Neighborhood Intel

How to move to NYC: A crash course for finding an apartment

By Jennifer White Karp | July 28, 2022 - 3:00PM

If you're flexible about where you are willing to live, the size of your apartment, and the amenities you can forgo—you'll have more luck finding a place in NYC.

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Thinking of moving to New York City? You must like a challenge. Right now, the rental market is bonkers: Apartment rents are hitting new records—the average rent for a Manhattan apartment hit $5,000 in June according to the Elliman Report—and good luck even finding a place that’s available.

Because when you do—you’ll have to beat out other people who may offer the landlord more than he or she is asking. Yes, bidding wars for rentals are a thing here.

It can be a lot to wrap your head around, but it’s not all bad news—seriously! If you're flexible about where you are willing to live, the size of your apartment, and the amenities you can forgo—you'll have more luck finding a place, one that isn’t too much more expensive than your budget (hopefully).

If you're looking to buy, you’re in a better position. Most buyers, scared by rising mortgage rates and economic uncertainty, are sitting this market out, so you'll face a lot less competition in the sales market. Prices are not falling, but there’s more negotiability: For example, these days, you can make an offer of 8 to 10 percent lower than asking to get the ball rolling.

Read on for how first-timers can find a place to rent or buy in NYC.


[Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article ran in July 2021. We are presenting it again with updated information for July 2022.]


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

Start with a basic question: 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.

One option is to find a short-term rental and do some recon on a few neighborhoods you think you might like. This will allow you to grasp things you can't get from internet research, like how long the walk to the subway really is, the quality of the produce selection at the local supermarket, and how the area feels at night. Sure, there’s a lot you can learn online, but never underestimate the importance of getting a real feel for a place. If that’s not possible, at least take a virtual stroll around the area using Google Street View and read up as much as you can.

You can do more research by checking out websites for local news—a good way to get a sense of what’s happening in a particular area. StreetEasy also provides in-depth neighborhood intel. Be sure to read Brick’s extensive interview series with New Yorkers who moved from one neighborhood to another, newcomers who recently moved to the city, and long-time locals on what it’s like to live in their corner of the city. Of course, hanging out in an area is the best way to get a feel of it, especially if you know what to look for.

Pro Tip:

Whether you’re looking to relocate to NYC long-term, or you want a short-term rental in one of the city’s best neighborhoods, selecting the right place for the right price with the right amenities can be tricky. Blueground takes the guesswork out of the apartment hunt, offering fully-furnished apartments—many pet-friendly—with rentals starting at just 30 days. The app-enabled tech-meets-hospitality company offers top-name neighborhoods, like Williamsburg, Midtown, and the Financial District, with over 300 unique apartments from which to choose. Compare prices and photos here.

Get up to speed on how to read listings. You will want to avoid getting tripped up by—among other things—net effective versus gross rent, and the difference between a safe, legal bedroom and a home office.

After you zero in on a place, research the owner and the building. Before you plunk thousands of dollars down on your first NYC rental, run a background check of sorts. 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 via the Department of Buildings and check reviews on sites like Openigloo, Apartment Ratings, RentCity, bitResi, or GoHomeNY. Consider that well-maintained common areas are a sign that the landlord and management care about the building and its upkeep. A door with a broken lock or overflowing garbage can indicate safety and sanitation are a problem—you can’t assume they will be fixed just because you’re moving in.

Here are additional questions you and your broker should keep in mind:

How convenient is the area when it comes to subways? If you're more than a 10-minute walk from the train, or prefer to avoid the train altogether, do you have an alternative means of getting around, like a bus or Citi Bike?

What are your dining options? Many of the city’s restaurants shut down during the pandemic. A little bit of research on food blogs like Eater and Grub Street will give you a sense of what restaurants are nearby. 

What are options for ordering in? There are plenty of apps to choose from if you want take-out delivery in NYC—and these can help figure out who will deliver to you in your new neighborhood. Some neighborhoods are better served by food delivery options than others. Consider that many local eateries prefer you can call them directly to order food out. 

If you have a doorman, don't assume they will accept grocery deliveries for you when you're not home. The soaring popularity of grocery delivery services has led some buildings to refuse delivery, so be sure to ask what the building’s policy is. Another consideration is tipping etiquette during the holidays in your new building. To help you calibrate tips, consult our annually updated tipping guide.

What are the schools like? If you're moving here with kids and plan on sending to public school, your real estate search will be more complicated. Read our guide to NYC’s public and private elementary schools to get a grasp on how the system works. 

It's important to know that if you are moving within a few blocks of a school, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will attend that school. (But public school enrollment is down as a result of the pandemic, so there are more open seats that usual). Sound confusing? There are consultants who specialize in helping you navigate the system. Note: When it comes to schools, brokers aren't allowed to tell you much more than whether the building you're looking at is within a certain school's zone and they aren't allowed to weigh in on the quality of the school because of federal fair housing regulations. And be warned: A listing may say an apartment or house is zoned for a school, but don’t rely on that information. It could be wrong or relying on outdated school zones. The only sure-fire way to know if an address is zoned for a certain school is to call the school and ask. Most schools have a parent coordinator who can help you with this information.

The Department of Education provides the most detailed and up-to-date school information. From there you can find out statistics about your zoned school and more. InsideSchools and GreatSchools are great resources if you're interested in public schools. You might also want to check out non-zoned charter schools and private schools. Arming yourself with stats is one helpful piece when evaluating a school, but nothing will give you a better sense of a school like seeing it in person through tours and information sessions.

What's the nightlife like? NYC has party neighborhoods, quiet family neighborhoods, and neighborhoods that are a mix. In Manhattan, major party hubs in normal times include the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Murray Hill. In Brooklyn that means Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Queens, it’s Long Island City, Astoria, and Ridgewood.

If there are a few too many bars in a given area for your liking, you may want to search elsewhere. Because if you move to an apartment above a bar—you can expect it to be noisy plus have smokers congregating outside—you can’t really expect a business to change just because you moved in. And as a result of the pandemic, outdoor dining is here to stay. Some places play music—and even have live bands—which is fun except if you’re trying to sleep in during brunch service, so keep an eye on those restaurants too.

What evacuation zone am I in? Superstorm Sandy taught us that severe weather can affect the city in dramatic ways, 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. Also consider where you live in the building: Hurricane Ida underscored the fact that basement apartments can be deadly during a storm. 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? The official NYPD website has 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 10 p.m. might be very different than at the 3 p.m. viewing you scheduled. 

How easy is it to find a parking spot? With the exception of Staten Island, the answer to this question is probably going to be "not very." But if you plan to have a car, you can ask residents, brokers, and doormen about this and get familiar with alternate side street parking regulations. Typically you'll wind up moving your car less frequently in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. 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. 

2. Money can't buy you everything

Renters: Most New York landlords require that a tenant earn an annual salary of 40 to 50 times the monthly rent—which may seem like an astonishingly high amount. If you don't earn that much, you'll need to have a personal guarantor who makes 80-100 times the monthly rent and promises to pay the balance of your lease if you default. Often a landlord will also require that the guarantor live in the tri-state area, so that it's easier to collect if you default, although some insist your guarantor live in New York. If you don’t have anyone who can do that for you, or if your guarantor isn't local, you may be able to pay for an institutional guarantor 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 The Agency, a tech-savvy real estate brokerage that's helped hundreds of Brick Underground readers find their ideal NYC apartments. The Agency 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 The Agency are a delight to deal with.

One way to get around some of those pricey barriers is to opt for a co-living situation. Co-living offers residents a room in a furnished, fully equipped apartment with utilities and other amenities for one, all-inclusive price. For the full scoop, check out Brick Underground’s guide to co-living options in NYC. 

Buyers: Even if your finances are in tip-top shape, buying a co-op means 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." As a result of the pandemic, co-op board interviews are now done remotely and many boards prefer it this way. Find a quiet, well-lit place to do the interview, and try to reduce interruptions. For some real-life examples of co-op board interviews, check out Brick’s series on the topic.

3. Brokers charge fees in New York

Buyers: Sellers pay a broker's fee of 5 to 6 percent, divided 50-50 between the buyer’s broker (if you’re using one) and the seller's broker. The good news is that it means buyers don't pay a fee. The bad news: Those fees are baked into 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: In NYC, renters pay broker fees too, and they’re steep. 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. During the doldrums of the pandemic, landlords were willing to cover the broker fee, but with the rental market so frenzied, they are not inclined to do so now.

There are rentals that come without broker fees, but these deals tend to either be 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 some digging.

4. Buyers: Don't forget about carrying costs

Buying a co-op is not like buying a house—make sure you understand the difference between a co-op vs. a condo. Technically, with a co-op, 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 goes up a bit each year.

The monthly fees for condos are referred to as common charges. Some new condo developments have property tax abatements that keep property taxes extremely 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.

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 amenities, 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 Brick Underground’s pros and cons of renting in a co-op or condo building.

6. Have your checkbook ready

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 if there is one, a month’s rent as a security deposit and the first month's rent within a few days of signing your lease. One way to cut down on upfront costs is to find a roommate or apartment-share situation (but be sure to heed these signs of a roommate scam).

Buyers: Mortgage rates rising, and for that reason some buyers are giving adjustable rate mortgages another look in order to cut their expenses. If you can offer all cash you can speed up part of the buying process.

7. Net effective rent is lower than what you'll actually pay

When demand is lower, for example during the winter, you may find a rental with a free month (or even two). Lots of NYC landlords offer this freebie at the beginning or end of a lease to encourage you to sign a lease. Some landlords spread the discount over the term of the lease in what's called the net effective rent or the advertised rent, but 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.

calculator

Brick Underground's

Gross Rent Calculator

What's this?

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?.

Per Month
Months
Months

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.

Per Month

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

Many buildings in NYC 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 for buildings that allow pets. Your landlord or management company may want to screen your dog.

Outdoor space is increasingly sought after in light of the pandemic and if you have a dog, you’ll want to be close to parks and dog runs. 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. Consider creating a “pet resume” to help document your pet’s medical history and training.

9. Descriptions can be deceiving

Sure, you would like to believe that listings are entirely truthful, but some brokers can be flexible with the facts. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking at listings:

"Luxury" is overused. It's deployed to describe all kinds of buildings, so don't put too much stock in it.

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 that you plan to make into a two bedroom or want to close off space for a home office. 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 but not much else.

"Charming" can often mean "dilapidated."

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

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

Some "bedrooms" may not be legal. A key tell is no windows.  

An outdoor space in need of some "TLC" can be rehabbed, even if you're on a budget.

If a listing doesn’t mention a doorman or elevator, that's because there isn't one. The same is true with laundry facilities.

Previous versions of this article included writing and reporting by Lauren Evans, Lucy Cohen Blatter, and Mimi O’Connor.

Previous versions of this article included writing and reporting by Lauren Evans, Lucy Cohen Blatter, Mimi O'Connor, and Emly Myers

 

 

Jennifer White Karp

Managing Editor

Jennifer White Karp steers Brick Underground’s editorial coverage of New York City residential real estate and writes articles on market trends and strategies for buyers, sellers, and renters. Jennifer’s 15-year career in NYC real estate journalism includes stints as a writer and editor at The Real Deal and its spinoff publication, Luxury Listings NYC. She holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the New School.

Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.
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