Rental Dementia: Sublets: Legal or Otherwise

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The A train was killing me, and I was spending most nights at my girlfriendís place anyway. My rent was dirt cheap, and the neighborhood was great, but after six good years in Washington Heights, I was ready for a change. I knew people in Jersey with a shorter commute and better restaurants. If peace and stability were my only goals in life, I would have opted for the backyard and the den in East Orange and still could have made work in less time. After a few short months into a real estate career with little more than a vague idea of how exactly it worked, I decided to sublet my apartment. It didnít seem that complicated at the time.

Certain leases allow for subletting, in almost every other case a legal sublet is one in which the landlord has given written permission to sublet the apartment for an agreed upon and pre-determined period of time. Any profitable gain by the sublet is then shared between the original tenant and the landlord. An illegal sublet is one in which, say the tenant on the lease decides he wants to try Brooklyn for awhile and also realizes he can make an extra $400 a month as long as his landlord and super never catch on, as well as similar scenarios where the landlord is intentionally left out of the equation. Letís just say my approach to subletting was a lot more in line with the second example.

Why I would risk my rent-stabilized apartment for a lousy $400 a month is a legitimate question. The answer though is both epic and steeped in history: love and money, which in this case was a lousy $400 a month. With the extra money I could live in a smaller space in a much better neighborhood, as I honestly didnít need a huge one-bedroom. The neighborhood I chose, not at all randomly and somewhat pathetically, also happened to be where my girlfriend lived. Although it feels a little sappy to admit that now, at the time it seemed like the rational thing to do. Love and money have driven people a lot further.

But there was something else at work as well. Never before had it occurred to me to use my apartment as a source of extra income. I had already built a wall out of sheet rock and 2 X 4s (without permission) to accommodate a roommate and cut my rent in half, but hasnít everyone? This was different. I moved out while still on the lease and drew up an entirely new lease, this time in my favor. When I look back now, I think it was my new experiences as a real estate agent that made the risk seem less consequential and the reward well worth it. When you rent apartments for a living, your own space takes on new significance. Itís not only home any longer, itís also an opportunity. Real estate can twist you that way.

I am not proposing the start of a victimless crime wave, or recommending illegally subletting your apartment. Iím only asking the question: In a city with such a tight vacancy rate where big landlords own hundreds of buildings and are basically free to raise rents at their own discretion, where furnished apartments are ridiculously overpriced and tougher to find, and where underpaid supers will gladly accept an extra hundred bucks a month, why not make a little bread from home if you can?

One of my current neighbors wonít leave town for a week without renting his space. Heís had two different people sublet it already this year. I know of another woman who rents out her East 30s one-bedroom on weekends. She has it down to a science and runs it like a half-assed bed and breakfast. Pop a picture on Craiglist, get the cash upfront and buy an extra set of sheets. Itís that easy.

My own experience in the not-entirely-legal or above-board business of subletting proved more difficult than I expected. Keeping the neighbors cool, the super quiet and the landlord in the dark was consuming and eating away at my nerves. It wasnít a month into our arrangement when my new tenant moved her boyfriend in. Every time my tenants rang the superís bell, I got another call asking exactly how long my ďcousinsĒ would be staying. As she was a redhead and he was from Latin America, Iím pretty sure no one bought the extended family story.

Two months later they found a better spot around the corner where they were actually allowed to interact with the neighbors. In total disregard for the lease I had created, they simply called and said they were moving out. I had already spent their security deposit and had to come up with $1,800 bucks a lot quicker than I would have liked. Being a landlord isnít as easy at looks, especially when you donít actually own the property.

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