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How Do You Handle a Problem Subletter?

If you’ve already subletted your place, hopefully everything is going smoothly.  But what if you get a call from the landlord, saying neighbors are complaining about your subletter? 

It may come as a surprise to you, but that subletter isn’t your landlord’s responsibility – he’s yours.  So what do you do? Renters are often surprised to discover the subletter is their problem, not the landlords. 

As Mitch Colstad of Steve Brown Apartments notes, “If there is an issue with a subletter – a noise complaint, reports of illegal activity – we go straight to the renter with the issue.  That’s the person who’s name is on the lease, and that’s who we legally have to deal with.”

Subletter issues are very infrequent, so don’t get panicked if you’re planning to rent out your space.  In fact, it’s something Colstand highly recommends. “People tell me they’re not subletting because they’re worried about the problems that could happen,” said Mitch Colstad, Property Manager for Lucky Apartments at Steve Brown Apartments. “But they’re far better off subletting than letting the apartment sit empty.”

Nevertheless, there are cases where a subletting experience goes awry.  Here are some of Colstad’s examples of subletters from hell:

The Drug-Dealers.  A group of four people subletted their apartment to four other people. The four subletters didn’t know each other prior to the move-in (sounds like a reality show scenario), and unfortunately, two of the subletters proceeded to deal drugs out their apartment.  The renters had to tell the new subletters to leave, which undoubtedly wasn’t a fun way to spend an afternoon.

The Ransacked Storage Space.  A group of girls rented out a four-bedroom apartment to three subletters.  As there were only three subletters, the renters used the fourth vacant bedroom as a storage space for their stuff over the summer.  When they returned in the fall, the subletters were gone, and the storage room had been ransacked.

The Unplugged Refrigerators.  These subletters from hell decided to move out early, and they unplugged the apartment’s two refrigerators in an effort to lower their electric bill.  They had neglected to clean out the refrigerator, and the subsequent stench was so bad (the smell had actually seeped into the plastic) that the property owner had to buy new refrigerators.  Because the subletters are the renter’s responsibility, the renter had to pick up the tab for the refrigerators.

The moral to these horror stories is not to avoid subletting.  It’s to do it correctly from the start.  In each of these cases, the renters might have been able to avoid problems if they’d done some more thorough checks on the renters. 

Colstad offers up these tips:

1. Meet your subletter up front, and check them out thoroughly.  It’s not unreasonable to ask to see a person’s credit report and to check their references.  The more responsible person you get, the less likely you’ll have to deal with issues down the road.

2. Ask for first month’s rent up front.  It’s wise to get any types of payment upfront.  Colstad said that you want to avoid the situation where you’re collecting at the end of the month.  It’s all too easy for a subletter to skip out and stick you with the last month’s rent.

3. Get as many contact numbers as possible.  If a situation arises and you’re receiving noise complaints, or someone is reporting illegal activity, you want to be able to contact your subletter ASAP.  If you only have one source of contact, it might be hard to track them down.

4. Check with your landlord before renting.  A landlord wants to keep the property in great shape, and they don’t want to deal with any kind of issues in their apartments, even if you are ultimately responsible for your subletters.  Use your landlord as a resource and advisor on how to sublet.  Talk to your landlord upfront, and share your plans to sublet.  They will likely provide you with the tools you need to sublet right, including a sublet agreement.

5. Go through apartment and co-sign a check-in form.  To avoid any contention regarding damages, do an initial inspection with your subletter together.  View the entire apartment together and use the same check-in sheet from when moved into the apartment.  Document and damages on the sheet and on video too.  Then sign the check-in sheet together.  By documenting the condition of the apartment upfront, you’re protected in the event a dispute take you to small claims court.

6. Get a security deposit of at least a half month’s rent.  Getting a security deposit upfront gives you leverage in case the relationship deteriorates.  Ask for half a month’s rent deposit and make sure to return it if there are no problems. Make no mistake, subletting helps you avoid burning away 2-3 months rent on a vacant apartment. 

The key to making it work is to treat the apartment as if you owned it.  You are ultimately the one responsible for any damages, so it’s up to you to do the upfront screening to find the right renter.

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