In a sublet housing arrangement, a renter essentially becomes a landlord by renting their home, or part of it, to another person. If you're called away for, say, a six-month assignment in Paris, Rio or Kansas City, subletting your apartment allows you to keep paying your rent so you have a home to come back to and don't have to break your lease. Similarly, once you get to Paris, Rio or Kansas City, maybe you can find someone to sublet to you, so you don't have to sign a yearlong lease or furnish an entire apartment.
How Subletting Works
Subletting a room, apartment or house is a lot like renting it. The key difference is that the subtenant is not renting from the owner of the property. The owner has already rented it to someone, and that person is in turn renting the space to the subtenant. The lease is the agreement between the owner and that first tenant -- often called the primary tenant, master tenant or original tenant. The sublease is the agreement between the primary tenant and the subtenant. A sublease can apply to the whole unit or just a portion of it. If you're living with a roommate and that person's name is the only one on the lease, then you may be a subtenant under your local laws.
To put it mildly, subletting laws are inconsistent across the country. In New York state, for example, the law says that owners of buildings with four or more units cannot unreasonably refuse a tenant's request to sublet an apartment. In Nebraska, the law gives tenants the right to sublet unless the lease specifically prohibits it. Some other states say it's entirely up to the landlord. Most states don't even have address sublets, but local governments within those states may. Before entering into a sublet agreement -- as either the primary tenant or subtenant -- it's best to read the lease carefully and research your state and local laws on the issue.
For primary tenants, taking on a subtenant can make it possible to hold onto a desirable unit when they need to leave town for an extended period and can't afford to pay rent on an empty apartment. Typical examples include a college student going home for the summer or an employee leaving to a yearlong assignment abroad. Even if the tenant isn't going anywhere, subletting a room can help pay the bills. For landlords, allowing a sublet can ensure that a unit remains occupied -- and therefore that the rent checks keep coming. It's also a way to hold onto good, conscientious tenants for the long term. For subtenants, the advantage is a place to stay, perhaps even a furnished, ready-to-occupy place to stay, without the long-term obligation of a lease.
Subletting an apartment carries risks for everyone involved, but especially for the primary tenant. First of all, there's someone -- possibly a stranger -- living in a property for which the primary tenant still bears legal responsibility. If they break something or burn the place down, that may be on the original tenant. Also, if the subtenant doesn't pay the rent as required, that obligation passes to the primary tenant. If the primary tenant is out of town and unavailable, which is often the case with a sublease, it isn't going to be easy to try to compel the subtenant to pay. Finally, when a tenant sublets a unit, he becomes a landlord, which means he is subject to the same kinds of privacy and anti-discrimination laws that apply to the "real" landlord. For property owners, there's the risk that the subtenant, whom the owner may not have checked out the same way he did the primary tenant, will fail to pay the rent or will otherwise violate the terms of the lease, and the primary tenant will be unreachable. Subtenants themselves are vulnerable if it turns out their sublease violates the original lease, or if they are paying rent directly to the primary tenant and the money never makes it to the landlord.