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YOUR APARTMENT

Subletting: Sometimes a Great Notion, Other Times a Risk

November 15, 1998|LETA HERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A chance-of-a-lifetime trip to Australia. An opportunity to open an Asian office for your company. An obligation to care for a sick relative in another state.

These are just some of the reasons you might need to leave your apartment for a few months.

What if you can't afford the rent while you are gone? You could move out and put your belongings in storage, or you could sublet your apartment.

Subletting is the legal term for renting a portion or your entire apartment to someone who is not named on your rental agreement or lease.

You don't have to leave home to sublet your apartment. Roommates are often subtenants. When one roommate is named on the lease and the other isn't, the first tenant is called the master tenant or sublessor, and the second person is the subtenant or sublessee.

Subletting can help tenants hang onto their apartments during difficult times.

Adding a roommate, for example, can make your apartment affordable if your rent goes up. And if you're leaving town for a few months, you can sublet your apartment instead of giving it up.

Subletting has its drawbacks, however, such as irresponsible subtenants who don't pay their telephone bills, or worse, subtenants who refuse to leave when you try to reclaim your apartment.

For this reason, subletting should be approached with caution. Here are some suggestions for dealing with landlords and protecting yourself if you want to sublet.

Many landlords don't like subletting because they want to know who is living in the apartment, especially when something goes wrong.

Before you approach your landlord, read your rental agreement or lease. If it doesn't prohibit subleasing, then you can sublet.

Some leases prohibit subletting entirely. But in some states, including Florida and New York, a landlord can't legally reject a reasonable request to sublet. If your landlord denies your request to sublet, check with a local tenant organization to see if the rejection is legal.

Many leases have a clause that allows subletting with the landlord's approval of the subtenant according to standard applicant criteria, such as good credit, strong references and sufficient income.

The best way to get your landlord's approval is to write a letter proposing a candidate whose references you've already checked.

If you're planning to add a roommate, you will probably need your landlord's approval, even if it's a family member.

And if a family member visits longer than the lease permits guests to stay (usually 14 consecutive days), he or she becomes a subtenant, which means the landlord can charge extra rent for having another occupant in the apartment, as long as that is allowable under local rent control ordinances.

A landlord may even evict you if your lease prohibits adding additional occupants without approval.

How do you find a subtenant you can trust, especially if you've already ruled out all of your friends?

First, approach the process with the same caution a landlord would use. Check the subtenant's credentials: identification, former landlord and roommate references and credit history.

Your landlord may also require or offer to do a formal credit check on the candidate.

Interview the candidates in person to see whether you will feel comfortable with them in your home.

As a master tenant, you will take on new responsibilities, including collecting rent each month, paying bills and making sure the person knows whom to call in an emergency or if something breaks.

To protect yourself, you need to document your new relationship with the subtenant. A rental agreement or lease may seem very formal, especially between friends, but even friends need to know what's expected of them.

Also, you want to make sure the new person understands your landlord's rules, such as guest limitations.

Consider including the following in your agreement:

* Type of agreement (month-to-month or fixed-term lease) and dates. Renters with month-to-month agreements can't sublet for more than a month at a time.

* Address of the apartment and number of people subletting.

* Rent amount, date rent is due, name of recipient of rent (you or the landlord).

* Amount of the security deposit and when it will be returned.

* Subtenant's responsibilities (such as reimbursement for destruction of any property).

* Rules the subtenant is expected to follow. Specify that the subtenant must adhere to rules of original lease and attach a copy of that document.

You should also collect a security deposit in case the subtenant damages the apartment. However, some towns require you to put deposits in separate accounts and pay annual interest to tenants.

Take inventory before you leave to ensure the safety of your belongings. A video or photographs will come in handy if something is missing or damaged when you return and you end up taking the person to Small Claims Court.

You should also change the name on your utility bills. Most utility companies will allow a free change of the billing name for a month or more.

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