How to Find an Apartment in NYC

How to Find an Apartment in NYC: Step by Step Guide

Finding an apartment in New York City isn’t a feat that should be taken lightly.  Real estate prices in NYC are off the roof and if you don’t take your search seriously, you could find yourself signed into a lease for an overly expensive and otherwise miserable apartment. I always suggest to people who are just arriving in New York City to spend some time to get to know the city before settling on a neighborhood or apartment.

If you have friends in the city, crash on their couch for a little while, or stay at a hostel so you can relax and won’t feel rushed into anything. If you just moved to the city and don’t have a job lined up, spend some time scoping out the job market in NYC before putting a deposit on an apartment as well.  You don’t want to sign a lease on an apartment without a steady form of income coming in.

That said, finding an apartment in New York should be approached differently than in any other place in the country.

Here is a step-by-step guide to finding and renting an apartment in NYC.

Step 1. Know your budget

As a general rule, your post-tax income should be no less than 40 times your monthly rent. So if you are making 30K after taxes, you shouldn’t spend more than $750/month on rent, including utilities.

Of course, if a nice room is more important to you than other things (say, eating for example), then you can set more aside. Before looking for apartments, you should have enough money saved up to cover your security deposit (usually around $500) and two months’ rent.

Step 2. Choose a location

It goes without saying that finding a swank apartment in the swankiest area of town at a bargain price is probably going to be a difficult task. By having your budget handy (step 1), you will get a better idea of which areas you can afford to live in. A great tip for finding an affordable apartment in New York City is to expand your horizons and be open to locations that aren’t necessarily in the center of things.

Most of Manhattan is expensive, but deals can still be found in sectors like Harlem and the Lower East Side. Astoria and Sunnyside in Queens, Hoboken in New Jersey or Williamsburg in Brooklyn are also safe locations that offer some of the best housing deals in New York City and are only a short subway ride from Midtown Manhattan by subway or the Path Train.

Inwood, to the West of Broadway, right near the Cloisters Museum and Fort Tryon Park is one of my favorite places in New York City. Full of wilderness, quiet and primarily residential, it’s only fifteen minutes from midtown Manhattan on the express A train and offers spacious rooms with some of the best real estate prices in all of New York City.

Before looking for an apartment, make sure to scout the area that you’re interested in living in. Every neighborhood has a unique “feel” to it and the safety of an area can change drastically from street to street (i.e. you can be completely safe in one area but that can change by walking 3 blocks in any direction).

Access to a subway is also a very important factor to take into consideration. An apartment in an outer Borough within a couple of blocks of a subway is more accessible and convenient than one in, say, Manhattan, with a fifteen-minute walk to the nearest train. Make sure to take transport costs into consideration when researching an area. If you end up having to spend an extra $300-400 a month on the LIRR or New Jersey Transit to get to and from work, the bargain you thought you found could end up not being a bargain at all.

Step 3. Choose a move-in date

This will allow you to coordinate your move effectively. Most leases begin on the first of the month but can often be negotiated. Start your search three weeks before your intended move-in date. Online listings are best searched about a week before the move-in date as this is when landlords become desperate to fill vacant apartments.

Step 4. Do your research

Once you have an apartment that you’re interested in, do as much research as you can on the building, landlord and neighborhood. Take a stroll around the apartment block to get to know the neighborhood. Talk to a current tenant about building issues that the landlord may not be forthright about (bug problems, hot water or noise issues). Make sure the landlord has answered all your questions before moving forward.

Be sure to ask him when the rent is due, if there is a grace period/late fees, how it should be paid, what is included in the rent (any utilities), if there is any history of break-ins, where to submit complaints, subleasing requirements, etc. Go through your lease with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that all your questions are answered before signing it. You can also visit the NYC Department of Buildings website to view any permits, violations, and complaints on the building.

Step 4. Get to know your roommate.

If you’ll be sharing an apartment, make sure you know your roommates well before signing the lease. Address any potential issues with them.

Will you both be vying for the bathroom at the same time in the morning? Does he or she have frequent overnight guests? How will you be splitting utilities? Do they smoke or have any pets? What is their work schedule like?

Having a roommate that you get along with and who respects your privacy is paramount to a healthy living environment.

Step 5. Act fast

Apartments in New York City fill quickly so when you see a deal, jump on it. When a post comes out, call as quickly as possible to arrange to see it. Competition for housing in New York City is heavy and if you don’t jump on an opportunity, someone else will.

Come to viewings prepared. Take a couple of minutes before your meeting to assess the neighborhood and have a list of questions, cash and any necessary documents ready in case you decide to move forward.

Things to bring

What you will need to rent in New York City really depends on what you’re renting. Subleasing, especially in the outer Boroughs, is generally more relaxed in terms of documentation requirements (I’ve subleased a room with only a copy of my driver’s license), but if you’re thinking of renting an apartment in Manhattan from a building or broker, get ready to sign your life away. Below are the most commonly asked for forms of documentation when leasing an apartment:

  • Copies of at least two valid, government-issued IDs.
  • A copy of your Social Security Card.
  • Last three pay stubs or three months of bank statements.
  • Tax returns and W-2s from the last 2 years.
  • A list of references (employers and past landlords are best)
  • A letter from your employer verifying employment and income.
  • Cash for the deposit and your checkbook. You should have at least three months’ rent in your account.

In addition to these items, you will also need to fill out an application form provided by the building or broker with your basic information and the names of anyone else who will be sharing the apartment with you.

Additional Tips

  • A great resource for people researching apartments is the “street view” option on Google maps. By typing in the address of an apartment, you can see it and get a sense of the neighborhood it’s located on. This will allow you to narrow down your list of potential apartments before visiting them.
  • A “railroad apartment” is an apartment with more than one open room. Usually one needs to be walked through to access the other so they are best for couples or people who don’t require a lot of privacy. They are usually cheaper than regular apartments.
  • If it’s too good to be true, it’s a scam. Craigslist is full of ads advertising $500 rooms in great locations throughout Manhattan. Unless there’s a giant disclaimer about the size of the room or other living conditions, these are always scams.
  • Your rent and broker’s fee (if you have one) are not set in stone. Always try to negotiate the best rate.
  • One-bedroom apartments in New York City are tiny and expensive. It’s usually best to have one or more roommates to share rent and living expenses with.
  • A great way to find affordable housing is to forgo the broker. By not working with a broker, you can save up to 15% of your first year’s rent. Networking and word of mouth are by far the best ways to find broker-free apartments in New York City. By simply strolling around the area you want to live in and asking the locals for tips, you might just run into the apartment of your dreams all by yourself. Sites like renthop.com and even Craigslist.com are great resources for finding broker-free apartments.
  • When you come to New York City, less is more. There is only so much you will be able to fit in your first shoe-box apartment. Ship anything you don’t need back home. http://www.uship.com/cheap-discount-shipping is a great tool for finding cheap shipping on furniture and household supplies.
  • If you have lots of clothing and other belongings that you only use seasonally and don’t want to clutter up your apartment, consider investing in a storage unit. Manhattan Mini Storage offers storage units for as little as $29 a month and includes a free van service to and from the storage unit. You will be amazed by what you can fit into a 4’x4’ storage unit, and how much more livable your actual apartment can be when you keep your seldom used (but necessary) junk elsewhere.

Once you’ve found your dream apartment in New York City, you’ll have to buy furniture for it.  Check out my post on finding cheap furniture for your NYC Apartment.

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