Finding a rental in New York City is notoriously challenging. It’s so expensive here and tracking down a place can be an exasperating experience—you need to be persistent so you don’t get locked into a lease that you can't really afford. Even if you’re an experienced renter, there are strategies you should brush up on to track down the best deal. And that’s especially true now as renters come back to New York City.
Be prepared for a more competitive market this summer, says Elizabeth Kee, a broker at CORE. Some employers are requiring workers to come into the office at least part time, so renters who left the city to work remotely are returning now. With the increased demand for apartments, some landlords are increasing rents and offering fewer freebies than they did before, she says.
College and grad students are also expected to return to the city in the coming months—increasing demand for rental apartments.
But there are still deals available if you’re a qualified tenant and are ready to rent right away, so make sure you also have all of your documents ready to make an offer, Kee says. “Lock in a long-term lease now, at a favorable rent, while you still can,” she says.
[Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article ran in May 2021. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer Best of Brick week.]
1. Think like a leasing agent
If you're dealing directly with an on-site leasing agent at a large, no-fee building, know that even if there are 10 or 20 vacancies, you might only be told about two or three. (Owners typically hold apartments back from the market to put themselves in a better position to negotiate.) So make sure you are extremely clear about what you want—there may be another unit available that fits your needs even better.
Also, the leasing agent won't always volunteer information about existing concessions, which are offered in lieu of lowering an apartment’s asking rent—you have to ask. Concessions typically include one or more months with free rent, the owner paying the broker’s fee, and free access to building amenities. Since the market is slowly becoming more competitive for renters, you won’t find concessions as generous as they were a year ago, when landlords had many vacancies, but it’s still wise to ask.
2. If you're working with a broker, find a good one
Apartment hunters are discouraged from renting places sight unseen. You risk falling for bait-and-switch schemes, where prospective tenants are enticed with photos but find the apartment has been swapped out to a sub-standard one by the time they get the keys. In-person showings have resumed after the pandemic, with extra safety precautions, but if you’re using virtual tours to check out apartments, it’s even more important to work with a reputable broker, cross-check information and ask lots of questions.
Not all agents have shady intentions, but some disreputable ones try to attract clients by advertising too-good-to-be-true apartments that are not actually available (or at least not at that price); you can read about other scams here.
Rather than finding an agent through a listing, get a personal recommendation from a friend or your company's relocation office. Another good resource is Brick Underground partner Triplemint.com—an upstart, tech-savvy brokerage founded by a pair of Yale grads in response to the dismal rental experiences of their classmates and colleagues. (Bonus: If you sign up here, Triplemint will charge a broker's fee of 10 percent of a year's rent instead of the usual 12 to 15 percent.)
If you're using an agent, be sure to get an agreement in writing that the agent will disclose any fees paid by the landlord and offset your fee by that amount. Unscrupulous agents double-dip without disclosing; they may also steer you toward fee-paid apartments, skipping over a potentially better choice for you.
Additionally, checking out a listing in an unfamiliar area or with a broker you’ve never met puts you in a vulnerable position, so check out these tips for staying safe while apartment hunting in NYC.
3. Know the difference between advertised rent and what you’ll actually pay
If you’re being offered a free month or two as a concession, that’s great, but know these discounts may be used to advertise apartments at a lower rent, aka the net effective rent that you would pay if the amount you saved from your free month(s) was spread throughout the term of your lease.
But that’s not how it usually works. Instead, you typically get your free month(s) in the beginning or at the end of your lease—your lease will tell you definitively when—but what you otherwise actually pay each month is a higher “gross rent.”
If the thought of doing the math to figure all of this out makes you break out in a cold sweat, Brick Underground’s gross rent calculator will do the math for you.
Some New York City landlords offer a free month (or more) at the beginning or end of a lease. The advertised rent is the net effective rent. The net effective rent is less than the amount you will actually have to pay --- known as your gross rent --- during your non-free months. Brick Underground's Gross Rent Calculator enables you to easily calculate your gross rent, make quick apples-to-apples comparisons between apartments and avoid expensive surprises. All you'll need to figure out your gross rent is 1) the net effective rent, 2) the length of your lease, and 3) how many free months your landlord is offering. [Hint: Bookmark this page for easy reference!] To learn more about net effective versus gross rents, read What does 'net effective rent' mean?. If the landlord is offering partial months free, enter it with a decimal point. For example, 6 weeks free rent should be entered as 1.5 months.
Gross Rent Calculator
Some New York City landlords offer a free month (or more) at the beginning or end of a lease. The advertised rent is the net effective rent. The net effective rent is less than the amount you will actually have to pay --- known as your gross rent --- during your non-free months.
Brick Underground's Gross Rent Calculator enables you to easily calculate your gross rent, make quick apples-to-apples comparisons between apartments and avoid expensive surprises. All you'll need to figure out your gross rent is 1) the net effective rent, 2) the length of your lease, and 3) how many free months your landlord is offering. [Hint: Bookmark this page for easy reference!]
To learn more about net effective versus gross rents, read What does 'net effective rent' mean?.
If the landlord is offering partial months free, enter it with a decimal point. For example, 6 weeks free rent should be entered as 1.5 months.
4. Consider a temporary, short-term rental
If you need somewhere temporary to stay, now is a very good time to consider a short-term rental. Short-term corporate rental apartments can be found for as little as $99 a night, making these a good deal for New Yorkers in-between apartments or for those renovating their place. Another option is to check out co-living spaces (sort of like adult dorms) if you want a turnkey rental with flexible leasing options.
But we warned: There are lots of scams out there among short-term rentals. Knowing the rules and red flags is essential.
5. Manage expectations about noise and (some) pets
Landlords might be hesitant about renting to people who they think are going to make a lot of noise, so you may not want to mention, for example, your need to rehearse a musical instrument to a prospective landlord or even your rental agent, who has a long-term interest in keeping the landlord happy. (Obviously, you need to be a good, respectful neighbor, so you can’t have a jam session whenever you want.) If you have noisy kids or play an instrument, you might want to consider a ground-level apartment or install extra soundproofing.
As far as pets, even if an apartment is advertised as pet-friendly, some dogs above a certain weight (typically 30-50 pounds) may be restricted. Some buildings may even want to screen your dog before you move in (think a temperament assessment, behavior training, or another type of evaluation) to ensure they’ll be a good resident. However, due to the pandemic, some landlords are easing their restrictions on bigger dog breeds, so you might have an easier time finding an apartment for you and your four-legged family member.
6. Consider renting a co-op or condo
The application process here is slower, because you have to pass a board interview, and it’s costlier, but renting a condo or (especially) a co-op can give you an apartment with higher-quality finishes and nicer amenities in a more well-maintained building. Most co-op buildings restrict the length of time owners can rent out their units to two years in any seven- to 10-year period, so if you're looking for a more permanent living situation, a condo or regular rental building is a better option.
Some condos have limits too, but they're less strict for the most part. Make sure your application has been approved by the board (not just the owner) or you can be kicked out after you've moved in. Also, be sure to ask if, as a renter, you will be excluded from any amenities like bike storage, roof deck, or gym, or from having pets.
7. Take on a sublet
All tenants in NYC can sublet their apartments—even if your lease says otherwise, although there are certain procedures to follow and you must notify your landlord in writing of your intention to do so.
With a sublet, the leaseholder remains on the hook for the rent and any damage to the apartment. A lease takeover is something different and involves a transfer of the lease assignment to a new renter, who must be approved by the landlord and have their finances and background checked. There are advantages here to the leaseholder who is able to break free of the lease and to the new tenant, who gets an apartment without paying a broker fee for a shorter time period, often with an option to sign a new lease.
8. Know when and what to negotiate
It's tough to do in a hot market or during a hot season (spring and summer), but some signs that the rent may be negotiable include an apartment that has been on the market longer than normal (hours or days in hot market; days or several weeks in a slow market); an access problem to the apartment (eg. current tenant won't allow you to see it); or an apartment in bad condition. Many renters find they have greater success negotiating perks rather than rent—things like free gym membership or bike storage, or asking for a small improvement to the apartment such as appliance replacement or floor refinishing.
9. Line up a guarantor if you need one
If you don't meet the landlord's income requirement—which is usually at least 40 times the monthly rent—you might have to use a guarantor, who is someone who lives in the tri-state area and makes 80 times the monthly rent or has that in bank, savings, or a stock market account if they’re retired. Usually this person is a close relative, but if you don’t have someone who can help out, you might be able to ask a friend or ask if your roommate has someone who can be the guarantor for both of you. Another option: Brick Underground sponsor Insurent will act as a guarantor for a fee, which costs 70 to 90 percent of one month’s rent.
10. Know your bed bug rights
You are legally entitled to written disclosure of the building's bed bug history when you sign the lease. But to spare yourself a headache, ask about bed bug history up front. You can't be sure you're going to get an honest answer, but it can't hurt to come across as aware and proactive. Also check the Bed Bug Registry as well as the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development website to look for signs of ongoing infestation and poor management.
11. Check the building amenities against your lease
If your building has a roof deck, gym, bike storage, or other amenities, make sure your access (and any fees) are included in the lease. Sometimes you can ask for the management company to waive the fees.
12. Be prepared to ask your prior landlord for a letter of recommendation
Some landlords may ask for a letter of recommendation from your prior landlord. What they really want to know is whether you paid your rent on time. The second thing they want is to know if you're a quiet, clean neighbor.
13. Know how to assess a building for kid-friendliness
Looking for a building with lots of families—or one with a more adults-only vibe? Anti-housing discrimination laws prevent real estate agents from discussing whether a building is family friendly or not (or even whether the local schools are good.)
Some signs of a kid-friendly building include lots of family-sized apartments (two bedrooms and up) and a well-tended playroom. You should also ask the doorman and park yourself outside the building before or after school to see if you notice families coming in or out of the building.
14. Perform a late-night soundcheck
Before you sign your lease, come back around midnight to see if any rooftop bars or nightclubs might pose a threat to your peace and quiet. Street noise can be mitigated, however, with some soundproofing, so it's not necessarily a reason to disqualify an apartment you love.
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