Sublease: Definition, How It Works, Laws, and Example

What Is a Sublease?

A sublease is the re-renting of property by an existing tenant to a new third party for a portion of the tenant’s existing lease contract. The sublease agreement may also be called a sublet.

Subleasing may or may not be permitted in the terms of the original lease, and may be subject to additional restrictions by jurisdiction. Even if a sublease is permitted, the original tenant is still liable for the obligations stated in the lease agreement, such as the payment of rent each month.

Key Takeaways

  • A sublease is the legal transfer of tenancy from an existing tenant to a third party for a specified period.
  • The owner of the real estate must typically approve any subletting arrangement offered by the first tenant, subject to local laws and regulations.
  • If a tenant decides to sublease, they remain responsible for rent payments and other contractual obligations.

How a Sublease Works

A lease is a contract between a property owner and a tenant that transfers the owner’s rights to the exclusive possession and use of the real estate property to the tenant for an agreed-upon period. The lease states the length of time the contract is to run and the amount of the tenant’s rent. In legal terms, the tenant’s legal right to possess the property is deemed tenancy. Subleasing occurs when the tenant transfers a part of their legal tenancy to a third party as a new tenant.

Subleasing can be established unless the original lease forbids it. However, in most cases, the owner must be notified and must approve any subletting arrangement created by the tenant. Control over the subletting process could be written into the original lease so that the owner has some control over who uses and/or occupies their property.

A tenant who sublets property must understand that subleasing does not release them from their obligations on the original contracted lease. The tenant is responsible for paying rent and for repairs or damage to the property. That means that if a new subtenant does not pay rent for three months, the original tenant that subleased the property is liable to the landlord for the overdue rent amount and any late fees. In turn, the subtenant is liable to the original tenant for the unpaid rent.

Subleasing and State Laws

The laws of many states and local municipalities affect a tenant’s right to sublease. These laws may allow an individual to sublease under certain conditions even if their contract with the landlord forbids it. For example, in New York City, a tenant who lives in a building with four or more units has the right to sublease, as long as the landlord consents—or if they deny the sublet on unreasonable grounds, Any lease provision restricting a tenant’s right to sublease is void as a matter of public policy.

In San Francisco, a tenant can replace a roommate with another, even when prohibited by a written lease, as long as the replacement meets the landlord's application screening standards. For example, a landlord might demand a certain credit score where a tenant is concerned. Subleases can apply to both residential and commercial properties.

When subleasing, it's standard for only the original tenant's name to be on the lease—even if the sublessee pays the landlord directly.

Example of a Sublease

Because a lease is generally for a predefined term, situations can arise that make it difficult or impossible for the original tenant to complete the lease term. For example, if a tenant is renting an apartment in Chicago with a 12-month lease and, during month four, that tenant receives a job offer in Boston, the tenant may decide to sublease the apartment to another tenant for the remaining eight months. The sublease means that the original tenant can accept the job and move and does not have to pay expensive fees to get out of the lease or pay rent on two apartments.

The landlord also benefits because they receive all 12 rent payments and are saved the expense and effort of finding a replacement tenant. The sublease arrangement also means that the original tenant retains an interest in the apartment. Thus, if the original tenant decides to move back to Chicago, they may be able to renew their lease on their old apartment.

Article Sources
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  1. Office of the New York State Attorney General. "Residential Tenants’ Rights Guide," Pages 26-27. Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

  2. City and County of San Francisco Rent Board. "Topic No. 151: Subletting and Replacement of Roommates." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

  3. Apartment List. "What is Subletting? Guide to Sublet Apartments." Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.
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