10 commandments of a New York City rental search

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I recently moved into my fifth rental apartment in New York City in 11 years. While I’ve been fortunate enough to have a larger budget each time I’ve moved, my needs have also gotten pricier (thanks to a husband, then a child, then another child).

My rent is now almost four times what I was spending 11 years ago in my first (teeny, tiny) New York City apartment share, but that doesn’t mean that this time around, I was immune to seeing some pretty crappy apartments. 

From my personal experience, here are the 10 commandments of renting a NYC apartment:

1. Thou shall not assume that an apartment described as a "two-bedroom" is a two-bedroom. You wouldn’t believe how many window-less “bedrooms” we saw. It’s worth asking a broker before you see an apartment if all the rooms have windows, if this is something that’s important to you (and it should be, since it’s illegal to list a room with no window as a bedroom).

2. Thou shall stay away from duplexes. Unless your budget is sky-high (we’re talking over $8,000 a month), a “duplex” is usually code word for an apartment with a weird layout and no real living space. Or there’s a bedroom on the basement level. 

3. Thou shall not covet “cozy” or “charming” places. Translation: tiny and/or old.

4. Thou shall prepare to pay a broker’s fee. Unless you’re moving into a brand-new development, or the apartment’s been on the market for ages, chances are you’re going to pay some sort of broker’s fee. (It may very well be reduced though, especially during slow seasons.) While a no-fee apartment seems like the holy grail, it’s often there to make up for a faulty apartment or a too-high price tag. If not, remember that nothing comes for free, and chances are if you're not paying for the broker fee upfront,  you're paying for it somewhere else (maybe in higher rent).

5. Thou shall not take an asking rent or broker’s fee at face value. We negotiated our broker's fee down by a couple of thousand dollars. But I'm still kicking myself for not trying to negotiate down on the rent a bit. I’m not sure it would have worked, but during slow months, apartments tend to sit on the market and landlords know that. 

6. Thou shall have all your documentation in order. Apartment-hunting is stressful, without having to worry that the place that you want has been taken by someone else. Make sure all the appropriate documentation--your employer’s letter, tax forms, etc.--is prepared so application process moves quickly.

7. Thou shall not take your toddler to see apartments. This was a lesson we learned the hard way after several embarassing toddler tantrums. Even an iPad as distraction doesn’t work. Arrange babysitting if you can, or you and your partner can take turns looking at apartments. 

8. Thou shall not rely on one broker alone. We found our latest apartment by obsessively checking StreetEasy and NakedApartments for new listings within our price range, and then reaching out to brokers. Many brokers show the same listings (so make sure you’re not double-booking to see the same place with more than one broker), but many have exclusives or special intel on apartments opening up. You don’t need to be loyal to one or the other. 

9. Thou shall remember the Sabbath day(s). While you should be planning to see apartments often, give yourself some time off, too. If you see five apartments a day for two weeks, they’ll all start to blend in to each other and you'll be worn out. Give yourself a few days and limit yourself to about three apartments a day. 

10. Thou shall accept the suckiness that comes with apartment-hunting. Looking for an apartment is the worst. It’s pricey, it’s stressful, and brokers can be pushy. Expect to get frustated, but realize that it’ll be over soon… and then you get to move.

***This story was updated on May 6, 2016,

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