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How to move to NYC: A crash course in apartment-hunting

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Moving to New York City is a big deal, no matter who you are or how cool you were back in Cleveland. New York is a deeply egalitarian metropolis in the sense that no one’s concerned about what you did before you arrived—it’s what you do with yourself here that matters.

Knowing this can be intimidating. But that’s okay! You’re moving to the greatest city in the world, in the eyes of those of us who live here. (Rule number one: Do not argue with a New Yorker on New York's preeminence.) That said, there are a host of ways to make the transition as smooth as possible.

And if all this sounds like too much, well, just know that you’ll have plenty more things to worry about once you’re here.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was published in 2017, and has been updated with new information for 2018.]

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

Let’s face it, your biggest struggle—aside from reckoning with the existential terror of living in a city of 8.5 million people—will be finding a place to live. There are some broad themes to consider at the outset. How well do you know the city? If the answer is “I’ve visited once,” or “Brooklyn is a neighborhood, right?” you should definitely engage in some on-the-ground research.

Grab yourself a short-term rental and do some recon. This will allow you to learn things about a neighborhood that you just can’t fully grasp from internet research, like how long the walk to the subway really is, the quality of the produce selection at your closest supermarket, and how the area feels at night. Sure, there’s a lot you can learn online, but never underestimate the importance of intangibles. If that’s not possible, at least take a virtual stroll around the area using Google Street View.

Once you think you’ve landed on a neighborhood, learn more about it. Visit Address Report, which generates maps with information on whatever address you enter, such as commute times, nearby parks, and number of noise complaints. You can also enter a building's address into Localize.city to learn about current and future construction, views, shadows, road safety, and much more. Local blogs are also a good way to get a sense of what’s happening in a particular area (here's our list of the best ones around). You can also get insider information through our Neighborhood Secrets series.

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 5- or 10-minute walk from the train, do you have an alternative means of getting around, like a bus or Citi Bike? Keep in mind that even neighborhoods with access to subway lines can see major delays and detours on weekends, so if you work on weekends or plan to go out a lot, you’ll want to check MTA.info for details on planned maintenance work and construction. If you’re thinking of moving to a neighborhood off the L train, know that in 2019 it is going shut down for more than a year. This might be a deal-breaker, or it might work in your favor, as rents and asking prices should take a hit during that time.

  • What are your food options? Maybe you’re an amazing chef, but it’s unlikely you’ll have time to cook each and every day. Head over to the food blogs Eater and Grub Street to get a sense what’s out there, as well as what’s opening up. Food delivery services like Seamless, Caviar, UberEats, Postmates, and Delivery.com will do the hard work for you, and FreshDirect, Instacart, Google Shopping Express and Amazon Prime Now grocery delivery services will also help you avoid leaving your house to eat. You can also just call your favorite local takeout place to put in a delivery order the old-fashioned way, and many conventional grocery stores and bodegas deliver as well. (Note: If you have a doorman, don't assume he will accept grocery deliveries for you when you're not home. The soaring popularity of these options has so overwhelmed some buildings that they now refuse delivery. Be sure to ask what the policy is if this matters to you.)

  • What are the schools like? If you're moving here with kids who 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. The task is so daunting that there are actually consultants who specialize in parsing your 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 zone. They aren't allowed to weigh in on the quality of the school because of federal fair housing regulations. The real estate search site StreetEasy includes public school zoning information with all its listings. For more school info, go to the Department of Education website. 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 schools. InsideSchools and GreatSchools are great resources if you're interested in public schools specifically.

  • What's the nightlife like? New York City has party neighborhoods, quiet family neighborhoods, and everything in between. In Manhattan, major party hubs include the East Village, Murray Hill, and the Lower East Side. In Brooklyn and Queens, that means Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint and Ridgewood. These neighborhoods tend to get pretty loud on weekends, and might not be ideal if you’re not planning to take advantage of the city’s wilder offerings. Ask around and see if there are a few too many bars in a given area for your liking, and return in the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. timeframe on a Friday or Saturday night to get a sense of the vibe.

  • What evacuation zone are you in? Superstorm Sandy taught us that severe weather can affect the city in a big way, and climate experts say we are likely to see more intense weather in the future. Parts of the city at greatest risk for flooding are evacuated first (see the zones here). It's something to consider, as there'll be a temporary disruption even 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 and having to pick up the pieces when the next big storm hits.

  • How safe is the neighborhood? You can always check the official NYPD 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, and to check it out yourself, especially  at night. The vibe at 9 p.m. might be very different than at the 3 p.m. 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 if you have a car, you can ask residents, brokers, and doormen about this. That is, if you plan to keep the car, which, again, you probably don't need. If you are going to keep the ride, 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 park on the street. If you decide to park your car in a garage, be sure to factor monthly fees into your budget. In Manhattan, $400-$500 a month is not unusual for garage parking. Some garages in prime locations charge as much as $800 to 900 a month. Renting a car is always an option, too. A Zipcar membership allows you to rent cars by the hour (most cost about $15 per hour, gas included). Car2Go offers tiny Smart cars 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 and Queens. On the plus side, you can leave the cars on the street where you please, as opposed to having to return them to their original spots, as you do with Zipcar.

  • What's the landlord like? Before you plunk thousands of dollars down on your first NYC rental, run a background check of sorts on your landlord. Ask a few of your future neighbors what they think of the landlord including how the building is maintained and how quickly (if at all) their requests are handled. Google your landlord, look up the building in the NYC Department of Buildings website, and check out your building's grade on RentLogic.    Also take a look at Brick Underground's rankings of best Manhattan landlords and best Brooklyn landlords.

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 New York landlords require that a tenant earn 40-50 times the monthly rent in a year. If you don't, you'll have to have a guarantor who makes 80-100 times the monthly rent and promises to pay the balance of your lease if you default. Often, the landlord also requires that the guarantor live in the tri-state area, so that it's easier to collect if you default.

If that's not possible, or if you or your guarantor isn't local, you may be able to pay for 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 good credit.

Pro Tip:

Need expert help finding the perfect apartment in the perfect neighborhood? Looking for a landlord who is flexible about guarantors, pets, or "flexing" your space with temporary walls? Moving here for a job or for school? Put your search into the capable hands of Triplemint, a tech-savvy real estate brokerage founded by a pair of Yale grads in response to the frustrating apartment-search experiences of classmates and colleagues. Triplemint will charge a broker's fee of 10 percent of a year's rent on open listings instead of the usual 12 to 15 percent if you sign up here.  Bonus: The agents at Triplemint are a delight to deal with.

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 Brick Underground's How to Buy a NYC Apartment. Get insider tips for board interviews here, and check out our Big Fat Board Interview series for real-life stories.

3. Brokers charge fees in New York

Buyers: Sellers pay a broker's fee that is typically between 5 and 6 percent, 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.

Tip: To reap substantial savings while retaining the most important services of an agent, work with a brokerage that offers a commission rebate if you do some of the legwork on your own. Prevu  (a Brick Underground partner based in New York) will handle pretty much everything, including sending you to listings that fit your needs, advising you on the right price to offer, preparing the offer, negotiating with the seller, and assembling the board package you’ll need to prove your worth (literally and figuratively) to a co-op or condo board. As a participant in Prevu’s “Smart Buyer” program, you’ll pocket a rebate of two-thirds of the commission paid to the buyer’s broker at closing.  On a $1 million condo with a 6 percent commission, the rebate equals 2 percent of the purchase price…a cool $20,000.

Renters: Believe it or not, here in New York City, renters pay broker fees too. There are rentals that come without broker fees (and websites dedicated to helping you find them), but these deals tend to either be in less-than-great shape buildings, or for higher-end luxury apartments where the landlord either employs her own leasing agents or pays the fees of outside brokers herself. If you're determined to avoid the broker's fee, be prepared to do some 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's rent, especially if you're willing to move fast on an 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 rather shares of the cooperative, and you still have to pay for the maintenance of the building each month. So in addition to your monthly mortgage payments, you'll have a maintenance fee, 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 Buy Curious guide to finding an apartment with an abatement in place.

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 in co-ops, where you'll have to be approved by the co-op board as well as the apartment owner), plus 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 money 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 the 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' rent up front. Check to make sure it’s not a scam before you cough up any large amount of money (here are some tips to protect yourself). Also, note that landlords of rent-stabilized apartments are not allowed to take more money up front.

Buyers: Financing requirements may be loosening slightly, but whether or not a mortgage will be issued can still cast a cloud of uncertainty over a deal. The ability to offer all cash will put you at the front of the line when it comes to buying an apartment here. 

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

Many 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 guide.) 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 that just like buildings, some neighborhoods are more pet-friendly than others.

Keep your animal's personality in mind 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 that listings are entirely truthful, but we know brokers can be flexible with the facts. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking at listings:

  • "Luxury" is subjective. Some "luxury" buildings can seem like tired 1960s TV 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. Sometimes “convertible” just means a living room that isn't insanely small. 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. (Here are 18 landlords that are okay with temporary walls.) 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 often translate into "dilapidated."

  • "Unique" might mean a strange layout, or worse.

  • "Quiet" can mean it overlooks an air shaft or brick wall.

  • Some additional "bedrooms" may not be legal. A key tell is whether they have windows. If they don't, they're not.

  • An outdoor space in need of some "TLC" could moonlight as a junkyard. If that's okay with you, read our guide to fixing up a decrepit outdoor space.

  • If they don't mention a doorman or elevator, that's because there isn't one. The same  is true with laundry facilities (though there are on-demand pick-up/drop-off services that help with that now, too).

 

Related:

The 8 best websites to find a no fee apartment in Manhattan

The 12 Best Landlords in Manhattan: A Brick Underground Guide

How to Buy a NYC Apartment

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)

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

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