas Elliman, Kalish told me she had met the investor last year when she was selling another condo (at a similar price point) at 30 West 86th Street. After Kalish listed the Elefants’ condo in November, the investor — one Adine Brandes, who, according to Department of Finance records, purchased the apartment through something called SEDNARB LLC (“SEDNARB” is “Brandes” backwards) — came to the very first open house. “As soon as she walked in, I remembered her. We were just talking about the neighborhood, the investment the value — I think one rented on a low floor for like eight thousand or so? Seventy-five hundred? So we were trying to figure out pricing, she came back again. And she just decided it was a good idea,” Kalish said. “I think the building still is undervalued. You know, it’s the type of thing, this neighborhood is just getting better and better.”

“It’s a primo location: Tal bagels, Equinox gym,” Kalish said. Elefant agreed: “The building’s gone up, for sure,” she said. According to Department of Finance records, the Elefants bought the condo for $1.8 million in June 2008; they sold it at the beginning of February for 2.25 million dollars. “It’s awesome here,” Elefant said. “I love it.” Fortunately, they don’t have to move very far: just two floors up, to unit #7B, which they purchased later in February for 3.3 million dollars.

“Jen knew the person living in the apartment,” Tammy said. The new apartment, two floors up, hadn’t been on the market, but Kalish knew it was going to be: the previous tenants were also clients of hers. “That’s how I knew about it,” Kalish said. “It wasn’t on the market, my client — I put them in as a rental — they were in it. I would hang out there with my family and my kids and stuff, so I was intimately familiar with it. I was bothering the broker, would they sell, would they sell, would they sell. I finally stopped and then my client was in touch with owner, who said that she would sell, so it all sort of came to a head, together. Before anyone knew about it, we were able to do it under the radar, because people would have hopped on it. Everyone wants that line, in this building.”

2015-04-14 16.57.48

43 West 88th Street #4
$4,800 per month
2 bedrooms / 2 bathrooms
1,320 square feet
Nearest subway: B/C trains at 86th Street

Two blocks south and two blocks over, there is a two-story apartment for rent in an prewar, owner-occupied building. Beth Sydness bought the building in 1980 for just over two hundred and forty-four thousand dollars; she’s been the landlord ever since, and currently lives on the third floor. “There are quite a few owners that live on this block,” Sydness said, but more and more buildings are getting bought up and turned into single-family residences. “Why you want seven thousand square feet, I don’t know. But they put elevators in them, is what they have to do.”

There are five rental units in the building — the only one available right now is the two-story, two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor and fifth floors. Inside, there is a narrow spiral staircase connecting the upstairs to the downstairs. On the fourth floor, there is a balcony looking out into the interior of the block. “This area here, believe it or not, is now called The Doughnut,” Sydness said. “Landmarks calls it that. Landmarks has jurisdiction on the facades of your building, but also now they’re getting more jurisdiction on what goes on in the back.” She added, “What’s really nice about this block too is that everybody’s garden is really manicured and really nice. It could be toxic waste back here!”

Back inside, Sydness pointed out the apartment’s restored, original details. “These fireplaces are not wood-burning. This is the original stuff. The original mantels and so forth,” she said, before reflecting again on buyers converting these townhouses into single-family homes. “The really sad thing is they’re ripping the details out of these buildings, especially when they convert them to single family.” (Of course, many of the buildings in this neighborhood — including 43 West 88th Street — were originally built as single family homes and then converted into apartments over the course of the twentieth century.) Sydness continued: “The highest and best use of these buildings is single family, believe it or not. They’re worth a lot more that way. This would be about fourteen or fifteen million, maybe even more.”

Sydness, who also works as a real estate broker for one of the city’s largest firms, ought to know. “I go into these townhouses — they all look alike: white walls, dark floors, big island kitchens,” she said. “They’re even using the same fixtures in the bathrooms. For fourteen million! But they’re all looking very… ordinary. It’s just taste. Can you imagine, these hallways, taking down the bannisters, and the filigreed woodwork? I’d like to see Landmarks regulate the inside!”

For whatever reason, Sydness has struggled to find a renter for the apartment, which has been on the market for nearly three months, according to Streeteasy. “It’s just a weird market right now,” she said. “A lot of people rethink the stairs thing. A lot of people also don’t want to go up two flights.”

Have you noticed a real estate listing that you would like to have investigated? Send cool tips, fun listings, and hot gossip to