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The 10 commandments of looking for a NYC rental apartment

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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. 

[This story was first published in February 2014.]

Based on the many trials and tribulations in my years of hunting, here are my personal 10 commandments for renting a New York apartment:

1. Thou shalt 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 shalt 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 shalt not covet “cozy” or “charming” places

Translation: tiny and/or old.

4. Thou shalt 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. 

A no-fee apartment may seem like the holy grail, but 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 up front,  you're paying for it somewhere else.

5. Thou shalt 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 shalt 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 the application process moves quickly.

7. Thou shalt not take your toddler to see apartments

This was a lesson we learned the hard way after several embarrassing 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 shalt not rely on one broker alone

We found our latest apartment by obsessively checking StreetEasy and Naked Apartments 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 brokers also have exclusives or special intel on apartments opening up. You don’t need to be loyal to one or the other. 

9. Thou shalt remember the Sabbath(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 shalt 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 frustrated, but realize that it’ll be over soon… and then you get to move.

 

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