We built Caretaker to make renting easier. To that end, we created a comprehensive guide to U.S. rental law to educate tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities. Now, we’re introducing Ask Caretaker: an ongoing series where we answer reader questions.

I'm being laid off because of the impact of coronavirus. I signed a lease agreement at the end of February and the lease will begin on April 1st, 2020. I paid both a deposit and one month's rent. I notified the landlord on March 16th via email/text that I can no longer afford the rent and I want to break the lease. The landlord won't refund me a penny, what can I do? This money is really vital to me during this period of time since I don't know when can I land another job, please help!

- New York, New York

This landlord sounds like they're being super inflexible, which is unfortunate—but not illegal. You can't automatically get your deposit back once you've signed a lease, even if you haven't moved in yet or recently lost your job. You may have to consider other options for getting out of a lease early, such as subletting or assigning your lease.

You should also know that evictions in New York have been suspended indefinitely because of the spread of COVID-19. So if you move into the apartment in April, you can't be kicked out for not paying rent until they lift the eviction ban. Just something to keep in mind.

The world is facing a pandemic which has forced me, a “non-essential” worker, out of a job. As a result, I soon most likely will be unable to pay rent. I am not the master tenant but rather just a roommate. The master tenant is unsympathetic to my circumstance and has told me that I must leave if I can no longer pay rent amidst this global health crisis. I heard New York State is suspending evictions but was wondering does that protect people like me who are not the master tenant? Or does that protection from eviction only apply to the master tenant?

- New York, New York

You’re right about the moratorium on evictions. The answer to your question depends on whether or not you’re considered a guest or a tenant by New York law. If you've lived in the apartment for more than 30 days, you're considered a tenant—and must be formally evicted to be forced out.

Can I use my deposit to pay rent? I have barely any hours because the city’s shut down, and I’m worried I’m not going to have enough money to pay my landlord.

- Austin, Texas

Legally? No. Landlords in Texas are allowed to use your security deposit to cover unpaid rent if the situation comes to that, but that generally happens in cases where a tenant abandons their rental without giving notice or has been evicted for unpaid rent. Tenants aren't supposed to treat their deposit like extra rent money (and if you ever try to skip out on paying last month's rent in Texas with the assumption that your deposit will cover it, you could end up owing your landlord damages equal to three times the monthly rent).

But if you’re worried about paying rent over the next few months—because of the effects of COVID-19 or anything else—you should know that evictions have been halted statewide until April 19. In Austin specifically, this week the city council is expected to approve a 60-day grace period before tenants can be evicted for not paying rent.

I have been subletting for 10 months and always paid rent on time. Now I am being told to leave. Have never caused problems. Made my own repairs. No papers or just cause has been served. How long do I have? I'm a 63-year-old, single female on disability.

- Pennsylvania

Do you have a written sublet agreement? If so, it should mention how much notice the landlord or master tenant has to give before terminating your tenancy. It should also include the end date of the agreement—and if they're trying to kick you without cause before that date, it's illegal.

If you don't have a written agreement, you're considered a month-to-month tenant. Month-to-month agreements are great when it comes to flexibility—but the downside is that they can be terminated for any reason, even if you didn't do anything wrong. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania state law doesn’t specify how much notice a landlord is supposed to give you to end a month-to-month rental agreement. Thirty days is typical, but it's not illegal for them to give you less.

My basement apartment has termites. I just signed the lease four days ago… please help.

- Maryland

Sounds like that might be a breach of the warranty of habitability. How recently you signed the lease doesn't matter—once you've signed a lease, it's final—but as a tenant, you always have the right to a livable apartment. You should start by getting in touch with your landlord and requesting a repair. If they refuse to fix the termite problem, and it’s seriously affecting your ability to live there, then you may be able to move out and claim constructive eviction.

I want to break my lease 1.5 months early and they said that I will still have to pay two months’ rent for early termination. Does this even make sense?! They said that if I break my lease early even by half a month then I would have to pay out two months to terminate early so I might as well just pay out until the end. This doesn’t make sense to me.

- Mishawaka, Indiana

Two months' rent is a relatively standard lease break fee, but you're right—it doesn't make sense to pay more than the rent you have left on the lease. The simplest thing to do would be to pay the remaining rent, but move out whenever you want. Landlords are never required to let you break your lease early, even if you're willing to pay a fee, so they're not incentivized to be particularly tenant-friendly when it comes to early termination fees (unfortunately).

That said, your landlord is required to “mitigate damages” in Indiana—meaning that if you move out, they must make a reasonable effort to find a new renter. They’re also required to accept a qualified replacement (someone with similar credit and income as you), so if you’re able to find someone to take your place as soon as you move out, you may be able to get out of paying the fee. Finally, depending on what it says in your lease, you can always try to find a subletter for those six weeks.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.


Abigail Cain

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