How to find an apartment in NYC

As my husband and I recently moved to New York City, we often get asked a lot of questions about our apartment and how did we find it? I decided to write this post and answer most common questions once and for all 🙂

It is not a secret that looking for a place to live in NYC is a total nightmare and we’ve got a good share of it. However if you come prepared and know what to expect you can easily avoid unnecessary hustle. Below are some of my tips on the entire process!

1. DECIDE WHICH AREA DO YOU WANT TO LIVE IN?

New York City consists of 5 boroughs: Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Most of people who live in Manhattan consider it to be the only possible place to live in the entire world (well, at least New York :)) and we are happened to be one of them. As you guessed, we decided to narrow our search down on the island. Manhattan is a heart of New York City and this is where everything is happening. As we’ve never lived in NY before, we decided that we wanted to experience it all. We believe that the best way to do so is to live an every-day life in the city with its ups and downs and so far we have no regrets. Of course one of the major deciding factors is the job location – you don’t want to travel 1 – 1.5 hours to work every day. Luckily for us, we both work in Manhattan so it was a no brainer.

Our second and third choices were Brooklyn and Queens. We really like Brooklyn. Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO areas in particular – both are filled with beautiful brownstone homes, very nice, safe and family-oriented. There is also a lovely park by the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan skyline opening up – best place to watch sunsets! Yet our hearts belong to Manhattan, at least for now! Queens is relatively not expensive and you can find great options there. The Bronx and Staten Island are just too far, almost feels like it is another world. Here we go, now make up your mind and move on to the next step!

2. IF YOU ARE SET ON MANHATTAN, THINK OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD THAT FITS YOU BEST!

So you want to live in the dreamland of many but not sure where to start? Well, Manhattan Island composed of over 20 areas and I would need to write another post about that. I will just give a general description for now 🙂 There is a Lower Manhattan, Midtown, Upper East and West Sides and Upper Manhattan where Harlem and Washington Heights are. Lower Manhattan is a home to Financial District, Chinatown, Soho, Chelsea, West Village and other.

Each neighborhood is very different from another. You can guess that Financial District is filled with professionals looking to make it on Wall Street. Soho and Chelsea (one of my favorites) are very trendy and artistic. This is where if not first but every other door on the ground level is an art gallery, a pop up shop, a fashion boutique, a little coffee shop or a trendy thrift store. Google office is located in Chelsea and The High Line Park begins there as well. Just love this area but it also comes with the price. Chinatown is very authentic and speaks for itself. I would avoid living in the Lower East Side and East Village – just not my type. Although the next New York’s big thing is coming exactly to these areas – The Lowline Park – The World’s First Underground Park – how cool is that! Maybe it will transform the area.

Next comes the Midtown: Times Square, Rockefeller Building, Empire State Building and many other tourist’s attractions are located in there.

You can guess how busy this area is on any given day and even more during the Holidays. Upper East and West Sides are the most residential and “city-like” areas: tons of restaurants, dry cleaning places, great schools, coffee shops, clothing stores and many more – everything that you need right at your door step. Central Park is surrounded by these two areas on each side respectively and surely is a huge plus! Even if you live on the most outer avenue on the island, it is just a short 15 minutes walk to the park – what could be better for a perfect weekend stroll. It is also a paradise for running lovers. The West Side has an advantage – there are 3 subway lines while East Side has only one (6 train). Both neighborhoods are very lavish and have many historical buildings especially around the Central Park area. Lastly, there is an Upper Manhattan which is again just too far! It takes about 30 min by train to get from Soho to Upper East Side 80th Street for example. You do the math if you live on 150th St and north of it.

As for us, we set our minds on Upper East Side as it fits our lifestyle the best and we are loving it here! You can do your homework and learn more about each district on your own. Try to understand the vibe of the area and if it will work for your every day life. Now that you know where do you want to live, let’s move on to the fun part – searching for an actual place!

3. WHERE TO LOOK? BROKER VS NO-FEE APARTMENTS

As we’ve started to look for an apartment, most of our NY friends kept telling us that it is impossible to find something good without a realtor. Surely it is partially true yet there is always a chance to find a deal on your own!

Let’s talk numbers first. As I hold license to practice real estate in Florida, I always like to compare the markets and standards whenever I go. Unlike in any other state, the tenant is responsible to pay the Broker Fee in the state of New York. The fee ranges from 8% to 15% of the total amount of annual contract cost. For example, if the apartment costs $2,000 / month which equals to $24,000 / year, the fee will be anywhere between $1,920 to $3,600. The fee doesn’t go towards your rent payments. It is just one time fee paid to Broker for the service of finding the place and helping you with paperwork required. Costly, huh? If you add it on top of the moving cost itself, your new home becomes very pricey.

2So how to find an apartment on your own? Well, this is what the term “no-fee apartment” exists for! Many times it means that you will be dealing directly with the owner. An owner could be an individual or a large corporation. In case of large corporation, most likely you will be working with the management company. There are also owners who will pay a smaller fee to any Broker who will bring the tenant (non-exclusive listings). In any way, there are many “no-fee” apartments available on the market.

There are tons of sites available online for apartment hunting. My two favorite are http://www.streeteasy.com and http://www.nakedapartments.com. Both are easy to navigate and have a convenient way to schedule showings. Most of the listings are trustworthy – you’ll get exactly what you see on the pictures when you’ll walk-in to the apartment. Make sure to check “no-fee” in the filters tub before you start your search. And one more thing – don’t go to Craigslist – it is not a secret that this site has become a dumping place for all the waste out there.

Most of the showings are organized in the form of an “open house” when you will be given an hour window when you (along with everyone else interested) can come to the unit and see it in person.

Majority of open houses are taking place during lunch hour (12:30pm – 1:30pm) or after working hours (5:30pm and later) which is very convenient if you are already working in the city during the day. Many buildings don’t allow showings on the weekends so don’t be fooled by an idea to do your apartment hunting on Saturday or Sunday.

During your visit, make sure there is a proper way of heating in the apartment as NY winters could be extremely cold and you want to make sure it is nice and warm in your home. One last thing to add – try to stay away from the buildings with bars and restaurants in it. Not only it could be very loud, unwanted guests in the face of rats are not pleasant either.

Now that we already know a lot about NYC apartments, let’s concentrate on one of the most important things – your monthly rent payment.

4. HOW MUCH IS YOUR MONTHLY RENT PAYMENT?

We finally get a chance to talk about the cost of living. Let’s be honest – despite of everything written above – your monthly rent payment is one of the major factors while deciding where to live.

Everyone knows that real estate prices in NY are sky rocking and could be compared only to San Francisco Bay area – two most expensive markets in the US. As much as I want to say: “Guys, it will be OK and you’ll find something low-priced!” – I can’t! Be prepared to higher amount of your monthly rent payment – $3,500 is the average in Manhattan for 750 sf 1BR apartment. Studios start at $2,300 / month and up. Prices of 2BR and 3BR apartments are $4,000 and $5,500 respectively. The sum slightly differs from area to area. The most expensive are Chelsea, Tribeca and West Village. Next comes Upper West and East Sides (average price range). The least expensive (below average are Lower East Side and Upper Manhattan).

When looking for place, check if the unit has the following: outdoor space, allowance to have a pet, doorman, washer and dryer in the apartment and having an elevator in the building. While for the rest of the country it seems that these items should come by default with your apartment, it considered to be an upgrade in New York City. I am not even mentioning parking garage as this is another story. If these items don’t come with your apartment, the rent amount should be less then average and this is one way to decrease your monthly payment. Another way to reduce the price is to plan your move to the city in the winter which is considered to be low season and you can get bonuses such as one month free rent. There are much more options available in the winter in general since majority of people prefer to move in the summer.

As you can see, you will probably need to sacrifice something in order to live in the city. But, hey, don’t be discouraged! NY gives you plenty of possibilities to make more money then anywhere else so it all evens out at the end.  Another way to pay less then market price is to find miraculous rent-stabilized apartment. We’ll talk about it in the next paragraph.

           

5. WHAT IS RENT-CONTROLLED AND RENT-STABILIZED APARTMENT (IF YOU ARE LUCKY!)?

As many of you wander sometimes how some of the characters in our favorite movies could afford living in a lavish NYC apartment with relatively low income, the answer is simple – rent-controlled! Both rent control and rent  stabilization have been created in order to protect the rights of the tenants. Both regulations don’t allow landlords to increase monthly rent payment for more then specific percent amount and obligate owners to provide tenants with proper apartment maintenance. But don’t get your hopes too high as it is not as simple as it sounds.

In order to qualify for the rent-controlled apartment, the building had to be built prior 1947 and the tenant must have been continuously living in the unit since July 1, 1971. The place could be transferred to the family member only. So basically if your grandparents or parents haven’t been living in that same place for the past 45 years, chances you get rent-controlled apartment are zero. There are less then 2% of the total apartments available on the market are rent-controlled by today’s day in the city.

But I didn’t write this paragraph to disappoint you.

While rent-controlled apartments are considered to be the last of the mohicans, rent-stabilized apartments are much more accessible. In order to qualify, the building had to be built prior 1974 and had to be of at least 6 units. The rent price can’t be more then $2,500 / month and tenant’s annual gross household income can’t be above $200,000.00 for two consecutive years. Last year (2015) it has been decided that the rent amount of stabilized apartments can’t increase for more then 1% while regular apartments could have gone up to 10%. As of today the price of rent-stabilized apartment is generally lower by 20-30% then the regular marked one.

These units are not easy to spot. Although they are openly advertised, it is not specified that the apartment is rent-stabilized. Due to a very attractive price, most tenants stay in the same unit for several years as long as they qualify. Once tenant decides to leave, he or she promotes the apartment to one of the family members or friends and as a result the unit gets rented without even getting to the rental market at all. Yet there is a good chance to find it in “no-fee” apartments market on your own, just keep your eyes open and don’t stop looking!

6. APPLICATION PROCESS

Finally, after several days checking out 10+ apartments you think that this one with a separate kitchen and relatively large closet space feels like home! Here comes the most important advice: if you found something you like, don’t think too long. Let the person in charge of the showing know that you are interested and ready to submit an application. If you already saw more then 10 apartments, clearly you understand that it is very rare to come across the place that you really like and it may take another 20 to get to the next option. The truth is there are 100 other people who are interested in that same unit that you put an eye on. Really good apartments don’t stay on the market for longer then 24 hours. We had a showing of our apartment scheduled for 8:00pm. At 8:15pm, as soon as we left, we called the realtor who showed it to us to let him know that we like it and we want to start the process of approval. We’ve heard the precious “You are the first ones in the line!” on the phone and got a relief. It might have been too late if we have called at 8:30pm as there was another couple looking at the unit right after us.

Next, your realtor or the party responsible for getting the deal done on the landlord’s side, will e-mail you a list of required documents that you need to provide in order to start the process. As items may differ slightly, generally they are the same:

– Owner’s application

– $100 application fee per person

– One month rent deposit in order for the unit to be taken out of market. Once tenant is approved, the deposit will be used as a security deposit for the unit

–  Proof of income – you have to prove that your annual gross salary is at least 40 x monthly rent payment. Married couples are allowed to combine their incomes in order to proof required amount (you will need to provide your marriage license). For example, if the apartment costs $2,000 / month, your annual gross salary must be at least $80,000.00. If you don’t meet this requirement, you will be asked to have a guarantor who will be able to assume responsibility to pay your rent in case you won’t be able to. The gross salary requirement for guarantor is 80 x monthly rent payment

– If you have an employer, you will need to provide a proof of income in the form of Employment Verification Letter. It must be done on the company letterhead and signed by the responsible party. In our case we were also asked for our jobs to be in the same company for more then 12 months

– If you are self-employed, you will need to provide tax returns for the past two years

– 3 recent pay stabs

– Current bank statements (of both checking and savings accounts)

– Former landlord’s reference letter along with proof of rent payments for the past 6 months

– Photo ID

– You must have a good credit score – it surely will be checked

– If you meet all the requirements above, generally you will only need to pay first month rent and security deposit (the one that comes with an application) in order to move-in. If you don’t qualify, you may be asked for more funds upfront such as three or four months payment, although some landlords don’t accept it at all and rather move on to the next applicant

As you can see, the process of an approval could be a bit overwhelming but it is not impossible to go through and get approved. Just be focused and organized. Once you submit the documents, it may take several days in order to receive a final answer from your landlord. When you will get a positive response, you will be asked to sign the lease which is a final step in the entire process!

7. SIGNING THE LEASE

You’ve done a lot of hard work on finding your perfect place to live and now it is time for the most rewarding step – signing the lease. As you may feel you can relax now, it is not time just yet.

Make sure that the lease offered to you has all the required attachments and riders:

– The Real Estate Board of New York Standard Form of Apartment Lease

– Attached rules which are part of the Lease as provided by Article 11

– Sprinkler Disclosure Lease Rider

– Disclosure of bedbug infestation history

– Disclosure of information on Lead-Based paint and / or Lead-Based paint hazard

– Lease / commencement of occupancy notice for prevention of Lead-Based paint hazards – Inquiry regarding child

– Lease Notice regarding window guards

– Fire safety plan of the current year

– If you are renting rent-stabilized apartment, the lease should include New York City Lease Rider for Rent Stabilized Tenants

– In addition, Landlord may include other riders and special provisions related to the particular apartment you are renting

Last thing to add, it is a good practice to insist on writing “N/A” in the fields left empty so nobody could write anything there afterwords.

Make sure you receive your copy of fully executed Lease and keep it in a safe place. Congratulations and welcome to your new home!

I hope this post was helpful to you and you received the information you were looking for. New York City as an incredible city to live in and it is definitely worth fighting for.

Have a great day and remember to make plans and go through with them. You can do it!

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