Is Subletting an Apartment Right for You?
A sublet apartment, also known as a subleased apartment, is an excellent alternative for people seeking a situation that's a little more flexible—or, in some cases, a lot more flexible—than the standard one- or two-year rental lease most property managers and owners insist upon. Fairly common in most (but not all) cities, the sublet simply means that the original holder of the lease from the landlord offers the apartment—or, subleases the apartment--to a third party… which, in this case, is you.
Owners of condo apartments sometimes rent out their homes to tenants, both for the short- and the long-term, and these arrangements are sometimes referred to as sublets (mostly because of the flexibility involved, and often informal nature of the agreement), but because there is only one lease holder—you--they're legally more like standard rental apartments, with the condo owner acting as landlord.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Subletting
If you're certain that you're only going to need an apartment for a specific length of time, and that length of time is less than a year, then finding a landlord-approved, legal sublet can be a terrific housing option. Sublets can also be found furnished or semi-furnished, adding to their appeal for the temporary tenant.
Sublets are also good options for people who are just moving to a new city, aren't sure what neighborhood they wish to live, and want some time to get the "lay of the land." However, given the cost of moving and/or storage, this option works best for people with little furniture and belongings, beyond clothing and some personal items. It's also a good alternative for people moving without a job, but with some savings.
However, you should expect far fewer rights as a tenant of a sublet, especially, obviously, if it's an illegal sublet, but even it's a "handshake" sublet from a friend or an acquaintance. If something goes wrong in the apartment--with the plumbing, say… or the heat—an illegal sublessee may not be able to go downstairs and get help from the super, for fear of being "discovered." Also, to be evicted from an apartment for which you've signed a legal lease is difficult in many (but not all) cities. To be evicted from an illegal sublet is much, much easier, especially if the apartment is rent stabilized or rent controlled.
The Legal vs. Illegal Sublet
With a sublet, the original leaseholder is still responsible for monthly rental payments to the landlord. There are many reasons why leaseholders of apartments would want to sublease their homes, such as a temporary relocation for work, or for school, or if they're moving in with a partner but want to hang on to their "real" apartment, just in case…
In most instances such as these, the leaseholder's landlord would approve a sublet, as long as the rent continued to be paid on time, and so the arrangement would be a legal sublet. Aside from the obvious reasons, this is by far the more favorable option for everyone involved: the landlord, the leaseholder, and sublessor.
However, the illegal—or, landlord unapproved--sublet is more common than you might think. Anytime the lessee doesn't have permission from the landlord to sublet the apartment, it is an illegal sublet. The only way for you to tell, is if you were to contact the property manager or owner directly and ask them. While some landlords may require you to be approved by them before you can sublet, not all landlords do so, even with a legal sublet.
An illegal sublet also often involves a rent stabilized, or rent controlled, apartment, that the lessee doesn't want to give up, but doesn't want to live in anymore. Often the lessee will rent the apartment to you for more than what they pay, and in essence they make a "profit" from you. The potential for heartbreak and extreme inconvenience is high for both the illegal lessor and sublessor in such cases: if caught, the lessee must surrender their lease, and the sublessee is thrown out on to the street with little or no notice.
How to Find and Sublet an Apartment
Sublets can be found through the usual suspects, including asking friends/co-workers, social media, bulletin board postings (particularly on college campuses), and real estate websites. Depending on the area, you may find a website devoted to sublets. In other cases, they may be a sub-section of a website (such as Craigslist). However, keep in mind that many websites do not have a section for sublets. In those cases, you may not find any at all, or you may find them mixed in with the "regular" real estate listings.
In most cases, at least for legal sublets, applying for a sublet is exactly like applying for a regular apartment. While legally the current tenant is responsible for the rent in the event that you don't pay, the landlord wants to know that you can afford to pay the rent on a timely basis, and that you have no history of being a deadbeat. Consequently, you should have any documents that are standard, in your market ready to be reviewed. You should also be prepared to sign a sublet agreement, and pay a security deposit.
In some instances, the landlord will approve you, but will not have you sign any agreement. Because the original lease is still in effect, the landlord knows they can always sue the original tenant if there is a problem with non-payment of rent, damages, etc. There are also cases, as mentioned before, where the landlord won't require an approval (although rare). Every situation will be different.
When speaking with the current tenant (or landlord) make sure you clarify who is responsible for paying any utilities. Generally you won't be putting utilities in your name for a short sublet, which means the tenant will probably either charge you the exact amount owed each month, or will ask you to pay a set dollar amount above the rent amount.
While often you will be paying the current rent in full to sublet, in some cases the current tenant will only ask that you pay part of the rent. Usually this has to do with the tenants reason for subletting their apartment. If they're, say, traveling on vacation, and just want to have someone in the apartment while they're gone (and to make some money on the side), they know a lower rent will generate more interest. Frequently around colleges and universities, students who are going home for the summer will sublet their apartments, and sometimes will do so at less than the full monthly rent. It really depends on the market at the time.
Be sure to clarify with the tenant what, if any, furnishings, etc. will be left behind. Don't count on having a TV, Blu-ray player, bed, etc. just because you see them in the apartment when you are viewing it. Especially if the tenant is moving.
Beware of scammers--one way to avoid this problem is to actually see the inside of the apartment with the tenant (or landlord). Don't be afraid to ask to see ID, or a business card. While not full-proof, you are less likely to be scammed if you are seeing the actual apartment, not just pictures, or seeing the building from the outside.
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