How to find an apartment in NYC

Adapted from this post on April 4, 2014.

One of the things I did while I was out on Sunday was stop by a little park in my neighborhood and take some pictures of the daffodils. I’ll probably go back again over the next few weeks to see if I can catch it when everything is in bloom. You see, just about exactly two years ago on the day I signed the lease on my current apartment, I was a little early walking over to meet the broker. I looked for somewhere to sit for a few minutes, and found this little park in full bloom on a gorgeous April Saturday. The giddiness of having found such a great apartment MIGHT be rosily tinting the memory for me a little bit, but in my mind that small garden was covered in all kinds of flowers. I hope I don’t miss it, like I did last year, but if I do — well, the daffodils were lovely on Sunday.

So since it’s spring, and I was reminiscing about when I found my apartment, I thought it might be time to share again some tips about how to find an apartment in NYC. Obviously people move year-round, but spring and summer seem to be especially popular times to hunt for a new apartment, probably since so many people move to New York each summer after they graduate from college.  Some of this info is probably applicable for other cities, but from what I’ve heard about other cities, New York is an especially complicated place to find a place to live.

Most listings go up about a month before the apartment is available. June listings, for instance, won’t go up until May 1. You can start looking earlier than that, but you probably won’t find anything, unless you’re willing to pay for a month’s overlap — not always a bad thing if you want extra time to move! Craigslist and Padmapper were my favorite sites to use, since they both have a map feature. The map is useful because realtors will often say something is in one neighborhood in the listing title, but the actual address makes it clear that it’s in a different neighborhood.

Know your neighborhoods. If you have specific neighborhoods that you’re interested in, make sure you know what the borders are. When I first moved to New York, we were looking to live in Clinton Hill while my roommate went to Pratt for her MA, and we quickly learned that Classon Ave is the eastern border of Clinton Hill, despite many listings to the contrary. If something looks too good to be true (way under-priced for the neighborhood or for how nice it looks in pictures), it probably is too good to be true. But if something is a little under-priced and quirky, check it out — that’s how I found my apartment!

Use your resources: the internet + friends. Looking up information about neighborhoods online is helpful, but friends and coworkers are also a great a resource when you’re apartment hunting. Not only do they know the neighborhood’s boundaries, they usually have an idea of what the going rate is in their neighborhood, and they may even be able to put you in touch with their landlords, who might have openings nearby, or with brokers who know the neighborhood.

If you love a place, hold on tight. When you find an apartment you like, you have to move fast. Often you’ll need to put down a deposit the day you see a place. Make sure to bring someone with you, preferably someone who will be even tougher on the place than you and will notice things like mouse poop or roach traps, will remember to check the water pressure and outlets, ask about how utilities are handled, check the locks, etc. Google the address and if possible the landlord before signing the lease, in case other people have already taken to the internet to talk about how terrible the building or owner is. There’s a site called stablerenters.com, where you can sometimes see if there are 311 complaints about a building or a landlord – definitely worth a look.

Get your documents ready in advance. Ready to commit? Then be prepared to put down a deposit, in cash or cashier check — but never let a broker rush you if you’re feeling nervous. Brokers and landlords will often ask for a packet of application documents, like a scan of your photo ID, proof of employment and salary, your last couple bank statements, and a credit check. Having all these in order, saved in your email and ready to send along, can make applying for an apartment a much speedier process. If you’re a student or not yet employed, make sure you have guarantor lined up and be prepared to provide their financial information. The process for renting in a co-op is even more complicated, and I believe usually involves an interview, so make sure to ask what’s required of you when you fill out an application.

Be prepared to put a lot of money down as a deposit. At the application stage, you’ll be asked for a good faith deposit (often around $500). When you put down a deposit, the owner or broker has to take the place off the market. If your application isn’t accepted for some reason, you should usually get the deposit back – but make sure to clarify that (and get it in writing!) when you do put down your deposit. If you change your mind after placing a deposit, you usually cannot get your money back.

Once you’ve committed to an apartment, you’ll hand over the rest of the deposit. By-owner rentals usually only require first month’s rent and a last month’s security deposit. If you have to use a broker, you’ll find that most of them charge a fee on top of that. One month’s rent is pretty standard, but some brokers (usually the more established ones, like Corcoran) charge anywhere from 10 to 15% of the year’s rent. Unless you really love an apartment and are committed to staying for a couple years, these expensive brokers often aren’t worth it.

Read your lease carefully before signing it. Once your application is accepted, you’ll get a copy of your lease. Read it carefully, and ask questions about or Google any clauses you don’t understand.

After the lease is signed, congratulations! You’ve managed to rent an apartment in NYC. Now you have about two or three weeks to pack up all your things and move. Moving between places in Brooklyn? I’ve used Greenbaum Expert Moving a couple times and found them to be reasonably priced, friendly, and very fast each time. All movers are very busy right around the first of the month, especially on the weekends, so if you can move in a little early or late, or midweek, you might get a better rate.

For those who have done the NYC apartment hunt before (especially more recently than me!), any suggestions to add? For those looking to move here, leave your questions in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Oh these are all really handy tips, especially the one about getting your documents ready in advance — that cost me an apartment last year! The whole process is always a ridiculous battle and my biggest tip is, sadly, that you have to be prepared to compromise. I also relied a lot on ‘Naked Apartments’ for listings too.

    • Sarah

      April 16, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Oh no! I hope you like the place you ended up in? And yes, compromise is definitely important — as is knowing how much you’re willing to compromise. My stablerenters.com tip comes from an experience of putting down a deposit on a place I wasn’t quite sure about, and then looking it up to find that 311 had been called on the address for everything from trash issues to pests. Losing the deposit was frustrating, but the place we ended up with, while it had its own issues, was definitely a better fit!

      And thanks for the Naked Apartments tip! I’ve heard Street Easy is also useful but haven’t used it much myself.

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