Finding an Apartment in New York City

I won't be the first blogger to say this - moving sucks. Regardless of your living situation, if you don't have to move, life is good. Boxes, packing, hiring movers, coordinating elevator schedules, paperwork, not a single part of it is fun. The same can be said for moving to/in New York City - and then some.

For this post, I thought I'd outline the process that I took to find an apartment, how apartment-hunting in NYC is different than anywhere else I've experienced (for context, this will be the fourth city I've lived in and the 8th apartment), and how I will look to dominate this process, if god forbid, I need to battle through it again in the future. Note that for the purposes of this post, I will talk about my experience in Manhattan - of course in the other boroughs things might be slightly different, though really it's just cheaper, all else equal.

Non-Negotiables

Before you even begin house-hunting in New York City, get your affairs in order. Almost every single landlord and broker (we'll get to them in a bit) will require the following:

  • Your last two pay stubs, proving your current income

  • Your last two income tax returns

  • Your last two bank statements

  • You (or the combined tenants) to earn an annual income of at least 40 times the rent

  • A good credit rating

  • Bonus: Letters of reference from your past landlords

Being Canadian and starting a new role made a few of these things a little tricky. My tax returns weren't W2's, my offer letter had to go in place of my pay stubs, and I had to hope that my credit rating existed and was good enough in the USA - luckily I had lived in the US in the past so I did have some history.

I brought letters of reference which, in the end, gave my new landlord a higher degree of confidence that I would be a good candidate so I would highly recommend that play. Once you've got these documents together, it's time to start looking for apartments.

In Manhattan, so many of the buildings are over 100 years old, and as a result, a ton of the layouts will seem weird, and they are! You'll soon realize, that there's usually something wrong with every unit you view. Instead of focusing on what it doesn't have, my friend gave me a great recommendation to make a list of three things that you ABSOLUTELY need, and when you find a place that checks those boxes, it's offer and application time!

Some things that might be on your list include: elevator in building (most buildings are walk-ups - great for cardio), laundry in unit/building, dishwasher, extra windows (yes that's for real), closet space, regular-sized fridge, neighbourhood, close to grocery store, close to subway, etc. Find your three things, and narrow your search that way. For reference, my three things were: cool neighbourhood vibe, clean/new kitchen, room for a bed and a couch. Everything else I didn't really care about.

Brokers

If you've ever rented an apartment in another city and enlisted the help of an agent or broker, the landlord from whom you eventually rent will pay the broker fee (usually around 1 month's rent) once you sign the lease. In New York City, it doesn't work like that - the renter pays the fee, and the fee is higher! In general, the renter will pay the broker fee equal to somewhere between 10 and 15% of annual rent - and that's due upon signing the lease so pad that bank account ahead of time.

Brokers are greasy, so I tried to stay clear by only seeking out "no fee" listings, which means that the landlord or management company will actually pay the broker fee and you don't need to worry about it. Ultimately, the monthly rent might be a bit higher which offsets it over time, but it's nice to not fork out an extra month's rent for straight off the bat.

Where to Search

I searched exclusively on apps. I started using Streeteasy.com and Naked Apartments which specialize in NYC only, and then I dabbled in Zillow and Zumper.com as the search continued. These apps are great because you can filter on "no fee", input your must-haves, and narrow down the search based on neighbourhood.

When to Begin

What makes house-hunting so tough in NYC is that the demand is extremely high, so any decent apartment gets scooped up and rented within the first five days of being listed. As a result, I started looking at apartments on the app 2 weeks before my house-hunting trip, but if I were to do it again, I wouldn't start looking until a couple days beforehand. I scheduled most of my showings the day of or the day before they actually happened. When a brokerage takes over a listing, they usually throw and open house within 1-3 days, so you can just message the broker via the apps and pop in to take a look when they host the open house.

If you're doing a house-hunting trip prior to moving to NYC, make the trip close to your move-in date. No landlord wants to give a lease to someone who isn't moving in for 2 months. The entire game is about leverage and you're a more attractive renter if you're willing to move in tomorrow.

Found a Place? Now What?

Once I found a place that wasn't a super weird layout, checked my boxes, and was in my price range, I wanted to act. I had my paper work (both electronic and hard-copy) so I asked for an application from the broker who showed me the place. I filled out the tedious online application, and submitted all of my supporting documents. There is usually an application fee as well or sometimes a deposit of one month is required to keep the listing off-market while they review your application (another greasy move). Be sure to read the fine print, because often you won't get the deposit back if you're application is successful but you back out.

Once they have the application, they landlord will run your credit, take your documents into account and decide if you're worthy or not to pay astronomical amounts of money each month to live in a shoe box.

If you're accepted, it's time to empty your bank account! Even on a no-fee apartment, I had to provide first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit (equal to one month's rent) immediately via wire transfer/bank withdrawal. This part, along with the 40x rule, baffle my mind. It assumes most people have $10k sitting around at all times and that most people make 6 figures, which is clearly not the case. Anyway, rant over.

Hopefully this provided some insights into the full-contact sport that is apartment hunting in NYC. Be ready with your paperwork, your cash and your energy. I saw probably 15 places, made an offer on one 15 minutes after seeing it, then had to wait (it was the weekend) about 40 hours to hear back from the management company that I was accepted, at which point I hustled to the brokerage to deliver money and sign the lease. I'm tired just thinking about it, but thought I would share the few things I've learned since battling through the process.

Thanks for reading!

Mike