Saturday, August 25, 2012

NEXT UP: How to find an apartment in NYC

Renting an apartment in New York city is not as simple as finding a place, applying, paying, and moving in. Ooooh no, my naive friend. It's a shady, fast-paced, unforgiving, money-draining, make-you-want-to-move-back-in-with-your-parents process.

Finally found a not-too-painfully-expensive place? Remember the checks for two-month's deposit plus 15% broker's fee.

Did you find a perfect little apartment posted this morning on a listings website? The landlord already has a pending application for it and six more completed apps piled up.

You're eyeing a Craigslist listing for a $1000/month one bedroom in West Village?
 Only $1000 for West Village?? It's a scam. Period.

Surprisingly, I'm actually not here to scare you away from ever relocating to NYC (maybe a little). Rather, much like my How to Graduate with a Job post, I'm hoping to share the insight I gained during my own apartment search to help future post-grad apartment-seekers. I spent several weeks searching for a two-person apartment and--success!--I did find what I believe is a great place. With a little (read: a lot) of time and effort, you too can find a cozy nook in this people-packed metropolis.

STEP 1: Look down. Are you currently standing in NYC? Perfect.
But how can I already be in NYC when I haven't found an apartment yet? Thanks for asking. It is infinitely more difficult to find an apartment when you're not already in the city. Your search will probably involve running to last-minute open-houses, rushing to broker appointments during your lunch break, and visiting dozens of places--all a lot trickier to do when you're not in NYC. I had a cheap three-month summer sublet on the Upper East Side (five girls, two bedrooms, one bathroom--you do the math). The temporary set-up gave me time to look for a more permanent home before, after and occasionally during work.

STEP 2: Secure your roommate(s).
Did you plan on living with your best friends from home or college? What are you going to do if said best friends land jobs elsewhere or decide to live at home or, WORSE, choose to move in with their boyfriend of 2 months?? You want to pick your roommate carefully. Ideally one, as a two-person place can be easier than finding a three or four person one. This person should be willing to help with the apartment search, not just sit back until lease signing. This person should be trustworthy and responsible, as you will both be promising to pay a lot of money on a monthly basis. And you should feel comfortable around this person, as you will probably see each other's personal paperwork during the application meeting. Plus, your apartment deposit will be entered as one bank account (yay for gaining interest!). Basically, you are married to your roommate. Mazel tov!

STEP 3: Determine what areas you want to live in.
Looking for a place will be much easier if you narrow down the neighborhoods you're considering. This is a very personal decision. You will likely want to consider proximity to your workplace, the price range of the area, the feeling of the neighborhood (safe? clean? crowded? quiet(er)?), distance to nearest subway, etc. Do you want to be in Manhattan? Or the often less pricy boroughs outside: Queens? Brooklyn? My impressions of different neighborhoods follow, but these are just my personal observations:
Of course, you can find randomly expensive or inexpensive apartments in any neighborhood, but generally the most expensive areas are SoHo, West Village, Greenwich Village, Meatpacking District, and Chelsea, followed by Gramercy, Midtown, and any places lining the mid to lower portion of Central Park. Lots of recent college grads live in Murray Hill, Stuyvesant Town (but yuck, don't live there), Turtle Bay, and Kips Bay. The lower east areas--East Village, ABC City, Bowery, and Lower East Side--can have less expensive apartments and tend to have a more hipster, grungy-but-not-necessarily-too-grungy feel. Upper West and Upper East sides have some nice and relatively inexpensive places, but young adults will likely be commuting downtown to go out. I would advise staying away from way uptown (Harlem and higher) and way downtown (Financial District). I'm a Manhattan snob, but I've heard great things about Williamsburg and Flatbush in Brooklyn.

STEP 4: Attempt to find no-fee rentals.
Apartment hunters are often hesitant to hire a broker (aka someone to find apartments for you to see and then organize/present your paperwork to the landlord) because of the broker fee, which can be up to 15% of the yearly rent. If you have the time and patience, I recommend attempting a no-fee search first. This can be done one of two ways. First, you can contact apartment management companies directly to see if they have any vacancies in their buildings. Below is my list of managers I contacted. A few of them had vacancies, but they were all a little pricy.

Your second option is to go to no-fee listings websites. I mostly looked on Craigslist-->All No-Fee Apartments, but here are some other options:

STEP 5: Cry.
...because you have looked at several no-fee apartments only to be disappointed or too late, and your budget is creeping up and up, and your time is running out, and your patience is wearing thin, and you're beginning to lose hope of ever finding a clean place with reasonable rent in a nice neighborhood. Sounds like you're perfectly primed for STEP 6...

STEP 6: Suck it up and get a great broker.
At some point, you may realize that the cost of using a broker is worth the saved time and efforts. If you're going to pay for a broker, make sure you get a great one. I was referenced to one at CitiHabitats, and I've also had friends use AnchorNYC. I would recommend sitting down with the broker for a preliminary meeting in order for him or her to understand your apartment needs and preferences, making the actual apartment visiting appointments more productive. Don't be weirded out when the broker texts you at 11pm saying you must come see a perfect apartment at 10:15am the next morning; they're just doing the dirty work you used to do. While many broker's state a 15% fee, you can often negotiate it down. The broker often gives most of that money to the landlord, so really they're not making an absurd profit. A good broker is one that is more concerned with finding you a great place that making a huge profit. I had one, so I know they're out there!

STEP 2 1/2: Prepare your paperwork.
You're obviously wondering why Step 2 1/2 comes after 6. Either that or you've already closed your browser because you think I don't proofread my posts. I held off on revealing this step because I didn't want to scare you away too soon. The key to finding a great apartment is by being well-prepared. Once you find a place, you're immediately in a highly competitive race to get your completed application to the landlord. Would you show up to a tennis tournament with sneakers but no racket? No. Similarly, don't come into the apartment search without your paperwork. 
Your rental application requires an absurd amount of personal information. I don't just mean your Social Security Number. I'm talking pay stubs, letters of employment, tax returns, bank statements, and previous landlord information. If you can't pay 40x the rent (as most recent college grads can't), you will need a guarantor. This guarantor, aka Mom or Dad, acts like a co-signer, showing he can pay 40x rent. Yes, that does mean double the paperwork. You'll get angry when your parents are crazy enough to think there's a way around this privacy invasion and refuse to hand over their papers. They're not crazy; the search has just turned you into the crazy one. Regardless you need the paperwork and you need it NOW!!!! Have I scared you away yet?

STEP 7: Commit! Now race to the finish line!
You'll know when you walk into THE apartment. From that 5 minute walk-through, you'll need to decide whether you're committing to renting it. Then, you'll immediately have a small window of time during which you can frantically fill out the application (don't forget that each application can cost money if the landlord wants to run a credit check), organize your paperwork, get your broker to write a letter of recommendation, and have them present it to the landlord.
My roommate and I saw our future apartment for the first time at 7pm, got back to the broker's office by 8pm, spent an hour talking to our respective parents, decided to submit an application by 9pm, finished our part by 10pm, and left the broker to finish his part by 11pm. Soon after, the landlord viewed our application, deemed us worthy applicants (after asking for two month's rent as a deposit since we're out-of-towners), and had us sign the lease several days later. Did you catch all that? Or did you blink?

STEP 8: The end. For now.
Congrats! You now have a tiny bit of NYC to call your own. Of course there's still the task of furnishing it by squeezing pieces through insanely tiny door frames...but that advice will come in a future blog post. :)

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