Working with a broker to find an apartment in NY: A guide.
May 13, 2013 8:05 AM   Subscribe

A few years ago there was a phenomenal write-up on this site about buying a car and working with skeezy car dealers. I wanted to know if similar advice existed for working with skeezy brokers in NY, specifically Brooklyn.

I posted a few weeks ago about finding a room in a shared apartment in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn (Boerum, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, anywhere nice along the C or 1,2, etc) and got some awesome advice. But I'm thinking if that doesn't happen I might end up having to buckle down and use a broker to find a studio, if any small but livable ones exist for under $1300 (in my last post, I had been told they did).

I'm looking to be smart about working with them though. I imagine I'm of course supposed to avoid signing anything unless it's a contract on the place, and if I find a place I like, to jump on it immediately. I'd also like to avoid being shown places that are straight up out of my price range or flat out not in the neighborhood I asked for. What other tricks do brokers do to waste your time or scam you, and how do you avoid them? Will brokers flat-out not work with you at all if your criteria is too picky/come off as inflexible (like telling them straight up, "look, I'm not even interested in looking at anything east of X st or for more than $1250 so don't even bother). Is it smart to name an asking price lower than what I want to pay and anticipate them showing me higher priced places?

As far as materials that I have on my end: ID, checkbook, offer letter for my new job, and a signed statement from my bank disclosing how much money is in my savings (should be enough to pay many, many, many months of rent in the event of an emergency). I've talked to people about pulling a credit report and they told me that they'll usually do that on their end, I just pay the fee. Correct me if I'm off or if I need anything else.

Sorry, clueless about how a lot of this goes down which means I'm ripe for being ripped off or having my time wasted - I've done a lot of research and read stories about others experiences, but a lot of it is conflicting and wanted to know if there was any input, advice, expectations from all of you.
posted by windbox to Work & Money (4 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Some landlords will want copies of your last three pay checks, a list of references (both personal and professional) and proof of your annual income (usually the first page of your tax return).

Not all landlords are that picky, though.

As for's a seller's market out there. Broker's clients, and so the brokers themselves, will not deal with picky people who say "look, I'm not even interested in looking at anything east of X st or for more than $1250 so don't even bother". There will be a dozen people behind you equally eager to work with the broker, so approaching them that way will not work.
posted by dfriedman at 8:22 AM on May 13, 2013

I've worked with brokers a few times. They always show you stuff out of your price range. It's never laughably outside your price range -- just a a few hundred dollars more, which makes it extra tempting. One thing that has happened often enough that I think of it as a broker's trick, is to be taken to horrible and gross apartments in my price range, and then really nice ones just outside of it -- always in that order, so I get depressed about what I can afford, and the ones I can't seem extra tempting.

Still, I've never heard of anyone actually being scammed by a broker, though you should bear in mind that there are two ways of working with a broker:

1. you go to a firm like Corcoran or CitiHabitats and ask them to take you around and show you stuff. In those cases you have an obligation not to rent an apartment they showed you first from any other broker or directly from the management company.

2. you find a place you like on Craiglist and it's listed by a broker, which means that even though you found it by yourself, you still pay that broker a fee to rent the apartment. Sometimes you'll put in your application with everyone else and if you don't get it, that broker will tell you about other listings he/she has.

In my experience, in the $1300 range, a broker isn't going to be too excited about your commission and you'll be assigned someone relatively junior. It can be worth spending a day seeing apartments with one just to see what's out there, but I went that route three times and only ended up getting an apartment through the brokerage one of those three times.

On the other hand, I ended up renting apartments from brokers several times -- they were just good apartments I found myself on craigslist that I couldn't get any other way.

Though speaking of "other ways" it's probably worth your while to look up the major management companies in your preferred neighborhoods and see what they have to offer. A management company won't charge you a fee, and in my experience often have good apartments, but are extra picky about credit scores and income to rent ratios. Also, because they're usually good apartments with no fees, their open houses can be crazy: 30-40 people lined up to see the apartment, many of them putting in applications, so your competition is liable to be extra stiff.

Last thing to be prepared for -- I don't think I've ever rented an apartment with a personal check. I mean, it won't hurt to bring your checkbook with you, but once you've put in your application and been approved, they'll want a bank cashier's check for first/last/deposit.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 8:51 AM on May 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The below is what I've learned from renting in NYC for the last decade. Some information varies given the rental budget and the particular scenario, but hopefully it's directional. Biggest takeaways are knowing the market and inventory, knowing the motivations of the actors in the scenario, and always negotiating.

Unless you are transacting in the higher echelons (read: apartments worth millions), you probably don't want to just reach out to a broker and agree to have them take you around. Or if you do, you should be careful about signing anything away and also triage the broker tour with several other approaches. A broker tour can be an informative look at the market inventory, sure, but it is not the way to gain the upperhand in the transaction or be in control of your search. Even if you stick within your price range, you'll be shown crap apartments that are meant to transform your opinion of other not-so-great apartments (clever trick similar to reference pricing). You'll also be shown units that have withered on the market for too long. And as already mentioned, the potential fee for the broker is so low in this price range that you'll almost certainly be taken advantage of or underserviced. Neither is great for you.

Avoid open houses. Avoid even more if the unit is empty. For renters at this price range, an open house on an empty unit signals an apartment that is unattractive for whatever reason, feature or price. It has likely languished on the market for multiple weeks (a bad sign for a $1,300 apartment) so the broker has decided to throw open the doors to anyone who enters in hopes they'll snag a renter. Even if the open house is held at the start of the availability period, you'll be competing with 30 other people who traipse through and probably can act faster than you. This is not a way to win. An open house is, however, an easy way to get your feet wet with the process of viewing an apartment in the flesh and shaking hands with a broker. But don't make it your primary search tactic or agree to anything else with the broker while you're at one.

Seek transparency and go upstream. Easiest way to do that? Start your apartment search on Streeteasy. Streeteasy lends transparency to the NYC rental (and sales) real estate market by taking listings out of the hands of brokers and putting them into your hands. You can view available apartment inventory by neighborhood, price, etc with photos. Here are rental units in NYC between $1,000 and $1,250. You should also view unavailable inventory (previously rented) on the site to get an idea of what prices and units are available in the neighborhoods you are interested in. And once you've found a unit, you can often see its historical rental prices. These items are huge ammo for both finding what you want and negotiating a better-than-market price for it once you do. You can also speak directly to building management (try NYBits to find contact info for big buildings) and network with those you know to find out about offmarket apartments that may be coming available. The very best apartments (and consequently those that are best priced) often never come on the market or are on the market less than 48 hours. You want the best chance of finding those units before the competition does, so you have to do significant work to position yourself upstream to get them. It's all about getting as close to the source (the owner of the unit or the person renting it out) as possible.

Be aware of who the broker is working for (you or the landlord) and how that affects your fee. There can be up to two types of brokers in an NYC rental scenario. 1) The listing broker has the exclusive right to rent the property. The listing broker is contracted by the landlord or owner of the apartment. The fee for this contract, however, is more often paid by the renter (not the landlord) in a tight market. The listing broker also markets the apartment to other brokerages / listing services and leverages them to find the tenant. 2) The selling/renting broker acts as your agent in finding you an apartment. They are hired by you and will require a fee from you. Most brokers mask the duality of this 'cobroke' situation with one flat 'broker fee,' which they split 50/50. But if you engage a renting broker who ends up renting you an apartment from a different listing broker, then you'll end up having very little negotiating room on the fee. Why? Because both the listing and renting brokers want to retain as much of their 50% as possible. If you are able to go straight to the listing broker (via a tool like Streeteasy or the luck of finding an apartment through the listing broker in some other way), then you'll have a bit more room in negotiating your fee.

Negotiate the broker fee. Many brokers especially at the lowest rental budgets will have you sign a form upfront that asks you to guarantee 15% annual rent as a broker's fee for any apartment that you view with that broker. Don't sign that. You lose your ability to negotiate the rental once you have actually found the unit you like. Find a way to get around this and view the apartment before determining how much the broker should benefit from your rental. The idea here isn't to scam the broker. The idea is to view what will become a hefty payment of rental months + security + broker's fee as a total package that works for you. Some brokers will be open to negotiation on each of these items and you never know where the leverage points are, so don't give them up. As for the fee, ask for 'one month' or 10% and don't budge until they give you something close to that.

Negotiate everything else. You may think you have no leverage, but you never know until you try. Just keep in mind that you're potentially competing against other applicants who are not negotiating, which might make your offer less attractive. That said, even in a tight market, you may find some space to make the deal more attractive to you. An example of this is guaranteeing stability in exchange for value. You can try signing a 2 or 3 year lease at the current market price (which, as long as prices are going up in the market) locks in a discount for you against a future rent raise. (Rents usually go up each year.) This is usually good for the landlord who then doesn't have to worry about rental income for the next couple years. In loose markets, landlords might give a free month or two (effectively a 13 or 14 month rental contract for the price of 12 months). This lets them keep the unit's list price high (important for their ability to maintain pricing power with the next tenant) while still giving you an effective discount. If you are competing against another applicant, then find a way to make yourself more attractive. Don't have a pet and the other applicant does? Make some noise about that. Either way, put yourself in the shoes of the landlord and broker to figure out what might work for all of you.

Have all your documents ready and on your person as you view apartments. Here's a list of documents that you need. The broker or landlord will perform the credit check, but you may be asked to pay an application fee ($50 to $200ish) that covers this.

Start your search 6 weeks before your desired move-in date. You'll spend the 1st week orienting yourself. During the 2nd week, the choice apartments will come on the market. And thereafter a wave of apartments with diminishing desirability will become available and rent quickly. There are always exceptions, but generally the best inventory is listed the last week of the prior month. The worst inventory is rented the week before move-in or the following month. If a unit is vacant, then others have been through and already turned it down. Don't miss that initial window when the best units come on the market.

Use your gut. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If the broker makes you queasy, they're probably skeezy. Some of this will be unavoidable as the industry is a competitive one and some discomfort is necessary to succeed at it, but trust your instinct.

Lastly, get it in writing and make copies. This applies to each and every paper you sign for your rental from the application fee to the checks to the lease. A year later when your landlord disappears or your security is never returned, you'll be glad you did.
posted by superfem at 2:29 PM on May 13, 2013 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Superfem - Amazing. Thanks so much.
posted by windbox at 3:23 PM on May 13, 2013

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