Students learn the perils of sublets
Today marks the end of a legal tangle over a property lease for mainland student Zhang Mengtao.
'I am just relieved that it is finally over,' said Zhang, who made the mistake of subletting her rented flat without letting her landlord or agents know - a pitfall into which many mainland students have evidently fallen as they seek to save additional charges for amending leases.
Zhang, 23, from Beijing, gained admission to study at Hong Kong Baptist University in May last year and came to Hong Kong in late July to seek accommodation. She finally found a flat in Tai Wo through a property agency and paid one month's rent as commission and a deposit of two months' rent.
After signing the contract, she went back to Beijing and found two roommates on Gter.Net, a website used by mainland students to exchange information related to university applications, language tests, and finding flats. After they all arrived in Hong Kong, Zhang asked if another girl's name could be added to the tenancy agreement, as she thought 'it would be better for two people to share the responsibility'.
The request was granted.
After nine months of study, Zhang got an internship with a local newspaper in Shau Kei Wan, more than 30 kilometres from where she was then living. So she decided to move, and through the same website she found a girl who would live in her room for the remaining three months of the lease.
She then collected her two months' deposit from the new girl and moved into a new room in North Point, which a previous tenant was also subletting without advising the landlord.
So far so good as far as the girls were concerned. Everything had been settled to their satisfaction. Except that Zhang's name was still on the tenancy agreement of the Tai Wo flat and was not on the tenancy agreement of her new accommodation in North Point.
Not long after Zhang moved out, her previous flatmate who had signed the contract also sublet her room and went back to the mainland. Now neither of the two original lessees lived in the flat, though both their names remained on the agreement.
'I was afraid to let the landlord know,' Zhang said. 'I remembered the contract said that we were not allowed to sublet the house.'
Compounding her precarious situation was that the room in which she was now staying in North Point had also been sublet several times before and the landlord had not been told of these private arrangements.
'I was worried that my name was still on the lease at Tai Wo, but I thought, just a few months to go ... why bother?' Zhang said.
Separately, two other mainland students, Wang Jiangyue and Gao Mengting, graduate students of Hong Kong University, last year approached the estate agency through which they had found accommodation to ask for their lease to be changed, as the former tenant who had signed the contract had moved out to live with her boyfriend.
'The agency staff said they had to draft a new agreement to change the names, and we would have to pay another month's rent,' Wang said.
To avoid paying the extra month's rent on the next accommodation the girls found, they decided not to let the agency know when they moved out.
Two other mainland girls who worked on Hong Kong Island moved into Wang's flat in Shek Tong Tsui and gave two months' rent to Wang, as she had paid the deposit.
'I thought it should be fine as Gao would continue living here, and her name was on the contract, and I had my deposit back. We really did not want to waste our money again,' Wang said.
Another mainland student, Zhao Xiaotan, was not so lucky. She was asked to pay a whole year's rent in advance before moving into a flat in Sha Tin. But when she finished her studies and decided to return to work in Beijing in June this year, her landlord refused her request to sublet her room.
'He said it would be very difficult to manage, as the other roommate still lived in the flat. So I lost HK$8,400 for two months' rent, even though I was not staying in the apartment,' Zhao said.
Angela Lee, consultant at Baker & McKenzie, said all three parties - the original lessees, the sub-lessees, and the landlord - faced risks under such a situation.
The sub-lessee risks being found out and possibly sued for breach of contract, Lee said. The students who sublet the flats could also be sued, as they remained signatories even though they no longer occupied the apartments.
As for the landlord, even though he might not suffer any financial loss since he held a deposit, he did face the risk that a sub-lessee, who is more like an unlawful assignee of the lease, might not keep the premises in good condition.
The moral of the story is that taking short cuts to try to avoid the costs of changing a lease can prove expensive.
The number of mainland students admitted to study in Hong Kong in 2009-10, according to the Immigration Department