The NYC Apartment-Finder Guide

We've all heard the old adage, “Location, location, location.” But, it’s not so easy to follow in New York City, where the average one-bedroom rental is now going for upwards of $2,000 a month all the way out in Bushwick. Our new mantra? The rent is definitely too damn high.
Yet, somehow, the challenging, um, mathematics of New York real estate haven’t deterred us from staking claim to at least a few hundred square feet within the city limits (or in some cases, very nearby). In the end, there are few greater luxuries than a grown-up, NYC apartment with a lease in your name — so we’re willing to compromise on a little less space, a few more flights of stairs, or a neighborhood we never thought we’d consider. You see, there’s a secret about the Big Apple no broker will tell you: Finding a rental apartment that you unconditionally love is actually pretty hard, especially if you’re new to the process. Sometimes, depending on your budget, it seems hopeless.
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Naturally, we’re all for making the impossible possible, which is why we’ve polled some of New York City’s most knowledgeable real-estate insiders for advice on how to deal with just about every first-time-renter dilemma. Whether you’re moving in two weeks or two months, from across the country or from across the park, read on for tricks of the trade that will help you navigate your way to a pain-free lease-signing — no matter where you decide to put down your roots.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
First, calm down! You’ve got time. In an ideal world, you should start looking 30 to 45 days before your desired move-in date — most New York rentals don’t go on the market much more than one month in advance, anyway. But, it’s not really time to sound the alarm until you’re about five days out, says Mark Menendez, director of rentals at Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

If you’ve reached that point, immediately rule out all condos and co-ops where you’d be renting from an individual owner, as they’ll probably require a lengthier approval process for your application. Then, zero in on true rental buildings in one or two neighborhoods, so that you can line up multiple viewings in the same day (a broker can save you even more time by scheduling these for you). But, don’t just show up with a checkbook and expect to be handed the keys. In New York City, rental applications are not complete without proof of employment, tax returns from the past two years, three recent bank statements, and a color copy of your driver’s license or passport. Bring hard copies of those to each appointment to expedite the process (a turnaround of 48 hours is typical).

“If a landlord sees that you’re organized and prepared,” Menendez says, “they’ll respond to you much more quickly than someone — even at a higher price — who is not.”
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
If your move-in date is flexible, or more than six weeks away, you can enjoy the luxury of being a little pickier — and maybe avoiding a broker fee. Jared Kleinstein, head of strategic partnerships at the listings website StreetEasy, suggests walking around the neighborhood you’re targeting and cold calling management companies for the buildings that pique your interest. “Whether you’re talking to a doorman or calling a phone number you see on the door…you never know whether something could spring up that hasn’t been posted online yet,” he says. And, by going directly to the building management, you’ll be saving money — usually 12 to 15% of the annual rent — on a broker fee.

Cold calling not your style? Try seeking out a referral — in the loosest possible sense of the term. You may not personally know anyone trying to break their lease right now, but your friends and coworkers all have landlords who probably do. Consider, for example, your theoretical cousin’s boyfriend’s sister’s landlord, who owns three more buildings across town. Turns out, he has a tenant in one of them who just got a new job in San Francisco, but there are six months left on the lease for his fabulous studio, and he needs to move out, like, now. Voilà! You’re in.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Undiscovered neighborhoods in New York City are a dying breed, if they ever really existed at all. But, if you’re an off-the-beaten-path kind of girl, or just a budget-conscious, soon-to-be New Yorker with an open mind, don’t limit yourself to apartments in the so-called hot areas, or those in the immediate vicinity of your office or your friends. You’ll find better deals — and more local gems not-yet spoiled by hordes of trendy Yelp devotees — if you look for the neighborhoods that are still just lukewarm.

Menendez recommends Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Inwood in Manhattan, or Jackson Heights in Queens. The numbers are encouraging: According to StreetEasy, the median price of one-bedrooms currently on the market in Jackson Heights — just a 25-minute commute to Midtown — is around $1,500, with a price per square foot of $23. Compare that to the popular Yorkville section of the Upper East Side, where the median price is now more than $2,600 and around $50 per square foot. Did someone say “steal?”

Bonus Tip: Once you’ve settled on your new digs, be sure to lock-in your rate with a two-year lease if you can, so that when your beloved neighborhood does land on the cover of New York as "The Hot New Thing," you won’t get hit with a giant rent hike.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
We may not personally share your Manhattan-centric affliction, but we do empathize with it. Bright lights, big city, on-duty yellow cabs at 2 a.m. — we get it. That said, we’d also be remiss not to warn you that if you try to find an affordable starter apartment on West 80th and Riverside Drive, you may very well come up short.

For a compromise that doesn’t mean living in a converted coat closet, venture into the Manhattan neighborhoods that are adjacent to, but not actually in, those ever-popular, highly romanticized areas. If you’re hot on the Upper West Side, for example, brokers suggest going 20 blocks north to West Harlem. You’ll find the price of apartments drop significantly as soon as you cross 125th Street, and there’s a vibrant, up-and-coming scene packed with twentysomethings. Meanwhile, if you’ve longed to be an Upper East Sider ever since Gossip Girl went off the air, stay east of Second Avenue — in the Yorkville section — for slightly cheaper rents (and a heart-pumping, uphill morning walk to the Lexington Avenue line). Alphabet City is plenty close to the East Village to enjoy its nightlife, but beyond Avenue B, your distance from the subway also means you’ll pay a bit less for housing. And, if you’re into the swank Soho and Tribeca dining scene, the less-established Financial District is right next door and is a much more reasonably priced place to call home.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Most landlords will want to see that your annual income is at least 40 times the monthly rent before accepting your application for an apartment. The problem is, using this formula means that if your salary is $50,000, you can afford no more than $1,250 per month for housing. That’s $925 below the median price of available studios in Brooklyn, and $600 below that same metric in Queens, according to StreetEasy. Ouch! We’re all for living within your means, but even if you’ve got disciplined spending habits and some savings in the bank that threshold seems a little militant. The next best bet is a guarantor (read: a wealthy parent or relative), but, oh, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in New York had one of those?

If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t meet the standard income minimum, but the rent still fits into your monthly budget, you’ll need to find a landlord who will cut you a bit of slack. Your best chances for this are, well, right now — between November and February — because competition among tenants is at its annual low, and landlords are most anxious to fill their available spaces with whoever comes along. During your search, seek out privately owned, small walk-up buildings rather than large apartment towers, where management companies do thousands of transactions per year and will automatically eliminate you based on the numbers. Meet with your prospective landlord, convince them that you’re trustworthy and reliable, and then offer to pay an extra deposit or a couple months’ rent up front in lieu of a guarantor. “Smaller landlords may be willing to stretch their criteria or take a bit more of a chance on someone they meet face-to-face,” Menendez says.

Bonus Tip: If you’re right out of college, Dave Maundrell, founder and president of the Williamsburg-based brokerage aptsandlofts.com, also suggests bringing a parent or older relative with you to your appointments. It will signal to wary landlords that you’re responsible despite your age, and that you have a support system in place should anything happen, he says.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Can’t spot a Craigslist scam to save your life security deposit? It’s hard to overstate the value of a healthy dose of skepticism on your first apartment hunt. For example, Maundrell says listing photos have been stolen multiple times from his company’s website and posted on Craigslist by scam artists. They’ll ask you for cash up front, then run off with it by the time you realize the apartment they were advertising didn’t actually belong to them, or didn’t exist at all. Beware of anyone asking for cash, because this kind of thing is rampant.

Even in legitimate listings, it’s exceedingly easy for brokers to misrepresent the apartment in order to get you in the door (think of any time you’ve seen photos resembling the shape of a fishbowl). “All it takes is a simple lens to make a room look much larger than it is, and it can make a twin bed look like a king!” says Kleinstein, of StreetEasy. “Also, beware of photos where the blinds are down,” he adds. “It’s usually to hide something just outside the window.” If the blinds are up, on the other hand, pay attention to what the weather looks like outside. The conditions (leaves on, or not on, a tree) should match the current conditions. If they don’t, it’s a sign that you’re not looking at the actual apartment being advertised.

Another red flag? The phrase: “Pictures are representative of a listing in the building.” If you see that language in a listing, there’s a good chance the broker probably picked the very best apartment in that building to photograph, and is now using it to market all the units there, including the great and not-so-great ones. The apartment that’s actually available to you today might look just like the pictures, but it also might have a different view, significantly less square footage, or a wonky layout — and you won’t know for sure until you see it in person.

Bonus Tip: Be on the lookout for listings that advertise “all utilities included.” Unless it’s a sublet, in New York this is usually a sign that something is off. For example, it could be basement that was illegally converted and isn’t up to code. If you see that, you need to ask why they’re included, Maundrell warns. “When it’s too good to be true, it is.”
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Ever wonder why there’s so much perfectly good furniture left curbside around the first of the month? Making sure your new apartment is big enough to fit your belongings isn’t exactly rocket science, and yet lots of New Yorkers still tend to forget a few steps. If you’ve got furniture that you’re not interested in throwing away, here are a few moving pitfalls to avoid:

1. Forgetting to measure your existing furniture before you go out to see apartments. The rental market is competitive here, so if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon an awesome find, you won’t have time to go home and compare measurements before putting in your application — it will be snapped up by a more intrepid tenant before you even have the chance. “If I found a great deal, and my couch didn’t fit…I might just sell my couch,” Menendez says. Doesn’t sound like you? Then invest in a tape measure, stat.

2. Relying on listing descriptions like "queen-" or "full-sized bedroom" to assess whether the room will actually fit a queen- or full-sized bed. Never just take someone else’s word for it — remember, the listing broker is trying to sell you something! You should always verify by visiting in person and measuring the space yourself.

3. Ignoring the size of the doorframe. Your new living room may be wide enough for your couch, but if you can’t get it through the entryway (and not just the one to the living room, but also to the hallway, and to the building itself), you’re still curling up to watch The Mindy Project on a sad folding chair at the end of the day, while your comfy couch sits outside, on the curb.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan.
Regardless of what kind of apartment you’re renting or how safe the neighborhood is, it’s definitely a good idea to get a renter’s insurance policy. In many cases, you won’t even have a choice — more and more New York City landlords are requiring their tenants to have one. But, how much coverage is reasonable and responsible?

According to Thad Rosst, an Allstate agent based in Brooklyn, a tenant in a smallish apartment can expect to pay $110 to $300 per year for a basic policy (though you could get a stripped-down version for as low as $60). A standard policy will cover you for personal-property loss or damage, as well as bodily injury on the premises — that is, in case you have a guest over who trips on a piece of your furniture and gets hurt. Obviously, the more coverage you want, the more expensive your policy will be. But, other factors can influence the cost as well: your credit score, pets, zip code, the number of occupants, whether you have any prior losses or claims, and any security features in your building. For example, if you’ve got a 24-hour concierge or doorman at your new place, you’re likely to get a discount.

Watch out for the fine print, though. Rosst says most standard policies limit coverage of computers and related equipment to $5,000, which may not be enough if you’re a techie with a ton of brand-new electronics lying around. Meanwhile, Rosst says the “jewelry, watches, and furs” category is limited to $1,000 in coverage in “almost all” standard policies. Take stock of your stuff, and do a rough calculation of what it would cost you to replace it if you needed to — the peace of mind may be worth an additional premium.
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