Michael Licker says that back in Boston, where he's from, people do it all the time: They make arrangements to sublease an apartment directly from the tenant. That's what he and his buddy did in late May, when they inked a deal to sublet an apartment in Madison, where they have a summer law school internship.
They found their downtown Madison apartment on Craigslist, an online classified service sometimes used by con artists and crooks.
"We had a friend check it out," says Licker. "We made an initial payment of the security deposit and one month's rent. When we moved here in early June, we paid for the second and third months' rent."
But they paid the person who placed the ad and sublet the apartment, not the landlord. Then, after they had lived in the apartment for about a month, they got an eviction notice. The person they paid hadn't paid his rent in several months.
Licker says when the eviction case came to court, he showed up. So did another person who had given money to this subletter for the same apartment. The subletter who took their money did not appear.
The landlord agreed to let Licker and his roommate stay, and absorbed some of the loss. But he and his roommate each lost about $1,400; they reported the matter to police but are not optimistic.
"We made a huge mistake by not talking to the landlord and instead paying the subletter directly," says Licker, adding that the man has a history of similar shenanigans, leading to evictions and repossessions. "He scammed a couple of law students, so he's good at what he does."
Licker wants other renters to beware. So does the Madison Tenant Resource Center.
"We do encourage people to pay their money directly to the landlord," says Brenda Konkel, the group's executive director. She says problems of the sort Licker experienced and not common, but do occur from time to time.
Of course, the sublet season is nearing an end, and the new rental season about to begin. Konkel says the most important thing for new renters is to do a thorough check-in. "Anything you check [as an existing problem], you can't be charged for," she says. "A lot of people write down 'Okay, okay, okay,' and end up getting charged for those things."
She adds that people leaving apartments may want to ask to be present when the check-out is done. That way, they can offer explanations and agree to cleaning and fixes, when possible.