Of all the things the rest of the world finds shocking about the NYC real estate market, the thing that tends to astonish the most—besides how little square footage you get for your dollar—is the notorious broker's fee: If an agent helps you find an apartment to rent, you'll likely pay a broker's fee of around 12 to 15 percent of a year's rent.
Handing over several thousand dollars or more to a broker can make sense if it's your first time at the rodeo and you need help navigating the New York City rental market (read this first), you don't have time to DIY, can't find what you want on your own, and/or are planning to stay put for a couple of years or longer.
But if you've got the time and financial motivation to do the legwork yourself, you will no doubt prefer to find a no-fee apartment. These come in two varieties: Apartments that you rent directly from the landlord or management company, and rentals for which the landlord is paying the broker's fee because the market is slow, the building is brand new with many apartments to fill quickly, or because there's something amiss with the apartment, the building, or location.
To kick off your search for one of these golden real estate gooses, we recommend starting with Brick Underground's annual guide to the best (free!) websites to become very, very familiar with. You'll likely need to wade through some duplicate listings, but to maximize your options, searching on several different sites is an essential part of the process. Here are the ones you should hit:
1. Facebook (and all your other social networks)
First things first: Even with all the high-tech search options flooding the market, word-of-mouth is still king in the world of NYC real estate. The best deals are generally found by a friend or family member who's got an ear to the ground, so we always recommend casting a wide net.
Post on Facebook, hit up your college's alumni network, send a mass email to New York-based contacts, and use any of your other social feeds of choice (Instagram, Twitter, even Snapchat, depending on your social circles) to let your network know that you're on the hunt. More than one Brick Underground editor has landed in their current apartment this way.
You'll never know unless you ask—someone in your life may be nearing the end of their lease, have a spot for an extra roommate, or know about an opening in their building (or a friend's).
StreetEasy is, in many ways, the Big Kahuna of New York City real estate listings for both sales and rentals. (It's also now owned by Zillow, the kingpin of search sites in just about every city in the U.S.)
There's a prominent "no-fee" search filter on the site, as well as the option to save your preferred searches and receive notifications if something new hits that market that fits your criteria. On both the mobile app and the website, you can connect with an apartment's agent or landlord at the touch of a button. (And the app has a handy "map view" feature that lets you see what listings are nearby when you're out and about.)
The site is also useful for research thanks to their building pages, which let you find more info about the specific building an apartment is listed in—things like amenities and zoned public schools—as well as price history so you can see whether rents are heading north or south on comparable apartments. (This info is more likely to be available for higher-end buildings and options in Manhattan than it is for cheaper fare in the outer boroughs.)
To that end, the listings on StreetEasy aren't necessarily the cheapest. So when it comes to the no-fee search process, this one's particularly useful if you're in the market for, say, a higher-end building that's offering up concessions. (Of course, there are downsides to them, too.)
For most renters we know—particularly those on a budget—Naked Apartment is a consistent go-to. A third of the site's apartment listings are for no-fee rentals, and to find them, you can simply click on the "Filter" button at the top of the screen and select "No Fee". (There's also a "low fee" filter that pulls up rentals with broker's fees of 9 percent or less.) Would-be renters interested in Brooklyn and Queens, take note: Of the many rental sites out there, Naked Apartments offers a wider variety of outer borough options and is a great jumping off point for the young and skint.
To help ensure listings are legit, Naked Apartments verifies brokers' licensing information, checks utility bills and public records for management companies and landlords, and bans agents who post inaccurate or bait-and-switch listings. Though the site was bought by StreetEasy last year, it's well worth searching on its own, as Naked Apartments includes "open" listings (versus exclusive listings) that are being advertised by more than one broker, while StreetEasy sticks to verified exclusives--meaning you'll find more listings here, if also more duplicates.
Other helpful features: To keep you from having to trawl through a dozen different listings for the same apartment, Naked Apartments groups duplicate listings all in one place, allowing you to choose which broker to contact (i.e., in a no-fee scenario, a situation where the landlord is paying the broker's fee) based on reviews from former clients (brokers can't delete these from the site), and compare apartment descriptions. (Seeing how different agents describe the same apartment is a great hack for separating hyperbole from starker reality.) You can also compare broker response time and fees if any. See a place you like? Click the "contact now" or "schedule a viewing" button to set up an in-person visit ASAP. There's also an iPhone and iPad app, which lets you keep track of apartments you've seen with notes, photos, and a checklist to help keep you organized. (After enough time on the hunt, the sea of listings starts to get murky in any renter's memory.)
RentHop's standout feature is the signature "HopScore," developed to identify and encourage accurate listings and ethical behavior among real estate professionals. A high HopScore means an apartment has good value, up-to-date information, and a landlord or agent with speedy response times and a track record of apartments that rented quickly (and by inference, therefore, were appealing to renters). The site takes special care to shut down scammers, and RentHop employees personally verify email addresses, and usually have an actual phone conversation with, new listers to make sure they're legit.
RentHop has tens of thousands of listings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, that are searchable by filters for "no fee" or "reduced fee," with the option for a map-based search, complete with neighborhood guides.
The map-based search comes with one notable perk: the option to display nearby brokers that have checked into their system as being available, so you can contact them in case you're interested in seeing an apartment immediately. Similarly, if you're searching in a particular neighborhood, the site will display agents who are "neighborhood specialists," making it easy to get in touch with a professional who might have more listings in the pipeline that suit your search.
One of the oldest rental search sites still in the game, NYBits is unique in that it deals primarily in no-fee listings; around 75 percent of the rentals on their site are available with no broker's fee. On top of that, no-fee is the default search setting on their site, and their no-fee rental search tool is also front and center on the homepage.
As with most search sites, the majority of the offerings on NYBits are in Manhattan, with a growing number in Brooklyn and a handful of options in Queens and the Bronx. And while the site's search tool lets you choose among Manhattan's neighborhoods, to find listings in the outer boroughs, your best bet is to head to the site's "neighborhoods" feature, which lets you select neighborhoods within the borough, then see an overview featuring a map of the area, its selected no-fee rental buildings (and their property managers' contact information), and the listings currently available. (Pro tip: Even if there isn't an apartment immediately available, it's smart to contact property managers of the buildings you like, so you can be first in line when something opens up.)
To improve accuracy, NYBits publishes addresses for every listing, and does its own research before posting them. This helps cut down on duplicates as well as bait-and-switch phonies, and more easily allows you to do your own digging into a particular building. They maintain a roster of building directories, as well, which is useful both for research, and as a way to keep tabs on a building you'd like to move into if an apartment opens up. The site also sometimes forces expiration dates for listings to ensure they're not being used as a bait and switch.
One of the more user-friendly and well-designed options on this list, Zumper takes special care to avoid duplicates, verifying and "de-duplicating" their options regularly. (They also make it easy for users to flag outdated or bait-and-switch listings to remove them from the site ASAP.)
About a third of Zumper's listings are no-fee, pulled from a wide variety of New York landlords and property managers. They've significantly increased their outer-borough presence in recent years, too, with nearly as many options now in Brooklyn as in Manhattan. Search via Zumper's no-fee page for NYC, or by checking the "hide listings with leasing fees" box when you tick off other search requirements like in-unit laundry, a doorman, or outdoor space.
To make things as painless as possible, the site allows you to create alerts. Like many competitors, it also includes neighborhood guides, maps, and a mobile app. If you see a place you like, Zumper offers a "one-click" application—sort of like the college "common app" but for the apartment hunt—and lets you create a $10 Experian credit report that can be used an unlimited number of times (fingers crossed, it won't take too many applications to land an apartment). When you search, your options are also displayed on a Google map, giving you an easy sense of proximity to trains and other amenities.
On that note, we also recommend taking your search to Padmapper, which was acquired by Zumper in the past year, but maintains its own set of unique listings as well. While the site used to cull from Craigslist, it now gets its listings from landlords, property managers, and direct postings to the site. Apartments are displayed in map form, making it easy to stick within your chosen radius. It also has the all-important option of "hiding" listings you're no longer interested in to cut down on the white noise, and help you avoid accidentally re-visiting pads you've already vetoed.
Padmapper also has a feature for directly contacting listings, letting you send a "mini-profile" with info like your credit score if you see a place you like. (It's got iPhone and Android apps to facilitate on-the-go searching, too.)
Renters in every city are almost certainly acquainted with Craigslist as a sometimes-seedy but indispensible source of apartment listings.
And this is still true. Just as the site is the first stop for many budget-minded renters, it's also popular with small landlords, particularly in the outer boroughs, and can be an invaluable resource if you use it wisely. In the site's "apts/housing" section there are options to limit your search to "all no-fee apartments" or "by-owner apartments" only, and from there, you can plug in search terms like "short-term" or "roommate" to narrow down your options depending on your preferences. (The site also has filters to help you search by price point, pet-friendliness, and housing type.)
Still, because Craigslist can be such a free-for-all, be extra careful to avoid anything that seems like a scam, like a request for wired money (more tips on signs of a scam here.) It also never hurts to do a deeper dive on the building and the 'hood--including estimated elevator wait times, building violations, and neighborhood crime rate--by checking out the data over at AddressReport. And we always, always recommend Googling the address of the building, and the name of the management company and broker to see if any red flags crop up. But it can be worth the slog: we know several renters who've found a rent-stabilized no-fee Brooklyn apartment simply by sifting through the offerings on Craigslist.
Initially the pet project of artist Stephanie Diamond, this carefully curated weekly email newsletter has become the gold standard for creative types looking for apartments with like-minded landlords or roommates. (It can be an especially useful tool for women looking to sidestep skeevy brokers or Craigslist "roommate/friend with benefits" listings.)
The next best thing to finding an apartment through friends, the Listings Project keeps an open dialogue with each lister and doesn't allow listings from brokers—or anything with a broker's fee—so if you find it through them, it's guaranteed to be no-fee. They have around 300 listings every week with a mix of apartments for rent, sublets, and shares, in all five boroughs. (Something to keep in mind in your search: subletting—or entering an apartment as a new roomie who's not on the lease—are both tried and true methods for avoiding broker's fees, and you'll often have the option to renew the lease directly with the landlord, sans broker fee.)
If you want to keep digging, check out RentHackr, a site that lets renters post when their own apartments are coming up for lease renewal, giving you the jump on potential listings before they even hit the market. This way, you can approach the building's management directly, and very likely, skip the broker fee altogether. (Though take note: you'll have to sign up using your Facebook account, which might be a turn off for privacy-minded renters.) LeaseBreak offers a similar service, creating a searchable database of short-term lease takeovers and sublets in all five boroughs. Then there's Apartable, a site for primarily Manhattan-based listings that includes user reviews of buildings as well as the listing's full address, and details like permits, violations, etc. all in the name of knowing what you're getting into before you rent. If you prefer to do all your searching on your smartphone, then check out Oliver, an app that exclusively features no-fee listings (though generally only on the higher end).
Plus, one to watch in the coming year: Urban Edge, which only features no-fee apartments, and gets its listings directly from data feeds and owners. (They also take listings down if they haven't been updated for two weeks to keep them fresh.) They cover all five boroughs as well as some areas outside the city, though the majority of options are still based in Manhattan. You can dive into the site as-is right now, but stay tuned, as they're gearing up for a big relaunch in the coming weeks, with new features and design.
And the ace in your back pocket:
If you've exhausted the DIY method--or just feel exhausted--sign up here to take advantage of the corporate relocation rate offered by Brick Underground partner TripleMint.com. An upstart, tech-savvy real estate brokerage founded by a pair of young Yale grads in response to the frustrating apartment-search experiences of classmates and colleagues, TripleMint agents typically charge a broker's fee of 10 percent of a year's rent instead of the usual 12 to 15 percent. Bonus: They're a delight to deal with.
**This story originally ran on June 9, 2016**