When I moved to New York, I found myself facing the grim prospect of having to crash with friends until I found a place. After a few weeks of scrambling to find the next couch and half a month’s salary in gypsy cabs, I was convinced that this was no way to live.
I tried the no-fee apartment sites. They had almost no listings. I turned to Craigslist, sifted through mountains of spam and saw dozens of apartments. I dealt with a shit-ton of brokers. I was lied to, cheated and manhandled. And in the end, I won. What follows is the collective wisdom of my two and a half months in the dark, poisonous swamp that is the New York City housing market.
Note to readers: while lessons shared here may apply to apartment hunting elsewhere in New York and beyond, my experience was limited to Brooklyn. Your mileage may vary.
Fools Rush In
Buy yourself time. Nothing is worse than having to find a place on short notice, much less one in which you’ll likely spend a decent amount of your time over the next year.
If you just moved to the city, crash with friends if you can.
If you can’t, or if you have more than just a suitcase to lug around, go for a cheap sublet. You won’t be there for more than a month or two, so don’t get all prissy about the roaches in the bathroom or Those Stains On The Couch. If nothing else it will serve as incentive for you to get your ass out there and look at more apartments, so suck it up and find the best place you can on short notice.
You’ll want something flexible, preferably month-to-month; weekly/daily is a rip-off, and move-in dates are almost always on the 1st, sometimes on the 15th. Look in or close to the neighborhood you really want to live in, so you don’t have to trek around too much.
Narrow the Field
There are dozens of different types of apartments in New York. In Brooklyn, the majority of places are lofts, brownstones, tenements, or full service buildings.
Lofts usually have more space but can be run-down. A friend lives in one in Bushwick that’s still an operating sweatshop. You may also have access to the roof, which is a fantastic luxury in many parts of Brooklyn (32% of the lofts I looked at in my non-representative search of Craigslist listed roof access in the amenities).
Brownstones have the advantage of being generally nicer, having backyards, and having a live-in super (though that has its disadvantages as well). They also often have more wiggle-room for negotiating price as the landlords live in the building and care about having a tenant who will also be a good neighbor.
Tenements (also known as “fire traps”) are older buildings, mostly built before 1910, which you can spot by the telltale escape ladders snaking across the front. The buildings usually have smaller, cookie-cutter apartments with identical floors and tiny windows. They also have notoriously poor insulation, which means that your gas bill could easily come to a third of your rent in the winter months.
Full service buildings are usually newer, sometimes taking advantage of the inclusionary housing program’s incentives for developers. They typically are high-rises with multiple elevators and amenities like onsite gyms, pools or balconies, and are a bit more expensive. The real cost of having so many people being paid to watch Judge Judy, however, hits when the holidays come around and all of a sudden you have 15 envelopes under your door, each waiting for your suggested $40 holiday bonus. If you’re single, don’t forget that having a doorman is the grownup equivalent of living with your parents.
Decide on what you’re looking for, and more importantly what you’re willing to trade to get it. I like walk-ups, need to be within five to six blocks of a subway with quick access to midtown in the morning, and neither need nor want a doorman. What you need is up to you, and you’d be surprised by what you can do without when you have something you want more.
Figure out if you need to live alone or if you can play nice with others. Remember that sharing doesn’t only mean less rent, but usually a nicer place.
Pick a hood
Brooklyn is gigantic, almost Tolkienesque. You will not suffer from a lack of options. Pick a train or two, decide how deep in you want to be, and look around those stops. In general, rent rises as you approach Manhattan on the well-serviced lines, and within neighborhoods as you approach the subway stops and/or parks.
If you want something loftish, look at the L, between Williamsburg and Bushwick. If you want something brownstoney, look at the 2-3, 4-5, F, and A-C, between Carroll Gardens and Bedford-Stuyvesant/Crown Heights, or the N-R in Brooklyn Heights. You can also look along the G, but be warned that at the time of writing it is the most reviled train in Brooklyn. It does, however, give you quick access to the rest of Brooklyn (and Queens!) when it’s running.
Think about what matters to you. If you want something residential, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill or (if you can afford it) Park Slope are all good choices. If you want bad haircuts and good music, go to Williamsburg, Greenpoint or Bushwick.
Pay attention to the ethnic makeup of each area. If you love Polish food, Greenpoint is a good pick. If you’re not a hasidic Jew, there are places in Brooklyn where you would almost certainly not want to live.
Once you have a few subway stops in mind, visit them and take a walk around. Is there food, alcohol and toilet paper for sale within walking distance of the subway? If so, you’re off to a good start. Try walking from one stop to the next and see how long it takes. The deeper one might be a few blocks difference but much cheaper. Check out the streets within however many blocks you’re willing to walk twice a day five days a week. Note the good ones. Grab a vegan burger.
Sharpen Your Spear
Welcome to hell. This is where it gets ugly. There are plenty of websites with no-fee apartments, but their listings are so few and highly sought after that unless you’re lucky you probably won’t find a good place. The real places everyone lists are brokers and (you guessed it) Craigslist.
Craigslist consists of a few precious gems buried in a barrel of sewage. If you choose to go this route, be prepared. You are swimming with killer whales. If you use Google Reader, add RSS feeds for your searches. Sign up for ifttt and use this recipe to text your cell phone when new matches are posted. Search by street name or subway stop, not just by neighborhood name. You will want to check them at least once a day, have everything ready and act immediately when you see something good. Landlords often deal with multiple properties, are eager to push the apartment through as soon as possible, and will sign with the first person who passes a credit check and will put down a month’s rent. Same goes for tenants desperate to fill a sublet before the rent is due.
Brokers typically charge a fee (even no-fee brokers sometimes bait clients with no-fee apartments and then offer them others with fees). Broker fees vary from a month’s rent to as high as 15% of the yearly rent, so get ready for a couple of staycations if you go this route. On the other hand, brokers can offer you the first look at new apartments, and their listings tend to be higher-quality, if only because anyone willing to put up a month’s rent in exchange for their help is looking to settle there for at least a couple of years (making it amount to less than a 5% monthly increase in rent) and will want to invest in a nice place.
Don’t discount non-traditional channels. Search Twitter and Facebook (I found a great apartment this way that I ended up passing on), email everyone you know in town, and put up a housing wanted ad. If you can find time to hit the pavement looking for new buildings under construction, you can find great places that haven’t even been listed.
You can also search for rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments, though they’re hard to find. If you’re thinking more long-term, sign up for the Housing Preservation & Development lottery. Find a building you like, enter the lottery, and in a couple of years you might get a nice letter and a beautiful, rent-stabilized apartment for a ridiculously low price. Make sure to check the income limits to make sure you’re eligible.
A well-timed sublet can be a back door into a great place. People often sublet to finish out their lease, and when it’s up you’ll have the first crack at renewing. The current tenants may also be more flexible on price unless their apartment is really, really nice due to pressure to close the deal.
Look during the first week or two of the month. Most places rent on the 1st, and 30 days’ notice is standard, so that time is when most people start listing and looking for tenants.
Be wary of photos, and learn to spot the bad apartments before you waste time making an appointment. Be smart about narrowing your search criteria. Learn the lingo. “Railroad” means “no privacy”. “Flex” means “converted with shoddily-constructed drywall”.
Visit places in the morning or after work. That’s when you’ll be spending most of your time there, assuming you work nine to five (time-shift accordingly if you don’t). Take photos. Hell, take videos. Show them to your friends and potential roommates. Imagine your stuff there. Will that leopard-print couch fit through the door? Will that poster of Tim Leary fit on the far wall? Take measurements if you’re unsure.
Check for bedbugs. Ask about utilities. Are they included in the rent? Some places have no thermostats and pipes that heat up to scalding temperatures in the winter. Turn on the shower, unless you’re ok with going to work on a hot day reeking of Stoli and shame. Drop a couple of foot-long hotdogs in the toilet and flush to see how it handles the load.
Find a Roommate
Or more than one, if need be. Believe me, that three-bedroom in Prospect Heights with floor-to-ceiling windows isn’t going to sign its own rent check. Once again, Craigslist is your best friend and worst nightmare. Go ahead and post to Facebook, email your friends, and try to find someone through your personal network if you can. But chances are you won’t, and even if you do, are you sure that you want to share a living room with that drinking buddy and his Counter-Strike team?
Posting to Craigslist and living with strangers can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be a total shot in the dark. Try to exaggerate your needs to make sure that you don’t let any of the riffraff slip through the door. If you don’t want to live in squalor, you’d better come off as extremely anal about cleanliness. USE CAPS LOCK as necessary to drive home the point. The people who you would like to live with will be more likely to email you if they see that you’re serious about what you (and presumably they) want out of a roommate. Your goal is to separate the wheat from the chaff before you meet so you can focus on how well the two of you get along.
If you’re subletting, make sure you run credit checks and get deposits and signed contracts. If they leave with less than 30 days’ notice, keep the deposit. If you’re subletting, make sure to sign and keep the contract in a safe place, especially when you move out in case of a dispute. Don’t be one of those suckers.
Close the Deal
Once you’ve found an apartment you want, be quick and merciless. Put down a deposit, and hound the landlord or broker until the papers are signed. If you’re looking at a new building, they won’t sign until the building passes the city inspection, so this can take a while. If this is the case, be careful. Unscrupulous landlords and brokers may take deposits from multiple tenants and decide at the last minute who actually gets the place.
Be especially wary of the classic broker bait-and-switch where they take your deposit and hold the money until the lease is ready to be signed, then call it the broker’s fee and demand two months’ rent before signing. This is very, very illegal.
If you’ve never read it, you should review the NYC Tenants’ Rights guide so that you know what your landlord can and cannot do.
I hope that this has been helpful. Good luck and godspeed.
You made it to the end! Awesome.
If you're itching for more, follow me on Twitter at @benjaminjackson.
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