How do I pick the right tenants to sublet (or swap for) my apartment, and how do I help them feel at home?
February 1, 2007 4:05 PM   Subscribe

Have you done a short-term sublet (or housing swap)? If you were the renter: how did you evaluate applicants, and how did you help your subletter feel at home? If you were the subletter: what worked, and what do you wish the renter had done for you or told you? I'll be subletting my apartment in NYC but I'd love to hear from people in all areas & situations.

I'll be allowed to sublet my rent-stabilized apt if I give advance written notice. I will ask to make sure, but I assume the same rule would apply if I did a housing swap (where two people in different cities trade apts, with no exchange of money).

I'll give details here but will divide them into three parts (in case there's only one part you care about).

I'm not worried about finding enough applicants (since my rent is low both in absolute terms and relative to location/niceness), but I don't know how to evaluate these applicants. Other mefi threads emphasize checking references -- but "references" are almost as easy to fake as self-decriptions are (as a seven-year New Yorker, I've seen my share of people lying in all kinds of contexts, especially real estate). I don't care about financial references since I will ask for the rent up front, but I really care about find people I can count on to do what I'm asking (keep the place clean, water my plants, never smoke inside).

I plan to
- orient each subletter in person on the first day;
- leave welcome stuff (some food & toiletries, a Metrocard & subway map, and my general NYC maps & books);
- put together a good neighborhood guide & map (all the local food/services/etc.);
- leave a page of apt stuff (landlord contacts, plant watering instructions, etc.); and of course,
- leave everything clean & leave space free for their stuff.

What else would a subletter appreciate? Also, I think I should allow couples to apply as well as single people -- are there advantages or disadvantages of subletting to couples, or swapping (:)) with couples?

I'm planning to do a few short sublet blocks (ranging from 2 to 8 weeks -- maybe 3.5 months total) over the course of each year. So I think in each case, I should ask for all rent up front (payable on the arrival day), plus a small security/damage deposit (payable in advance to ensure against flaking?) which I'll refund in cash when we meet at my place on the departure day. On my end, I'll pay these months in advance to my landlord, and I'll make a big advance payment to the utility company.

I pay for electricity & cooking gas, so I guess I should estimate a fair-but-safe max usage and include that in one "all utilities paid" rent amount? If I end up getting broadband at home (still undecided since there are so many free-wifi places around), I'll just include its cost in the amount. I have a white iBook I can leave for the subletter to use in the apt & take out to free-wifi places (so if a subletter wanted to use it, I'd make a fresh user account for them and I'd make their security/damage deposit include the iBook's current value).

I also need to figure out some way to ensure people won't flake with little or no notice. And if the only real anti-flaking insurance is an advance deposit, then I need to figure out how an out-of-town person can trust *me* enough for that (since of course I could be totally faking my apt pics & info, to collect "deposits"). If they're able, would it help for them to video chat with me while I'm in the apt, so I can show them stuff live & answer their questions?

Thanks for your thoughts on any of this!
posted by allterrainbrain to Human Relations (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One way around the references thing is to only rent to (or from) people you have a personal, even if tenuous, connection to, such that someone you know can vouch for them. Coworker of friend's girlfriend's friend is close enough. This goes both ways --- if the person is out of town, do they know any local person who could drop by and make sure the place is as you claim it is? It's hard to substitute for personal contact and human networks. That said, I've subletted a bunch of times, and never had things not work well, and I've never done what I've just suggested you do. Mostly people are ok, especially if you go for "good people," however you personally define that --- if they share your values, at least a bit, there is a better chance that they will treat your apartment sort of like you treat it.

About the apartment: I suggest providing fast internet, whether WIFI or with an ethernet cable; it's just pretty much normal nowadays, and going down the block to use the hotspot at the cafe gets old in the rain.

As someone who sometimes sublets, I really appreciate it when people put away into storage all their special breakables that I'm not supposed to touch. I appreciate being able to open a cupboard and know that any dish I see can be used. Having to remember a long list of, "you can use the blue dishes, but not the red cups, except that the red cups with blue handles are ok if you really need them, except these three over here..." gets real old. Also cds, dvds, books: if they are ok to use, leave them out (and tell the tenant); if they are not ok, put them in a box in a closet.

A list of phone numbers taped to the wall telling who to call if the toilet floods in the night is nice.
posted by Forktine at 4:26 PM on February 1, 2007

I subletted an apartment for a summer.

I wish the tenant hadn't:
left dirty underwear under the bed
left piles of hair under the bed

I wish the tenant had:
cleaned at least a little bit before I moved in, so I wasn't scared to take my shoes off
Left me the mailbox key so I didn't have to slash up my hand trying to reach into the metal box to pull things out (and eventually have to call his girlfriend, who did have a key)

Good things:
He and his girlfriend were both really nice people
They had to leave her car in my care because they were going away for the weekend, and let me use it to make an Ikea run
They let me stay an extra few days at the end because my new apartment wasn't ready to move in to yet (he stayed at her place)

Overall I don't think of it as a particularly enjoyable experience, but it served its purpose.

We drew up a little contract and printed it out so we both knew the terms and had something to go on if something went wrong. For rent, I don't think I know how much he paid, so I don't know how much of my rent was for utilities, but overall it was a reasonable price. I think this kind of arrangement involves a level of trust which you need to intuit; there will be risk involved no matter what. Trust your instincts.

Personally, I wouldn't leave or loan out a laptop though. Too easily stolen/broken/lost etc.
posted by loiseau at 4:28 PM on February 1, 2007

One important thing: cleaning. You want to leave the place clean for them, and you want them to return it clean. The absolute easiest way, and that avoids confusion over expectations, is for you to have professionals clean the place before the subletter moves in, and then either you or the subletter pays to have the professionals come back at the end of the sublet. Failing that, you'll need to think about how you will handle coming home and finding a pigsty...
posted by Forktine at 4:33 PM on February 1, 2007

Oh, and like Forktine says, put away stuff you don't want touched, in a box in a closet is fine.
posted by loiseau at 4:39 PM on February 1, 2007

Response by poster:
Thanks so much for the great responses so far! Please keep it coming!

- I'll definitely leave the place clean but it's really good to hear people talk about options like cleaning services & clarity/communication on this issue.
- If the person wanted to use the iBook, I would include the iBook's current value in the security deposit (so they would be agreeing that if anything happened to it, the cost would come out of the deposit).
- I'm leaning towards no home broadband because that would really be for the subletters only (since I'm already paying for broadband-tethering with my cell phone). My place is below-market enough (and I'm not doing the markups that often happen in this situation) that I think I can find people who would be excited about it with or without broadband.
posted by allterrainbrain at 4:53 PM on February 1, 2007

Best answer: On the issue of couples, a few points which I bet you know but I will throw out here.

First, couples need space. They may have experienced places in the past that said they would fit a couple but didn't turn out to really give any personal space for two individuals, so make it clear for them how your place works for two people (floor plan?).

Second, it is probably safer overall to have a couple (since a single subletter might bring home the occasional random stranger to sleep with, whereas a couple MIGHT do that but it would be much less likely -- meaning with a couple, most likely there would be fewer strangers coming into your home).

Third, couples help each other solve problems -- meaning maybe fewer emails/calls to you asking about random apt. issues that one person couldn't figure out on their own but a couple could.
posted by lorimer at 6:55 PM on February 1, 2007

Best answer: While sublet-searching I met one guy who told me the following: "I've been doing this for so long that after talking to you for five minutes and looking you right in the eye, I can tell if it's going to work or not". This is one of those things where you have to make a snap-judgement of human character.

You might ask them if they have subletted before, or ever had a problem with landlords or neighbors or anything in the past. Pay attention not only to what they say but how they say it. You may have some potential tenants come through that give you a bad feeling. Listen to your gut - you are probably perceiving something subtle about the person. Don't feel bad about turning these people away - you are putting them in a position where they could majorly screw things up for you so make sure you trust them.

I second the idea of personal connections but for these short sublets you're not likely to find many takers. Anonymous folks via craigslist are probably your best bet.

I arranged a remote sublet once and I had to send the deposit before I arrived. I felt very nervous since I knew it was a risk. I talked to the guy on the phone and he sounded on the level - i.e. more or less normal - and what I eventually decided to do was ask him to write up a quick sublet agreement (active upon his receipt of my deposit), sign it, and fax it to me. He was more than happy to do that. Once I received it I sent him the money. I felt much much better having something in writing, and even though I was really no safer from a scam, it did increase my confidence in him.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:08 AM on February 2, 2007

Best answer: We've subletted three times, all our subletters were connected to us in some way, so that it wouldn't be possible for them to totally screw us without feeling very serious repercussions... therefore there was no big formal thing about the money, and there was never any problem with that.

Two of our experiences were excellent; a single guy we rented to for three months while we were out of the country left the place spotless, everything in perfect order. The following two subletters were both parts of film crews that were working in our city while we were out of the country (our connection was the production company, which was actually paying the rent): two guys, who left the apartment in great shape, and two girls at another time, who left it such a horrible mess that after 36 hours on planes, trains, and automobiles we couldn't do a thing until we spent hours cleaning up our place. Ugh.

So, my advice? Rent to guys. :) Okay... not really, but I would ask for a cleaning deposit now, I think, with the understanding that they will leave it as they found it, or lose that deposit. Something fairly serious, so if they leave it a mess, they lose a lot, and I have enough to get it professionally cleaned, with money left over for the psychic pain. With our last two groups of renters, we knew if something were broken and had to be replaced that the production company was good for it, but we didn't expect the huge mess the last time, didn't plan for dealing with that possibility, and never asked for or got compensation for that misery.

Every apartment has it's little quirks, so I've always left a note detailing things like how you need to pull the door towards you while unlocking it, what to do if the fridge starts icing over, etc. I also leave instructions about where to find things that may not be obvious (vacuum cleaner under the bed? extra blankets in that weird little crawl spacy thingy over the bathroom?), as well as info about the trash location and schedule and parking regulations on our block. Walk into each room and imagine the normal things you do there. Taking a shower? Is there some trick about how to get the water the right temperature? Or anything strange someone needs to know? Write it down for them.

I really don't care that much if people don't put things back in their exact places... it can be difficult to remember where you grabbed little items like cheese graters or dust pans, and I let them know this, so if they are the conscientious type they won't agonize about trying to remember every last detail of where things go.

I leave notes about places in the neighborhood that are especially convenient - if there's a place that stays open extra late, or a place that makes great sandwiches, pizza, etc., as well as the unexpectedly inconvenient - that lovely little corner shop where you can find anything? Don't plan to get your eggs and newspaper there Sunday morning - they won't be open. If you don't have laundry facilities leave info about where you do yours or have yours done. I leave contact numbers for local friends to call if there is any problem or emergency - house-related or subletter-related; you can also program your phone with quick-call numbers for these people: "emergency contact Jane"; "emergency contact Tom", etc. We don't have valuable knickknacks, so no problem there, but if you do, definitely put them away.

I've left wine and flowers for my subletters, and some food in the fridge so they don't have to go shop the very first thing if they don't want to (and because I secretly hope they'll do the same when they leave - which they usually do. Not those girls, though. No. No. No.). You could also leave a city map, with your location circled and the name and number of a friend with a second set of keys. If you have a friendly neighbor, make sure they have his/her contact info as well.

Couples? I would think couples would be better than a single person for the reasons lorimer mentioned, plus a single person may be either tidy or messy, but couples usually have it worked out between them how to deal with cleaning chores, so it's less likely that this will be an issue. However, the way some people have it worked out is that they use a cleaning person - so you may want to leave the number of a trusted professional cleaning person or service in case they want to do that.
posted by taz at 3:40 AM on February 5, 2007

Ah! Taxis! It's always good to know which companies are best or any related info about that.
posted by taz at 3:44 AM on February 5, 2007

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