Roommates + Landlords

9 mistakes to avoid as a first-time NYC renter

  • Missing paperwork will prevent you from acting quickly and cause you to lose that dream apartment
  • Don't assume good credit makes up for a lack of steady income; you'll need roommates or a guarantor
  • Having unrealistic expectations can severely limit your options: 'This is not a market to be picky in'
Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia
By Evelyn Battaglia  |
August 29, 2023 - 12:30PM
first-time renter in NYC

Finding a place to rent involves compromise regardless of your budget—set your expectations accordingly.


The New York City rental market has plenty of pitfalls to trip up a rookie renter. There are scams involving fake listings, for example. Or landlords that disregard (or don’t know) the laws that protect renters. Your best bet is to know how to avoid a bad situation since renters have very little leverage these days.

That’s because the market currently favors landlords thanks to high demand, low inventory, and continuing sky-high rents—and the generous concessions renters used to see are gone, at least for now.

"We are faced with incredibly lean inventory on both the sales and rental side at the moment," says Liz Lawton, an agent at Compass. "Anyone looking for a rental needs to be their own best advocate by setting search alerts and checking frequently. Reaching out as soon as possible is imperative."

Finding a place to live in the city also involves compromise, regardless of your budget. Landlords have stringent income and credit requirements that can put your dream apartment out of reach—and if you can’t meet those standards, you need to find a way to work around them. It’s important to do your homework on the area where you want to live and keep your expectations in check.

One of the best ways to avoid making a mistake is simply being super prepared, meaning you'll want to see apartments armed with all the documents you need to apply. Also, search only for apartments within your budget—and know what it takes to qualify for an apartment here. If you are going to shack up with roommates to afford living here, make sure the landlord is ok with you creating an additional bedroom using temporary walls (or adding a bookshelf wall). 

Brick is here to demystify the process so you can effectively navigate the NYC rental market with eyes wide open.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in August 2022. We are presenting it again with updated information for August 2023.]

1. Missing paperwork 

Like all things in this fast-paced city, desirable rentals tend to get grabbed up as soon as they are listed—Lawton says places are moving during the first days on the market. The competition is stiff and the supply is short, and there may be other equally qualified folks looking at the same apartment as you.

Getting your paperwork prepared and being able to meet a landlord's income requirements are more important than ever. In order to act quickly, you can’t afford to have any holes in your documents, though most management companies will understand if you can’t submit a letter from a previous landlord because, for example, you lived in campus housing or at home for the past few years.

"My most successful clients are getting their paperwork in order for their upcoming rental at least two months in advance, even if we are not going to see the volume of inventory until 45 to 30 days out from when they want their lease to start," says Molly Franklin, an agent at Corcoran. Besides being armed with the requisite docs, "having your agent understand the full breadth of your finances means you can shop appropriately when the time comes for that."  

So what exactly does this paperwork entail? Although it can vary slightly by landlord, some standard documents apply across the board. Joe Tartaglia-Malter, an agent at Real NY Properties, emails each new client the following list after the very first phone call, noting that landlords will want to see the items from everyone who will be on the lease, including guarantors and roommates. 

  • Government-issued photo ID (a clear picture from your phone is best)

  • Letter of employment; or offer letter; or letter from a CPA if self-employed that states your annual income

  • Three most recent bank statements (summary pages only)

  • Three most recent pay stubs

  • Two most recent tax returns (first two pages only)

  • Application fee, which is limited to $20 per person (non-refundable)

  • Current landlord reference letter (if available, or explain if no prior rentals)

  • Renters insurance (sometimes required)

  • Refundable security deposit (limited to the equivalent of one month’s rent). 

Tartaglia-Malter also identifies another critical hurdle: When it comes to your initial funds, including the application fee, first month’s rent, broker’s fee, and security deposit, you will need hard funds in the way of a certified check, money order, or possibly an online credit card payment. (He says StuyTown, a complex of buildings on Manhattan's Lower East Side, accepts the latter.) No personal checks. 

Lawton encourages anyone who has a stock portfolio or other quantifiable assets to offer proof of those in the initial package. “This, for sure, has helped a few clients be more successful by rising above the pack,” she says.

And lest you fear that your personal information is going to be compromised by electronic transmission—a common concern, especially among parent-guarantors—know that established brokerages handle scores of these transactions every day using the latest in online security. So get accustomed to turning over all necessary information—no screenshots of your bank statements or crossed-out information on your tax returns, in other words. 

Indeed, this is one area where having a broker on your side may give you a leg up. As Tartaglia-Malter puts it, “I am like a personal trainer at the gym who will get you where you want to be in the most effective and efficient manner.”

Pro Tip:

To rent an apartment in New York City, most landlords require you to earn an annual salary of at least 40 to 45 times the monthly rent. If you don't—or if you’re an international employed person, self-employed, non-employed with assets, retired, or an international student or U.S. student—you’ll need to find a guarantor for your lease who earns at least 80 times the monthly rent and lives in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut.  Or you can turn to Insurent Lease Guaranty. Accepted at more than 9,000 buildings across the city representing over 825,000 apartments, Insurent Lease Guaranty is a quick and easy way to get the apartment you want. Click here to learn more.

2. Insufficient funds

Qualifying for a starter rental in NYC tends to be (much) more difficult than getting an apartment elsewhere. For starters, you (and your roommates, if you have them) must earn an annual salary equal to (or greater than) 40 to 50 times the monthly rent. That works out to $120,000 to $150,000 for a $3,000 apartment. 

In the past, landlords often asked renters to pay the last month’s rent in addition to the first month plus the security deposit, but the 2019 changes to the rent law prevents them from doing this. “They also can no longer ask for anything more than the equivalent of one month’s rent as a security deposit, making the initial costs less of a hindrance,” says attorney Sam Himmelstein, a partner at Himmelstein McConnell Gribben & Joseph, who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations (and is a Brick sponsor, FYI). 

On the other hand, you're no longer able to offer an entire year's rent in upfront cash, which was once a pretty common way to get around the income requirement. "The wrinkles in the 2019 law have made it really difficult for a whole sector of people in the current market," Franklin says. 

What if your salary doesn’t pass muster? In this era of the gig economy, predictable, biweekly paychecks are not always the norm. Or you may lack any work history prior to your current entry-level position. That's ok—you still have options.

First, you can split the costs with one or more roommates. You’ll still have to meet the minimum threshold based on your combined income, and it will be on you to have all the roommates get their paperwork in order. (See more on roommates below.)

If you prefer to live alone, your best (and perhaps only) bet is to find a guarantor. Personal guarantors, by far the most common scenario, must show an annual income of at least 80 to 90 times the monthly rental each year. Why so high? The thinking is that a guarantor needs to be able to cover your housing costs, plus their own. (Franklin stresses the need to still show trackable income and get letters where possible—"don't just put a number down for your bartending side job.")

Those who cannot find a qualified guarantor (including international students whose parents or other relatives don’t reside in the U.S.) can hire an institutional guarantor such as Insurent Lease Guaranty (a Brick Underground sponsor). These third-party guarantors charge an average fee of 65 to 85 percent of a month's rent for U.S. citizens and about a month's rent for foreign nationals with no U.S. credit. 

"Where clients run into trouble with third-party guarantors is that they won't qualify people with poor credit. Also, not every building accepts them or only takes certain lenders," Franklin says. However, she sees institutional investors as an essential way for international renters to be able to live here. "And if you are a self-employed person with decent credit but slightly less income, these represent a great opportunity. Yes, you'll be paying a fee to a third-party company, but if that's what gets you the apartment you want, hooray!" 

Needing a guarantor is not just an issue for recent grads or career starters, either. "I even get renters who are well into adulthood and may not be at the top of the pile offer up a guarantor despite having strong credit, especially if they are self-employed," Franklin says, pointing to the number of rentals that are "frankly unaffordable in many aspects. People are having to spend 50 percent or more of their post-tax income to stay here." 

When roommates are involved, she says it's important to know that a lot of landlords will only accept one guarantor on a lease—and there might not be anyone in that friend group that's (a) willing to take on the responsibility for every tenant or (b) has the wherewithal to show 80 percent of what a four bedroom is costing these days. "It's a lot of money," she says.

Finally, if neither roommates nor guarantors are viable options, you’ll need to lower your budget and adjust your priorities (jump to "unrealistic expectations" for more). 

"Sometimes, I try and talk clients down from their desires and work on a location change to bring it back to a place where they aren't going to need a guarantor—if you can compromise on this or that, and then you'll be doing this all on your own, Franklin says. "A lot of adults don't want to be dependent on their parents." 

Pro Tip:

Need help finding the perfect starter apartment in the right neighborhood—or a landlord inclined to be flexible about guarantors, work history, rental history, or "flexing" your space with temporary walls? Place your search into the capable hands of The Agency, 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. 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.

3. No credit history

Paying your bills on time is an important step toward building good credit, yet that often does not happen until after graduation or entering the job market. For overseas renters, be aware that credit history in another country doesn’t transfer to the U.S., and guarantors are required to be in the tri-state area.

Still, “no credit is better than bad credit, so long as you have a reason why,” Lawton says. 

Some landlords are willing to bend a bit and take someone with no or less-than-stellar credit so long as are making the required salary. 

"Sometimes people who are self-employed may not be paying themselves very much the first few years while they build their business, which will impact their credit," Franklin says, adding that it might be worth showing that you have a strong business line of credit instead. 

Alternatively, this is another situation that can be solved by using a personal guarantor or an institutional guarantor like Insurent.


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

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.

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4. Unrealistic expectations

Above all else, brokers say they spend the most time and energy educating newcomers on this one issue. It gets exponentially more difficult to get this message across when there is more than one person in the picture, such as roommates or parent-guarantors. 

Tartaglia-Malter always starts by telling people who are moving here from anywhere else, “You’ll be paying much more and getting much less, but you’ll be living in NYC.” The difference between what renters earn and the apartments they qualify for often clashes with their dreams, he says.

Lawton says the preponderance of fake ads and word-of-mouth hype makes people yearn for what she calls a “unicorn apartment,” like a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom unit with a terrace, doorman, and washer-dryer in the West Village for $3,000. (Suffice it to say, apartments like that don’t exist at that price in that neighborhood.)

In these instances, Lawton tells clients to get a sense of what they can afford by searching on sites like StreetEasy, and paying close attention to the photos and objective criteria. “If you don’t see what you want within your budget, it’s not the market, it’s you,” she says.

"We have high inflation, and a lot of people are looking to move to New York, so prices are going to seem high compared to previous times," she cautions. "It's not a fun pill to swallow but necessary if you want to successfully find a home in the city."

If you find yourself holding out for the perfect apartment, you can miss out because the apartments you saw that were good but didn’t quite meet your standards will be snapped up by other renters. "Even crappy apartments are going quickly," Franklin says. 

All brokers agree it takes seeing the apartments first-hand to really understand what you can afford, especially if you have your heart set on a specific neighborhood. Be prepared to hit the pavement.

Franklin's approach is to say, "'Great, based on your sharp parameters for finances, I'm going to pull the best listings in your desired location along with some other listings that will get you what you want in other ways.' Maybe I let location win—it often only takes seeing two dungeons for people to say no." 

She says she then tries to show them places they can afford (preferably on the same day). "After a few of those, something in them usually shifts; either they find more money (such as from their parents), or they decide to suck it up and not live where all their friends lived five years ago and be a trendsetter in a new neighborhood." 

A good rule of thumb is to find an apartment that checks off your top three boxes, whether they be for location, square footage, the quality of a building, or amenities like a doorman—all while staying within your budget. 

Here's one other reality check: "For particularly hot apartments, offering over the asking rent is necessary to get an edge, and waffling for too long may lose you the apartment," Lawton says. "We sadly are not in a situation with options galore so this is not a market to be picky in. Unfortunately, you need to let go of preconceived notions of what is an 'acceptable' rent."

You should also know you are facing stiff competition, even if you look good on paper. Franklin had seven applications on a $3,500 rental in a small townhouse, all of them "ridiculously overqualified." She says one couple who made a combined $600,000 still lost out to another bidder who offered to pay $100 more per month and handle the snow removal." 

5. Irritating the listing agent

The listing agent is the key to getting a showing of an apartment—and in a competitive market, brokers are getting hundreds of inquiries. Irritating the listing agent will jeopardize your chances of getting a showing or, ultimately, the apartment. So don’t take your frustrations out on the broker: Be courteous and respectful of their time. 

Lawton recommends preparing a thoughtful email to the listing agent in a note on your phone to copy and paste as soon as a property pops up that you want to view. Your note should spell out that you make 40 times the monthly rent and have your paperwork ready to go; you should also share three details you love about the property, which shows you’ve actually looked at the specs online and tells the agent you’re a serious contender.

You also want to act fast. “With such a crazy influx of inquiries, you want to be in the first batch the listing agent reviews because this is not their only listing and they'll usually respond to the first handful for showings,” she says, noting that it’s an overwhelming and unnecessary task for a listing agent to respond to hundreds of emails and accommodate hundreds of showings over a single rental.

Lawton speaks from experience when she says, “Do not text them, call them, or email them non-stop asking about a showing or about your application at all hours of the day.” 

6. Anxious parents 

Crime is an ongoing concern, and some parents may need some convincing about a neighborhood. It's important to know that brokers aren’t allowed to comment on the safety of any particular part of the city, but they can point out that they happen to live there or are regulars in the area themselves, which is what Lawton has often done.

“I had one mom who said her son would never be allowed to live near the Hell’s Angels until I pointed out that they were all in their 50s and 60s now,” she says. “I also tend to bring the conversation back to perks such as being close to transportation and affordable restaurants.” 

Lawton finds that parents can be unrealistic in what their kids really need, too, saying they “must” have a doorman and elevator when that is not within their budget. 

Franklin echoes that observation. "I've taken off the kid gloves when dealing with parents because frequently they are not walking through the property. I'm not rude, but just more straightforward these days." 

Case in point: Franklin had a recent situation where the parents wanted to rent a two bedroom that could double as a pied à terre when they were in town and a full-time residence for their son—and in prime Williamsburg or the East Village for $3,000 tops.

"I informed them that what you can get for that price in those areas is going to be a glorified one bedroom, with a living room that could serve as a legal bedroom." She also told them that she could show them a new neighborhood where they could get much closer to their desired level, only to have the mother say that would be too far for her son to commute during his last year in college.

"I had to stop following up with them because she couldn't wrap her brain around the reality of the situation. They were not going to budge because she had this vision of NYC from 10 or 15 years ago when she lived here."

For your part, you can share links to the buildings you are interested in with your parents, as well as neighborhood guides available on many listing sites. If safety is a concern, you can direct your parents to the local police precinct for crime statistics and surveillance information. Or point them to community news sites that will give parents a better handle on what’s happening (and not happening) in your prospective new neighborhood.

Franklin points out one other possible stress point with parent-quarantors: "Parents are often embarrassed to discuss their finances with their children or don't necessarily want to disclose their wealth in front of them. My advice is to have your parents speak directly with your agent so you don't ever lay eyes on their paperwork." 

7. Roommates who disagree

Whether you go it alone or use a reputable matching service, finding a qualified roommate takes time, as does pulling together everyone’s paperwork. Then there’s the matter of getting everyone to sign off on a particular space.

“I have seen this happen so many times where a deal falls through because three people love the apartment but the fourth one—inevitably the one who will be spending the least—has reservations,” Lawton says. Even worse is when one of a group of roommates turns out not to have the means to pay for it. “That can be such a tense and uncomfortable situation for everyone involved.” 

When there are parent-guarantors in the picture, things can get even thornier. (See "anxious parents" above.)

You'll want to formalize your living arrangement with your roommates, too, as a peacekeeping measure going forward. 

8. Not having enough room for multiple roommates

If roommates are the only way you can afford the rent, know that NYC’s roommate law grants tenants the right to live with a roommate—and that roommate’s dependent children—if you are the only person named on the lease. You don't need to ask your landlord's permission in order to add a roommate—you just need to provide the owner with their name and the fact that they have moved in.

But there's a difference between splitting the rent for a one bedroom with a roommate (with one of you sleeping in the living room) and converting a one-bedroom apartment into a two bedroom. Not all buildings allow the installation of temporary pressurized walls. They prefer things like partial “bookcase” walls, meaning you will have a foot of space at the ceiling (and limited privacy). 

Also be aware that if two or more people are named on the lease, those tenants technically cannot bring in roommates unless one or more of the tenants moves out. This is because the total number of roommates and tenants cannot exceed the number of tenants listed on the lease.

Agents can likely help you locate roomie-friendly buildings, or you can search for “flex one-bedroom” apartments or those that have “shares OK,” “great for roommates,” and “guarantors accepted” in the descriptions. Buildings near campuses are other strong contenders. 

Lawton has placed clients in roommate rentals, though she usually encourages people to have their own bedrooms. “A lot of people say they are ok with that kind of flex situation because it will save them money, but they don’t really think about how that will affect their quality of life over time,” she says. “Losing all that privacy tends to cause strife.”

9. Getting tripped up by short-term stays

If you’re looking to test the waters in NYC—say, a semester in the city or a temporary job stint—it will be harder to find a place, considering that the vast majority of leases run for a year. You will also want to stay on the right side of NYC law when renting from sites like Airbnb and Craigslist: It’s illegal to rent an apartment here for less than 30 days when the owner is not present. And there are steep fines for those who violate NYC's new short-term rental rules, which require hosts to register with the city.

"This is particularly important for parent-guarantors to understand," Franklin says, pointing to the parents who were planning on renting the extra bedroom in their son's apartment on Airbnb when they weren't in town. "I explained that you need to be able to carry the cost on your own without assuming you can have someone paying the balance of the rent."

That said, there are companies that offer furnished apartments on a short-term basis (including co-living arrangements) and offer a turn-key approach to renting. These are typically for a three-month minimum and often don’t have the same salary requirements as regular rental buildings. Granted, you will likely pay more per month than for longer-term rentals, but that extra money might be worth it if you want to live in a high-end building with lots of amenities—or forgo the need to furnish your temporary home yourself. 

You can also look for legal sublets or lease takeovers; be sure to check out Brick Underground’s best advice on subletting a NYC apartment to get the full rundown of the rules and regs. 

—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen.


Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia

Evelyn Battaglia

Contributing Writer

Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia has been immersed in all things home—decorating, organizing, gardening, and cooking—for over two decades, notably as an executive editor at Martha Stewart Omnimedia, where she helped produce many best-selling books. As a contributing writer at Brick Underground, Evelyn specializes in deeply reported only-in-New-York renovation topics brimming with real-life examples and practical advice.

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