Step-by-step apartment hunting in NYC
May 2, 2007 4:08 PM   Subscribe

TOTALLY clueless here. Can someone give me step-by-step directions for getting a good deal on an apartment in New York City (preferably with a timetable of when each step should be accomplished relative to "move in day")?

I'll try and keep this short. Moving to NYC late summer/fall, need to get an apartment. Would prefer instructions that apply to all boroughs, though I'll likely be working in either Brooklyn or the Bronx. I'll give up living in Manhattan if it means I get a room bigger than a closet for the same price or less.

I know what I'm asking for is difficult, but I really need help. Thanks.
posted by liberalintellect to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
if you have time to apartment hunt over the summer, do it. otherwise, get a sublet and use the time to find a neighborhood that suits you. you really shouldn't commit to anything without seeing it in person.

i moved twice and it took me about a month of solid looking before i found something i was happy with.

be prepared to take something you like the moment you see it. make sure to have enough cash in your account to cover a minimum of 4x the rent (first/last/security/broker). it helps to know your credit score going in. if you don't already have a job, have someone who will agree to be a guarantor, and have their financial info. bring your last two years' income tax returns (yes, really).

yes, you may pay a broker's fee, even if all you did was answer their ad. it's usually one month's rent.

remember to check to see if there are bars on the windows. if so, you might not be able to fit an air conditioner in.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:19 PM on May 2, 2007

sorry, meant to say: you shouldn't commit to anything long-term without seeing it first. (i.e. get a sublet for 1-3 months...some length of time you can endure even if you hate it)
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:20 PM on May 2, 2007

oh, and if the broker asks for money in exchange for just seeing the apartment and/or buying a list of "exclusive" properties for rent, don't do it. scam.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:21 PM on May 2, 2007

i did the craigslist thing when i lived in new york and looking back at the whole situation, it was a fucking miracle i found the place i did in manhattan.

craigslist is a challenge in new york. the apartment section reloads in chunks, and usually if you're not calling withing 20-30 minutes of a listing, the person has already been bombarded with calls and emails, and you're shit out of luck.

worse off, things are so different neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street. the best thing really to do is canvas a neighborhood by foot.

i'd go with a broker for your own sanity, but due to the volatile rental market, and the more lucrative buying market, these people will have a limited selection and you may get the feeling of being treated like a low priority. and they generally specialize by neighborhood, not price range.

if you have any friends in new york, hit them up for help and information. maybe they know somebody who is leaving. other than that, i second moving early and being persistent.
posted by phaedon at 4:32 PM on May 2, 2007

There are some good books on Amazon about moving to NYC. Newcomer's Handbook for Moving to and Living in New York City (Newcomer's Handbooks) by Jack Finnegan is pretty good.

On the web, I'd start here: (read the whole thing as this is a site by the city government)
Find an apartment in New York City [CUNY guide, pdf]

In short:
1. Decide how much you want to spend.
2. Decide where you want to live.
3. Decide if you require a guarantor or roommates to fulfill #1 and #2. You may have to revisit #1 and #2 several times.
4. Decide what qualities are most important to you in an apartment, and what you're willing to compromise on.
5. Prepare paperwork. Make sure you have lots of money in your local bank account. Be prepared to jump when they say jump, but keep your skeptic's hat on. Realize that brokers can be scum or a necessary evil. And realize that leases start on the 1st and 15th of the month, so looking too far in advance won't work.
6. Tell everyone you know that you're looking for a place. Look for apartments everywhere--the Village Voice, New York Times, Craigslist, by talking to doormen, writing down numbers of buildings that you pass, in the windows of realty agencies.
7. Realize that it's stressful for everyone, but if you're prepared and realistic about your prospects, you will fare much better.
posted by kathryn at 4:56 PM on May 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Know that the brokers who aren't trying to outright scam you are still lying scumbags. Consider: they're the type of people who think they deserve $x,000 for putting up a Craigslist ad and meeting with you for a few hours. Without doing a sublet thing, you wouldn't even get to meet with them for a few hours. Remember: the broker is lying. The apartment he advertised on Craigslist maybe doesn't even exist. Bait and switch. The credit check costs them pennies, but you'll pay him quite a bit, and so on. Seriously, if you deal with a broker, distrust anything they say.

I really think you may want to get a month's sublet. You can do so much more by hitting the pavement.

There's two big owners I know of that are big on easy no-fee rentals. The first is Jakobsen (something like that) who own a bunch of old buildings and make a big deal out of being easy to rent. Like you can just show up during a specified time period, no appointment, at a building with vacant apartments and the superintendent will show them to you and start getting you applied if you want. However, all the apartments I've seen from them were shitty. The other is Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village. These are nice apartments in a housing project for World War II vets. Maybe a bit expensive for a one-person apartment, although their 3-5 bedrooms seem to be good deals. Depending where you work in Brooklyn this might be a place to check out. The downside is that architecturally, it's a tower-block housing project. It's completely not a housing project in the sense of crime or poverty.

Other than those, it's either a broker or making deals for yourself. Walk around, look for "for rent" signs. In any building, the manager/landlord's contact info have to be posted in the entrance area. Once a newbie broker posted the building address on Craigslist. (Usually they meet you at a nearby corner, make you sign yourself over to them, and only then lead you to the apartment. That signature is the only way they get you to pay, because they're not doing a job you couldn't do by yourself in two hours.) My friend and I walked to the address, looked in through the window at the phone number, called them up, and started dealing.

Also depending on where you work in Brooklyn, an apartment near work might be as expensive as a Manhattan apartment. (First few Brooklyn stops on the L.)
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:28 PM on May 2, 2007

Shouldn't one check for bedbugs or is that a little overblown?
posted by rolypolyman at 5:32 PM on May 2, 2007

I also suggest finding a short term sublet to give yourself time to look. It's really difficult to find something remotely, especially if you are looking for a deal. I was clueless, and had only a two week sublet, but by dumb luck I found an incredible share without a broker. I was able to get my own apartment in the same building a year later.

And like phaedon recommends, walking the streets in areas you are interested in is the best way to find out where you want to be. And you may also see signs on buildings, bus shelters, etc for rentals. Also, don't be afraid to talk to superintendents of buildings, they'll often know whats available, and how to contact the owners.

Upper Manhattan is still affordable, has beautiful prewar buildings, and neighborhoods that are safe. Check Inwood, and "Hudson Heights" section of Washington Heights if you end up working in Manhattan or the Bronx.
posted by kimdog at 5:33 PM on May 2, 2007

Cannot stress enough the importance of setting up a local bank account here, before you begin looking. If you set up a new account, you may have funds on hold for a full week or two until you're clear to draw out cash or a cashier's check.

nthing the short-term sublet, even if it's a little pricier than you'd normally pay.
posted by mochapickle at 5:40 PM on May 2, 2007

8 weeks prior to move in: know what neighborhood you intend to live in, what size apartment you plan to live in, and the range of prices to expect for that price apartment in that neighborhood.

5-7 weeks before move-in date, obtain a Thursday paper copy of the NYT. Browse the apartments unfurnished classifieds that Thursday. Call and leave messages that you'd like to see the candidate apartments ideally on Friday or Saturday. Ignore brokers. Then go see the apartments you picked, and when you see an acceptable apartment, be prepared to write a check for the deposit and first month's rent immediately.

This will work, but it won't get you Nora Ephron's $2000/mo 7-roomer in the Apthorp. It will get you into an apartment going for market price without paying a ridiculous fee.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:43 PM on May 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Know that the brokers who aren't trying to outright scam you are still lying scumbags.

Wow, somebody likes to over generalize.

I use to be a real estate agent in NYC. I worked with both sales and rentals.

Some agents ARE liars. Some agents ARE scumbags.
Some agents are hard working honest people.

The position exists for a REASON. The market demands it. Many building owners do NOT want to deal with the hordes and hordes of people looking for an apartment. A good broker does not just "show up" at the corner to show you the place. They first make sure you are qualified to rent the apartment (financially). They also let you know upfront about the condition of the place and the amenities.

There are not enough apartments in NYC, thus the price is very high. Finding the apartments that are available requires alot of work. You can do the work yourself. Or you can hire an agent to do it for you. The market dictates the need for agents and what they charge. That agent is doing alot more work then just showing up and spending an hour with you. Anyone who has found their own apartment (which is possible if you have the desire and time) can tell you its not an easy task. The agents job is to make it as easy on you as possible. Sometimes certain buildings will even pay the brokers fee or part of it for you, so that the broker can offer it as a no or low fee apartment. That way the Manager / Owner knows that they are getting quality tenants.

Oh also, I can assure you. I am not a liar nor a scumbag. As the posters on this site who know me will attest to. Just because you had a bad experience doesn't mean you should go around belittling other people. Open your mind. Step outside of your box.
posted by crewshell at 6:30 PM on May 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have all your shit together.

Seriously. That's what made the difference between my friend and I scoring an apartment and the guys that came and saw it before us. We had our shit together. They had to go back to their apartment and get their shit. We arrived later, but got the place.

What constitutes "Your Shit"?
Your shit is comprised of the following:
  • Rent. Specifically, first, last, security deposit (and realtor's fee if applicable.) The more liquid, the better. Cash is good. Checks are not.
  • Letter of employment on company letterhead stating your salary.
  • Previous landlords' phone numbers and addresses. Letters of recommendation are even better.
  • Recent credit report.
  • Tax returns for the last two years.
  • Two or three paystubs (recent, please).
  • If your salary is not 40-50x your monthly rent, you will need to provide some proof of assets (bank statement, for example), or have a co-signer. The co-signer needs to have all the above requirements.
Pretty crazy, huh? Welcome to the city.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:32 PM on May 2, 2007 [23 favorites]

This will work, but it won't get you Nora Ephron's $2000/mo 7-roomer in the Apthorp.

Ah, but by the time she moved out +/- 10 years later, she was paying around 11,000/month.
posted by mewithoutyou at 6:41 PM on May 2, 2007

Call on thursday see it on friday or saturday? Chances are someone has already seen it. If the apartment is good it will go at BLISTERING speeds.

Also one more note on agents / brokers.
There are 3 types of rentals an agent will have access to. They are

Non exclusive - these are open listings and all brokers and probably the general public could find if they dig enough

Semi exclusive - these are listings that the owners / managers only share with a small number of brokers and can not be found by the general public

exclusvie - these are listings that only this broker has

When i worked as an agent my broker had two buildings that he worked with exclusively, they had a long time relationship and only the agents working on my broker (about 6 of us) had access to these.

All of these others were extremely competitive because the other couple thousand brokers where advertising them as well. You sign a paper before seeing the apartment that states you viewed it through the help of X broker and that you wont try and go behind their back to rent it f rom the management company on your own. I once had a lady that tried to do that and the management company called me and told me (it was one of our exclusive buildings) anyway.

The main factor with going to an agent / broker is time and money. Which ever you value more, be prepared to spend of the other.

Good luck!
posted by crewshell at 6:42 PM on May 2, 2007

In addition to all the above, here's a trick: Every other day or so, at varying times for maximum exposure, make a post on Craigslist (in the Housing Wanted section) describing exactly what you want. Tell a bit about yourself, the kind of place you're looking for, your time frame, and a range you'd like to pay. Be completely honest. I've found three apartments that way, including my current, which is ridiculously huge and awesome.

Do it regularly from now until crunch time. Guaranteed you'll get at least a nibble or two.
posted by milquetoast at 9:20 PM on May 2, 2007 [5 favorites]

1. Get sublet or pay broker to screw you. (I don't care what they say, managers work with them because they don't have to pay, the renters do--so together they work to screw you for wanting an apartment. And the prices are totally out of proportion. They are scum and should be avoided.)

2. End up in apartment that is sucky for some undiscovered reason.

3. Live here for a few years. Constantly keep your ears open.

4. Finally find a great deal. Never move again.

Honestly, I'd take a sublet and be on the lookout for people looking for roommates. That way you can avoid usurous fees, annoying credit checks, getting together paperwork, cosigning etc.
posted by dame at 5:06 AM on May 3, 2007

Another bit of info: if you want to move in somewhere, say, September 1st, it's futile to start looking any sooner than August 1st.

Also, unless you find cockroaches adorable little things, look for a new construction (plenty in Brooklyn these days) as they're not as likely to already be infested (same with bedbugs).
posted by infinityjinx at 6:49 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Civil_Disobedient's list is spot on. Have your shit in order, and carry it with you. I've just been going through this for the last month, so it's very fresh in my mind.

If you find a place you like, you have to submit your application immediately. Fill it out right there before you leave. I lost a great apartment because in the 20 mins time it took me to take the subway home, someone else faxed in their application. I just found a great apartment because, when I saw the ad pop up on craigslist, I called, raced over, and gave them all my info on the spot. It sucks to be pressured when making such an important decision, but you absolutely have to act quickly.
posted by Gamblor at 7:10 AM on May 3, 2007

Also, even if someone says they've accepted your application, until you have a signed lease in your hand, you do not have the apartment. Do not get complacent. Brokers (especially) and landlords (sometimes) can be shady, and they could be negotiating with other potential tenants behind your back.
posted by Gamblor at 7:14 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

To put more clearly what several upthread posters have said, it is often near impossible to get an apartment in New York City without living here first. A sublet or a room to rent? Yes. An apartment? Not unless you're very wealthy or very connected is it easy.

If you're a true newcomer to the city, and don't have a good idea about what neighborhood you'd like to focus your home hunt in, consider coming two weeks early, staying at a hostel or YMCA, and focusing on finding a place.

YMCA rooms. Not-bad list of short-termstudent/young person housing in New York.
posted by minervous at 7:55 AM on May 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Once you know in which neighborhood you want to live, you should walk around the neighborhood looking for "for rent" signs and landlords numbers. Write the numbers down and call them. It can be more time consuming than using a broker or craigslist, but you might get leads that aren't available online.
posted by andrewraff at 9:17 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. Get sublet or pay broker to screw you. (I don't care what they say, managers work with them because they don't have to pay, the renters do--so together they work to screw you for wanting an apartment. And the prices are totally out of proportion. They are scum and should be avoided.)

First, prices are crazy but thats because of a little thing called supply and demand.

Secondly your comments about managers and brokers is WRONG.

Managers work with brokers because they dont want to (or simply can't) take the time to advertising the apartment and then deal with the hordes of people that come rushing to see it and shift through all the applicants to find a good tenant.

STOP YOUR PERSONAL ATTACKS ON THE NET. I'd love to see you call me a scum bag after meeting me to my face.

I think people who go around over generalizing and using their narrow and misinformed perceptions to belittle others are sad individuals.
posted by crewshell at 4:34 PM on May 5, 2007

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