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How to Move to NYC: A Crash Course in NYC Apartment-Hunting

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So,  you're about to move to New York City, one of the greatest cities in the world, where you will soon have said world at your fingertips. Everything you'd want in terms of culture, dining, shopping, education, $12 juices, and several-thousand-dollar "Hamilton" tickets is right here. Plus, you'll never have to own a car again.

But with all of the perks of living in NYC come some downsides, such as the generally high cost of living, and our insanely expensive, competitive real estate market.

The first thing you should know is that you'll likely pay double the rent for half the space you'd get in other cities. (Similarly, a one-bedroom here sells for the cost of a tropical island in other parts of the country.) But we still think it's worth it (the suburbs aren't cheap anyway and you can’t order Filipino food at two in the morning there). Plus, the opportunities here are endless no matter what kind of career you find yourself in.

Whether you're looking to rent or buy, here's how to think like a New Yorker in 2016, and hit the ground running:

1.  There's a lot more to a neighborhood than meets the eye.

Every one of the boroughs—there are five, by the way—has more and less coveted neighborhoods. Oftentimes, being on the fringe of some of the city's most popular neighborhoods translates into better deals for both buyers and renters. These include the eastern reaches of the East Village (think Avenues C and D) and Manhattan Valley, on the far north end of the Upper West Side.

Keep in mind that brokers (or landlords) may sometimes fudge a neighborhood to make an apartment seem more desirable. (It's not unheard of for listings to be described as being in Williamsburg when they're actually in Bed-Stuy.) Find out the exact location of the apartment and Google it (or consult Wikipedia's list of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island neighborhoods) to find out whether it's really in the neighborhood the broker claims. 

To learn more about a prospective neighborhood online, you can visit AddressReport, an apartment and neighborhood database that offers information associated with a specific address, like commute times, number of parks, and noise complaints. Neighborhood blogs are also a great way to get a sense of what's new and what's happening in a particular area (here's our list of the best ones around).  You can also get the lowdown on many NYC neighborhoods through our Neighborhood Secrets and Confessions of a Neighborhood Blogger series.

We also suggest you use Google Street View to check out a particular address before you go in person. You can see whether the building is in good shape and get a general sense of the block that it's on, or if there's a potentially loud bar on the ground floor that would be a deal-breaker to you.

Some questions to ask yourself (and any broker you're working with) include:

  • How convenient is the area when it comes to subways? If you're more than a five- or 10-minute walk from the train, is there a bus nearby? Keep in mind that even neighborhoods with access to transportation can see major delays and detours on weekends, so if you work on weekends or plan to go out a lot, you may want to check MTA.info for details on planned maintenance work and construction. Also, how easy is it to get taxis? While on-demand taxi apps like UberLyftGett, and Via now make neighborhoods more convenient (read our reviews here!), there's not always something available, and yellow taxis (green in the outer boroughs) can still be the quickest/most convenient choice.
  • What are your food options? If you can't boil water, or are just dying to take advantage of the city's culinary scene, you'll want to move into a restaurant-heavy neighborhood (check blogs like Eater to get a sense of hot foodie spots). Food delivery services like SeamlessCaviarGrubHub, Postmates, and Delivery.com bring gourmet food straight to you. If you're feeding just yourself, it's often cheaper to order in or pick up takeout than it is to buy food and cook it. Bodegas and small, specialty supermarkets abound in New York City, but they can get pretty pricey. On the bright side, FreshDirectInstacart, and Google Shopping Express food delivery services reach much of the city and will even deliver to a fifth-floor walk-up. (Note: Don't assume your doorman will accept grocery deliveries for you if you're not home. The soaring popularity of these options has overwhelmed some buildings that they now refuse delivery; be sure to ask before you rent or buy.)
  • What are the schools like? If you're moving here with kids that you plan on sending to public school, your real estate search will be more complicated. Read our Parent's Guide to Buying and Renting in NYC and sort out your school options before zeroing in on an apartment. (You can actually hire a consultant for assistance parsing your public and/or private school educational options.) Note: Brokers aren't allowed to tell you much more than whether the building you're looking at is within a certain school's catchment. They can't tell you whether it's "good" or bad. Real estate search-site StreetEasy includes public school zoning information with all their listings; and for more school info, go to the Department of Education's web page. From there you can find out statistics about your zoned school and more. You might also want to check for non-zoned charter schools and private schoolsInsideSchools.org is a great resource if you're interested in public schools, specifically.
  • What's the nightlife like? If you're moving to the city to party, you'll want to be in a bar-on-every-corner type of neighborhood. In Manhattan, that includes the East Village, Murray Hill, and the Lower East Side. In Brooklyn, that means Williamsburg, Bushwick and parts of Greenpoint. If you're not looking to go out much after work, know that these neighborhoods can be loud and crowded on the weekends. Ask around and see if you there are a few too many bars in the area for your liking, and return in the 10 pm to 2 am timeframe on a Friday or Saturday night to get a sense of the vibe. 
  • What evacuation zone are you in? If Superstorm Sandy taught us anything, it's that severe weather can affect the city in a big way. City neighborhoods are designated by Zones 1 through 6. Zone 1 has the highest flood risk, and those areas are evacuated first. It's something to consider, both from a temporary disruption perspective if your building isn't damaged, and a far bigger upheaval if it is. Plus, if you're buying, living in a flood zone might mean shelling out for high-priced flood insurance.
  • How safe is a neighborhood? You can always check the official NYC website for crime statistics, but the best way to get a sense of how comfortable you'll feel in the neighborhood is to ask someone who lives there. Also, this is another good reason to visit a prospective neighborhood at night—the vibe at 9 pm might be very different than at the 3 pm open house you attended.
  • How easy is it to find a parking spot? Wherever you move in New York City, the answer to this question is probably going to be "not very". But you can ask residents, brokers and even doormen in a particular building. That is, if you plan to have a car (which, again, you probably don't need, especially as more CitiBike stations open all over the city). Get familiar with alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations; in Brooklyn, you'll wind up having to move your car less frequently than in Manhattan.  If you decide to park your car in a garage, be sure to factor monthly fees into your monthly nut; in Manhattan, $400 to 500/month is not unusual.  Some garages in prime spots charge as much as $800 to 900/month. Renting a car is always an option, too. A Zipcar subscription allows you to rent cars by the hour (most of which cost about $15 per hour, gas included). Car2Go offers SmartCars for a similar hourly rate, but rather than an annual membership fee, there's a $35 sign-up fee. The service is currently only available in Brooklyn.

2. Money can't buy you everything.

Renters: Just because you can afford an apartment doesn't mean you'll qualify to rent it. Most NYC landlords require that a tenant earn 40 to 50 times the monthly rent. If you don't, they'll require you to have a guarantor who makes 80 to 100 times the monthly rent and who promises to pay the balance of your lease if you default. Often, they also require that the guarantor lives in the tri-state area (and is therefore easier to shake down for cash, should things take a turn for the worse).

If that's not possible, or if you or your guarantor are from overseas, you may be able to use a guarantor service like Insurent (fyi, a Brick sponsor) instead; their income and employment requirements are significantly less strict, though you'll still need to have a clean credit record.

Buyers: Even if your finances are in tip-top shape, if you're planning on buying a co-op, you'll have to get past a co-op board first--and board requirements go way beyond finances. For an overview on everything you need to know as a first time buyer, consult BrickUnderground's How to Buy a NYC Apartment.  Board-interview-wise, get insider tips here, and check out our Big Fat Board Interview series for real-life stories.

3. Brokers charge fees in New York.

Renters: Believe it or not, here in New York City, renters pay broker fees. While there are rentals that come without broker fees (and websites dedicated to helping you find them), they tend to either be in less-than-great shape or higher-end "luxury" apartments where the landlord either employs their own leasing agents or pays the fees of outside brokers. If you're determined to avoid the broker's fee, be prepared to do a lot of digging.

Brokers frequently charge 15 percent of the yearly rent as their fee, but that can sometimes be negotiated down to around 12 percent or even one month, especially if you're willing to move fast on an apartment. 

Another option for Brick Underground readers: Sign up here to pay a lower fee (in most cases, around 10% of a year's rent  versus 15 percent) using a broker from Brick Underground partner TripleMint. (Founded by two young Yale grads bent on providing a better rental search experience than many of their peers endured, the brokerage got its start procuring apartments for Ivy League grads and new hires of tech companies.) You may save enough money to buy a sofa (or two or three) and avoid common NYC rental agent shenanigans like these

Buyers: Sellers pay a broker's fee that is typically six percent (though often negotiable down to 5 percent in a seller's market), divided 50-50 between the buyer’s broker and the seller's broker. The good news is that it means buyers don't pay a fee. The bad news: Those fees are probably reflected in the seller's asking price on the apartment.  

4. Buyers: Don't forget about carrying costs.

Buying a co-op is not like buying a house. Technically, you're not buying the unit but a certain number of shares of the cooperative and you have to pay for the maintenance of the building each month. So in addition to your monthly mortgage payments, you'll have a maintenance, too. Keep that in mind when budgeting, and know that maintenance typically increases a few percentage points each year.

The "maintenance" fees for condos are referred to as common charges. Many newer developments received property tax abatements that keep property taxes abnormally low for a number of years. Make sure you know what you're getting, and have a realistic estimate (from your attorney, not the developer) of what taxes could be when a property tax abatement ends. For more information, read up on tax abatements in our How to Buy a NYC Apartment guide.

5. Not all rentals are in rental buildings.

Renting an apartment in a rental building is not the same thing as renting an apartment in a co-op or condo building. The latter will probably be a bit nicer in terms of appliances, finishes and potentially the building itself, but there is a lot more red tape involved (especially co-ops, where you'll have to be approved by the co-op board too), higher application fees, and, frequently, restrictions on how long you may rent. For more information, see Tips for Renting a Non-Rental.

6. Cash is king.

Renters: When you rent an apartment, prepare to have a lot of cash handy (usually in the form of a bank-certified check). You'll need to pay the broker fee as well as usually one month's security deposit and first month's rent within a few days of signing your lease. (It can also help to pay the broker cash right away to hold the apartment for you and keep the competition at bay, depending on the situation.)

If you’re looking for a rental toward the high end of your budget (and you don’t quite make the 40-times-the- monthly-rent minimum), some landlords will still offer you the apartment if you pay a few months up front in cash. Check to make sure it’s not a scam before you cough up any large amount of cash (here are some tips to protect yourself).

Buyers: Though finance requirements may be loosening slightly, they still project a cloud of uncertainty over whether or not a mortgage will issued. The ability to offer all cash will put you at the front of the line when it comes to buying an apartment here. Bonus: You don't have to deal with the headaches of getting a mortgage.

7. Your housing options will be more limited if you have a dog—especially a big one.

Many co-op, condo and rental buildings in New York either prohibit pets outright or have limits on the weight and breed of dogs permitted, so check before you sign anything. (If you have a big dog, consult this post.). Also check the rules of buildings that have pets: You may find you have to carry your dog through the lobby, or use a side entrance. In recent years, New Yorkers in non-pet friendly buildings have gotten special dispensations if the pets are service or therapy animals.

Also note that since you won't have outdoor space, nearby parks and dog runs can be invaluable and just like buildings, some neighborhoods are more pet-friendly than others.

Keep in mind your animal's personality when looking for an apartment. Does your Yorkie freak out at the sound of footsteps? Better forget the first-floor apartment then. Is he getting on in years and having trouble holding it in? In that case, the first floor might be a smarter choice than the 38th.

If you're looking to buy a co-op, your pet will have to pass muster with the board. Sometimes that'll include an "interview" with the pet, but usually it's a pretty straightforward process.

8. Descriptions can be deceiving.

Sure, we'd like to believe brokers' listings are entirely truthful, but we're a bit more realistic than that. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • "Luxury" doesn't always mean that. Some "luxury" buildings can seem like tired old 1960s sets, with a few doormen and a parking garage. 
  • Don't take a broker's word for it that an apartment is "convertible" to more bedrooms. Also, lots of buildings now prohibit temporary walls so make sure your management company is okay with them before you rent a one bedroom you plan to make into a two bedroom (or a two- you plan to make into a three-, and so on). Generally, though, bookshelf walls that don't reach all the way up to the ceiling are okay.
  • "Cozy" usually means so small you can't fit yourself and your clothes inside.
  • "Charming" can actually translate more into "dilapidated," which means that old world charm will likely need a new world makeover.
  • "Unique" means a seriously strange layout, or worse.
  • "Quiet" can mean it overlooks an airshaft/brick wall.
  • Some additional "bedrooms" are not legally zoned that way... meaning, they don't actually have windows (can you say glorified closet?).
  • An outdoor space in need of some "TLC" could probably moonlight as a junkyard. Expect to take several trips to Home Depot to make it usable.
  • If they don't mention a doorman or elevator that's because they probably don't have them. The same  is true with laundry facilities (though there are on-demand pick-up/drop-off services that help with that now, too).

**A version of this story originally ran in January 2013. The piece was updated with new information on July 19th, 2016.

Related:

How to Buy a NYC apartment

9 reasons to move to Jersey City right now [sponsored]

How to rent a NYC apartment for your grown kid

16 tips for an (almost) stress-free moving day

Rejected by a landlord lately? Want to get that apartment faster? Here's your secret weapon (sponsored)

3 high-tech ways to make your moving process easier (and cheaper)

7 things to ask the neighbors before you move in

How to negotiate with a NYC mover: 7 tips that may save you bigtime

Confessions of an on-site leasing agent

Relocating to NYC? FAQs brokers can (and can't) answer

The 20 deadly sins NYC rental agents should never commit (but do)

Tips for renting a non-rental

12 NYC real estate holes-in-one

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