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Whose house is it: Five tips to take the hassle out of the landlord-tenant relationship.

Depending on which side of the fence you're standing, the words "landlord" or "tenant" can conjure up less-than-pleasant images. But what if you're straddling that fence as both landlord and tenant? It's a much more common occurrence these days as more and more professionals relocate. Uncertainty about a new environment or position are leading many of these professionals to maintain their ties to an old residence. Subleasing or subletting, that is, renting out owned space, has become a preferred method of allowing relocators to have their cake and eat it too.

Sound simple? Subleasing your home or apartment may seem like the easiest way to go. But if you're not careful, your joy can quickly give way to headache and even financial stress.

Take Annie A. Christiani, for example. The former New York City public school teacher looked forward to taking on a better-paying teaching position in southern New Jersey. But the idea of a six-hour daily commute was unacceptable and unrealistic. Instead, she rented an apartment in New Jersey. Uncertain whether she'd like her new job or environs, Christiani decided to sublet her Brooklyn residence.

The apartment was rent-stabilized, which, according to the New York State Division of Housing and Community and Renewal, means a legal limit is placed on the monthly amount that can be charged for rent (which can skyrocket to over $2,000 a month in New York City). For Christiani, subleasing was the best option: She could maintain the old apartment with all the rights and rent limits remaining intact if the move to New Jersey proved unsatisfactory.

After writing a detailed request to have the lease changed over to the subtenant's name, Christiani encountered a less-than-cooperative landlord. "My landlord gave me the runaround and said subleasing wasn't permissible," she recalls. Unable to settle the dispute, she took her landlord to court. The judge ruled in Christiani's favor, stating that individuals 18 years and over could legally sublet their apartment.

TENANT RIGHTS

Christiani could have avoided going to court altogether. Here are five tips for landlords and tenants to help limit complications and create an arrangement that's easy to live with. These suggestions from the Consumer Information Center in Washington, D.C., will help you avoid a legal scenario. * Read the lease carefully. Your lease is a binding contract that details everything you will need to know about your living arrangement. Your signature legally acknowledges that you understand your responsibilities as a tenant. Take your time and ask questions if something is unclear. All revisions should be made in writing and initialed by both you and the landlord. * Make sure the security deposit is just that - a deposit. Fights over security deposits account for a large percentage of the landlord-tenant disputes that end up in court, note legal experts Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner and Janet Portman, co-authors of Every Landlords Legal Guide (Nolo Press: $29.95). Remember, a security deposit is simply protection against unforeseen, potentially costly situations.

Gloria D. Edwards-Hall relocated from Philadelphia to accept a supervisory position at a major regional health care facility in New Jersey, where she rented a condominium to avoid a two-hour daily commute. But a few months later she found out that the condo's owner had not been paying his mortgage. "A lot of the units were being foreclosed upon, including the one I was renting," she says. She was transferred to an adjacent unit, but incurred no extra fees. Why? "My security deposit was still good," Edwards-Hall says.

A security deposit, generally a month to a month-and-a-half's rent, is usually required in advance. Because it covers additional expenses, it can't be used as the last month's rent. To avoid paying for another tenant's damages, inspect the property with the landlord both before moving in and after moving out. Record all damage in writing and/or with photographs. There's no such thing as a "nonrefundable" security deposit. If you fulfill your part of the lease and cause no additional expenses, you're entitled to a full refund after you move. * Keep the lines of Communication open. Maintain a working relationship with the owner/landlord so difficulties and misunderstandings can be worked out. When they can't, consider outside assistance. Check the phone book's government listings for "Housing" or Tenant-Landlord Relations" offices. If absolutely necessary, seek legal counsel.

THE LANDLORD'S DUTY

As a landlord, you should familiarize yourself with the rights of the tenant, as well as your own. Lisa R. Hayes, chief counsel for the Division of Consumer Services with the attorney general's office in Indianapolis, offers these suggestions: * Plainly outline permissible property changes in the lease. "Landlords should have clear provisions in the lease stating whether or not tenants can improve the apartment," says Hayes. The provisions should include things like the use of waterbeds, the addition of pets or other occupants, as well as large-scale projects like renovations, the installation of special security systems and appliances that the tenant might want to upgrade or replace. * Be very explicit about lease termination. "The grounds upon which the lease can be terminated should be made available to the tenant before the lease is signed," says Hayes. The tenant should be aware of all ramifications and penalties to be imposed, including possibly forfeiting the security deposit if the contract is broken before the specified time is up.

The Fair Housing Act legally forbids refusing anyone housing on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin or familial status. If you suspect discrimination, file a report with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
COPYRIGHT 1997 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Clarke, Robyn
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:926
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