9 Tips for Apartment Hunting in New York City

Photo by Anuli Akanegbu

Photo by Anuli Akanegbu

I have paid rent in three major metropolitan cities in the past six years: DC, Chicago and New York City.

Finding a decent apartment in New York City is hands-down harder and more painful than finding a straw of hay in a needle stack. Of course, I use the term "decent" loosely because living in New York will make you change how you define a creature comfort.

I moved to New York City last September from Chicago. It took me a month to find an apartment in Brooklyn. That's basically a "New York Minute" (pretty fast) when you're looking for an apartment in the second worst city to rent in America

I absolutely adore my studio apartment. It's actually a smidgen larger than the shoebox that you're imagining in your head right now. Finding it was the ultimate emotional roller coaster, so I thought I would share some things I learned along the way in case you're thinking of moving 'round here. 

Thank me later.

1. Get Your Money Up Before Moving

Thousands of people over time have moved to New York City with a dollar and a dream. Don't be one of them. According to the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD), 56% of renters in the area are rent-burdened meaning more than a third of their income goes to rent and utilities. 

You need to make 40 times the monthly rent for a landlord or broker to even look your way. This is important. Know yourself, know your worth. Literally: KNOW. YOUR. WORTH. Also, know your credit score. 

Before planning a move to New York City make sure you have enough money saved to a) sustain you for a few months because the apartment hunt is unpredictable and b) pay all of the fees that come with renting anywhere in New York City. 

2. Oh, we're talking fees? Yes, and plenty of 'em too.

In New York City it is common to pay your first month's rent, a security deposit and a broker's fee to secure an apartment. They call this "selling your soul to the Devil" or more aptly, a "3-way deal" The standard broker's fee is typically 15% of a year's rent. Another "3-way deal" is paying your first month's rent, last month's rent and security deposit upfront.  Be suspicious of anyone asking for more than what I've outlined. "No-fee" apartments that don't require a broker's fee do exist, but mostly in your dreams. That being said, I was able to find one, so impossible things are happening everyday. 

3. You may need a guarantor. 

Yes, we're still talking about money here. What can I say? Money talks. Even if you do make 40 times the rent and have enough cash to pass, a landlord may still require that you bring on a guarantor because for whatever reason they may still not think you meet all of the requirements. A guarantor is a person who will be legally obligated to pay your rent should you fail to pay. A lot of people have a guardian or "rich" relative serve as their guarantor for rent documents. Whoever you choose, just make sure that they earn between 80-100 times your monthly rent and have decent credit. 

4. Don't try to find an apartment in September or October.

There are 1.8 million Jewish people living in the New York area and one of them is likely to be your next landlord. The Jewish New Year starts around this time, so if your landlord is Jewish then they'll be harder to reach. The only reason I was able to move in at the beginning of October is because my landlord wanted to close the deal before Rosh Hashana making my timing of finding the place dangerously close beforehand nothing short of miraculous. 

5. If you're lucky you'll find a place on Craigslist. If you're smart you'll look elsewhere.

Joanne the Scammer must run Craigslist because a lot of what you'll see looks like this:

Better places to find apartments in New York City are through your personal network (somebody knows somebody with a tip), through online communities like Gypsy Housing on Facebook or websites like Streeteasy, Naked Apartments, or Rent Hop. I learned about my place via Streeteasy. Get the app while you're apartment hunting, so you can anxiously look at it all hours of the day waiting for a new listing to go up. I first saw my place at 10:30pm on a Monday and started the official application process that Tuesday. 

6. That "newly renovated" place may not be "new" or "renovated."

Proceed with caution anytime you see a place that is listed as "newly renovated." Oftentimes landlords will get some cheap or shoddy work done on a place, so they can advertise it as "newly renovated." Or, they'll try to get you to sign a lease before the "renovations" are finished then turn around and try to get you to pay up if something falls apart as if it was your fault. Don't fall for the okey-doke. In short, don't sign an agreement before renovations are done. 

7. Dress for the apartment you want, not the one you have. 

I hate to be say this, but I'm morally obligated to keep it real: landlords will judge you by your outer appearance. I'm not going to get into issues of housing discrimination right now, but I'll tell you something that a friend told me: 

Be prepared for housing discrimination. Sadly, it’s real. And on that note, look tidy and professional when going to look at apartments. You don’t have to be in heels or anything, just look like you’re not some poor, jobless youth.

8. Stay ready, so you never have to get ready.

Every rent application is more or less the same, so prepare the following documents in a Dropbox folder before you start your apartment hunt that way you can fill out the applications faster. As they say, "Time is money." More aptly, time is an apartment off the market that could've been yours.

  • Tax return documents from the past two years
  • Lease agreement from the last place you paid rent
  • 3-5 months worth of utility bills
  • 3-5 months worth of bank statements
  • Scanned driver's license
  • Verification of 3-5 months worth of paid rent from your last place
  • Offer letter from your place of employment that clearly states how much money you will be making monthly and annually. 
  • Your resume

The purpose of all of these forms is to prove to the landlord that you have a history of paying rent. They want to know that you are able to run them their money.

Please note that if you do not have a rent history because say, you've lived at home and this is your first time in this rat race, then try to get as much of the above info as you can and make sure you have a guarantor on deck. Also, if you plan to live with roommates then consider asking your roommate, who hopefully has a rent history, to be the person that signs the agreement. 

9. It's damn near impossible to find an apartment in New York City.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but with a 3.45% city-wide vacancy rate it's pretty close. Any rate below 5% means that the city is in a "Housing Emergency." The good news, if it counts, is that the rate has increased slightly. In case you're wondering, the national vacancy rate is 4.5%. 

10. I could give you another tip, but I like odd numbers. 


Have you tried apartment hunting in New York? If so, share your tips and horror stories in the comments section.