Helpful Tips for NYC Renters

I have occasionally been asked for advice from people who are moving to New York City for the first time and looking for apartments, so I thought I would share my advice (which I have accrued from renting here for almost twenty years). Feel free to share your lessons learned too! I refuse to give any guidance on roommate selection, lest anyone come looking for me later, but note that many people have roommates in NYC at much later ages than people elsewhere in the United States and many people rent for much longer than other places too. Also before reading my list below, this is a must read for new New Yorkers.

Where to look:

  • Free listings are often fraught with scams, so be careful. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Word of mouth often works, so ask anyone you know who already lives in NYC if they know of any places that may soon be available or decent landlords who may have available apartments. Or even if they know of real estate agents who don’t charge a hefty fee.
  • Local news is your friend. Small neighborhood papers often have listings, but may have limited online presence, so be sure to check local news stands for them. They also can give you insight into local happenings, crimes, and businesses
  • Larger papers and websites can be useful. I am partial to the Village Voice website, but its classified section is under construction right now. I also like Naked Apartments, which is a bit more honest than most. However you search, be ever watchful for scams (never send anyone money so they can mail you keys).
  • Use Walkscore to help narrow the field of neighborhoods if you aren’t sure. If you want to live less than half an hour from midtown and half an hour from your friends in Ditmas Park, in a neighborhood that has a coffee shop and a park nearby, it will help you identify what neighborhoods will meet that criteria. It also has listings.
  • Building type. Personally, I have found owner-occupied row houses with few units to be the best living situations, but tastes vary. Some New Yorkers swear by certain management companies. So be aware that certain ownership or management types will affect your experience living there in addition to what is required to apply for the apartment. Larger buildings may have more amenities (bike or car parking spaces, on site gyms or laundry, shared open spaces, live-in super), but also may have more rules or paperwork. Choose accordingly and be sure to ask questions.

Prepare for the visit:

  • Visit the neighborhood before seeing the apartment. Make sure you know how far away transportation is, how safe it feels to you at night, where you can get groceries, walk the dog, how long a commute you will have or whatever else you may need to know to make a decision. For those of you comfortable with doing this, I like to approach local police or deli workers and ask what they think of the neighborhood, if it is changing, how safe is it, etc…
  • Depending on the building, you may have to apply and be approved by a board, so make sure you ask the agent what will be required to apply to get the apartment before hand. You may have to fill out forms and will need reference contact information and other data. Also you may need a guarantor if you are just starting a job and don’t have previous local landlords to vouch for you. Usually the guarantor has to be in the tri-state area. For this reason many people may do a short term sublet or move in with a roommate who already has a lease until there is a paycheck history to qualify for their own place.
  • Bring your checkbook. Apartments can move very fast in NYC, especially in hot neighborhoods. So if you fall in love with one at first sight and you have already done your research on the building and neighborhood, you might as well take it. You will have to put down a deposit to hold it. This will vary depending on the agent or owner. You will likely have to pay $60 for a credit check, 3 months rent, brokers fee (you can sometimes talk them down to 12% from the usual 15%, especially in outer boroughs) and possibly an additional application fee to get an apartment.

Prepare for the visit:
(Recommended steps for those intending to stay in the apartment for longer than a year)

  • Find out what Community District the apartment is in. Many of the Community Boards have their own websites and will post their meeting minutes online. This may give you insight into unfamiliar neighborhoods’ issues related to crime, noise, new construction, road changes, and a host of other quality of life issues like liquor licenses, block parties, parades, any overcrowding in schools or parks, etc…
  • Checkout the building and landlord. NYC has some good resources for this including the Department of Buildings Building Information System (BIS), which you can search by address. This is where you can find complaints about the building including non-permitted construction, boiler and elevator complaints, etc… The Department of Finance’s ACRIS database will also give you ownership history. Between the two you can see when the current landlord acquired the property, how many complaints have been made since then, how/if they were resolved, and what building improvements have been made recently. You may also want to check out the neighbors if, for example, there is a lot under construction to see what, if any, new buildings/uses will be occurring in the near future.

During the visit

  • Look. See any water damage or mold under the sinks or on the ceilings? What type of heating system is it? Old steam radiators really pump out heat more than modern baseboard and central air, but you have less control and they can leak. Does the interior and exterior look well-maintained?
  • Listen. Are the neighbors noisy? Is there a loud elevated train nearby, or highway on-ramp? New York is louder than most places… that quiet bar across the street can turn into your worst nightmare at 3am on a Tuesday night.
  • Smell. Are there industrial uses nearby? A pizza place downstairs? A previously loved smell can become hated when it becomes overwhelming.
  • Ask. About how old the roof is. About how repairs are handled. Whether they will paint or repair anything before you move in (if so, be sure it is noted in the lease or done before you sign, it has been my experience that once you sign a lease, generally all repairs stop). Also ask about how trash is handled (this can vary a lot from trash chutes, to you putting it out front, to you having to bag it and put it on the curb on trash pick up days). Ask about any advertised amenities or building rules. Is there roof access? You might not want that if you are looking at a top floor apartment and the roof isn’t designed for heavy foot traffic (roof leaks are the worst because first you have to deal with the water damage and then you have to deal with the often stinky repairs).

Most importantly, don’t stress out too much, and remember that millions have gone before you and survived.

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One Comment on “Helpful Tips for NYC Renters”

  1. Scott Grimm-Lyon May 20, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    Good advice… I’m a big fan of Trip Trop when looking for a new neighborhood, especially when considering a commute.


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