Tips & Other Notes

-- by Jennifer LeClaire

Maybe you can't finish the semester due to an unexpected emergency, or won't stay in town for the summer. But you don't want to pay rent on an empty apartment, so you figured you'd post a flyer on campus and sublet the place.

Subletting is allowing someone to temporarily live in your apartment to cover the rent while you're away. While it's common, you should be careful. "The risks are enormous," says Susan Hessee, staff attorney at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "If things go awry, the subtenants rarely get sued. The primary tenant is the one that has to eat the loss - and it can be huge."

Risky Business?

There's a long list of risks to subletting for all parties involved. For the primary tenant common issues include property damage, uncollected rent and even evictions.

"If the subtenant gets thrown out of the unit because they violated some house rules, then you still have to pay the rent," says Stephen Roulac, author of 375 Housing Mistakes and How You Can Avoid Them. "You also have the potential risk of someone coming into the apartment and injuring themselves. It can be a dicey proposition."

Of course, the subtenant should also walk into the deal with both eyes wide open. Not all landlords allow tenants to sublet. Failure to confirm the tenant's right to lease you the apartment could spell disaster when the landlord comes around with a notice to vacate the premises.

Safe Subletting

A little wisdom goes a long way toward preventing financial loss, damaged credit and the need to find a new home.

The obvious first line of defense for all parties is to sign a written agreement, says Peggie Luers, coordinator for off-campus housing services at California State University Sacramento.

"Contracts are only enforceable when the parties know the terms," Luers says. "So, put it in writing and have everyone involved sign it. It does not have to be notarized or use any special legal language. A contract just has to clearly spell out what each side has agreed to do as their part of the bargain."

That agreement should include things like the amount of rent, the house rules regarding noise, pets, visitors, the length of the lease and any other provisions in the primary tenant's lease.

Pictures Say 1,000 Words

Hessee says many subtenants seemingly have no conscious about the damage they do to the property.

"Beer-soaked carpets, cigarette burns on the furniture and furry items stinking up the refrigerator are often the norm at the end of the sublease," says Hessee. "Collect a security deposit from the subtenant and get all the rent paid up front if possible."

Before you hand over your apartment keys to subtenants, do a walk through of the unit and note the condition. Experts suggest using a video or still camera, but even written documentation is better than nothing if both parties sign off on it.

While pictures say a thousand words, so can subtenants. Subtenants could also run up thousands of dollars on your telephone if you forget to cut it off. Experts recommend transferring all utilities into the subtenant's name before heading out of town.

On the flip side, subtenants have a right to privacy, meaning that the primary tenant cannot come barging in at will unless there is an emergency. Subtenants should also be sure to get contact information from the leaser in case there is any problem.

Since most of the risks fall on the primary tenant, Hessee says these agreements should not be entered into lightly.

"With a sublet, you are likely to receive only nominal rent," says Hessee. "In exchange, you are permitting someone else to live in your apartment and are putting yourself at risk for damage that a person might cause. Be very careful in weighing the risks and benefits in subletting."

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