Finding an apartment to rent in New York City is hard enough. Finding one when you've never signed a lease before—and may lack a solid work or credit history or a track record of being a responsible renter—is even harder. Before panic sets in, take a deep breath. We talked to real estate pros about the biggest challenges facing newbie renters besides coming up with the rent—and got their best fixes for each issue.
[Note: This story was first published in 2014 and was updated in 2017.]
1. Missing paperwork
“It was much harder than I thought it would be,” says one 22-year-old renter of hunting for a four-bedroom with three roommates she met on her grad school’s Facebook page. “Two of the prospective roommates dropped out after a few weeks—they were scared away by the landlord’s requirements,” including financial disclosures from their parents.
Eventually, she and the remaining roommate snagged a one-bedroom, which had been split up with a wall in the living room. She paid $1,500 a month.
The New York City rental market moves fast. If you spot a place you like, chances are good someone else likes it, too, and they'll be submitting applications to rent it as well. As a young renter, you may not be able to compete with them on financial bona fides.
“Of course it’s going to be easier for the applicant who works for Goldman Sachs, has a 750 credit score, and makes a reliable $250,000 a year,” says Chris Trunell, director of sales and leasing at the brokerage Choice NY Properties. But you can compete on speed. And, of course, if you do have a six-figure income, you'll be that much farther ahead (more on that below).
Either way, you'll have to get your paperwork together before you start looking, because if you aren't ready to apply when you are first standing in the apartment, you may not get it.
Most landlords want to see the following from everyone who will be on the lease:
- a photo ID
- contact information from previous landlords who can serve as references, if you have them
- copies of your last two pay stubs, two years of tax returns, and two months of bank statements, if you have them (if you don't, keep reading)
- a letter of employment, preferably from your employer's HR department, stating your start date, salary and length of employment. If you're a student, a letter of enrollment from your school will work instead
- documentation of any assets, like a trust fund or stocks, if you have them. “These can only strengthen the applications and help verify a solid applicant," says Liz Lawton, an agent at Dogulas Elliman.
2. No rental track record
For most big-time landlords, the decision to rent to a person will come down to their financials, not their personality. (More on this below.) But in a smaller building or townhouse, especially one where the owner lives there as well, coming across as quiet and responsible could help you snag an apartment. If you don't have a history of renting, there are other ways to exude the vibe of a dream tenant.
When you respond to apartment ads, whether by phone, email or text, be sure to speak or write clearly, state your name, the reason why you’re interested in the apartment, and your contact information.
Also, consider including a “fuzzy letter” in your paperwork, advises Tracie Hamersley, a broker with Douglas Elliman.
"Something about you and why you’d be a good tenant," she says. "‘I am a student but I’m responsible. I was an RA, president of student government, etc.’”
This might help convince the landlord that your place won’t be party central.
3. No work history
New York landlords typically expect tenants to make 40-45 times the monthly rent, or at least $80,000 a year for a place that's $2,000 a month. The length of your work history is also a factor.
If you're new to a job or haven't started yet, some landlords will be flexible if your employer is a known quantity, and they may accept a lower salary as well.
“An employment letter from a prestigious investment bank may be the difference between approval or rejection, but this will vary greatly among landlords," says John Farrell, an agent at Citi Habitats.
And if you don’t have a full-time job?
Find a guarantor: If you're not in school and don't have a job, one solution is to enlist a guarantor, a person with good U.S. credit whose annual income is at least 80 times the monthly rent, and will agree to cover the rent if you fail to pay it. Considering the risk, and paperwork, involved in being one, guarantors are usually parents, though friends or close relatives will work as well.
“We’re going to ask for more paperwork than it takes to buy a house in other parts of the country,” says David Maundrell, head of new development in Brooklyn and Queens for Citi Habitats.
Another option is to hire a guarantor. For an average fee of about 85 percent of a month's rent for U.S. citizens and 110 percent for foreign nationals, Insurent Lease Guaranty (a Brick Underground sponsor) will act as a professional guarantor for renters with good or no credit.
Pull the student card: If you’re in college, use it to your advantage. Landlords prefer students with a guarantor over someone who is unemployed with a guarantor.
Get roommates: The time-honored solution to a lack of funds, of course, is shacking up with roommates. You can pool your incomes together to hit that 40-times-the-rent threshold, as well as use multiple guarantors if your parents don't make 80 times the monthly rent. (Warning: Not all landlords accept multiple guarantors, in which case hiring a single guarantor like Insurent is a workaround.) Be sure that before you start looking for apartments, all roommates have their paperwork in order, and that you've discussed your budget and your priorities.
“The worst thing in these situations is to be out on an appointment and have people realize that they have differing opinions on what they want,” Lawton says.
Also, "put an informal agreement together with house rules—how rent will be divided, how many nights a boy/girlfriend can sleep over before needing to pay rent, and so on," recommends Matt Huchinson, spokesman for SpareRoom.com, a site that helps New Yorkers find roommates.
Share and share alike: Taking a room in a shared apartment is another option, since often tenants with an extra bedroom will be more lenient with income and credit requirements than your typical landlord. (Legally, the tenants take on the responsibility of paying the rent and making sure the place isn't damaged, but landlords do get a chance to sign off on subletters.)
4. Holding out for the 'unicorn' rental
Even veteran tenants suffer from apartment fantasies, but for someone new to renting in the five boroughs, the gulf between expectations and reality is even wider.
“Many young renters who are moving into their first non-college housing situation are coming with unrealistic expectations about how much rents in the city are and what the application process entails,” Lawton says. “A lot of young movers may have heard stories of the crazy prices here, but actually seeing this in a live appointment for the first time can be an upsetting experience."
Your first step is to research what's actually available (start with these websites). Pay close attention to photos and objective criteria, like square footage and addresses, rather than flowery listing language or brokers' creative interpretations of neighborhood boundaries. Don’t look for the “unicorn apartment,” Lawton says, like the ridiculously cheap place in the perfect neighborhood with a washer-dryer and a backyard to boot.
Likewise, asking friends to tell you what they pay is useful, but put the info in perspective, since you don't know when they started their lease or if they're splitting the rent with roommates evenly. Someone who signs a lease in the slow winter season may pay less than the person who signs during the summer—even for the same apartment.
And then, get hunting in the real world, which is the most effective way to get past unrealistic expectations.
5. Anxious parents
Sometimes even if you're solid on the rental landscape, your parents will be a different story, especially if you've never rented an apartment before. And if they're acting as your guarantors, you'll want them to be on board.
“Young people’s parents are usually extremely unfamiliar with the New York City rental market and wary of everything from market value to industry standards,” says Lawton, who moved to Alphabet City in 2013. “My parents were horrified by my rent because they still thought of Lower Manhattan as the rough area it was in the '80s and '90s."
If you're working with a broker, consider putting him or her on the phone with your parents. Many are happy to talk them down. Farrell says he “always talks directly to the parents." Also, share photos and information on the buildings you're looking at, as well as the neighborhoods. FaceTime or Skype are other useful tools when you're looking at apartments.
6. No credit history
If you haven’t built up a record of paying your bills on time—and most novice renters haven’t—know that no credit history is better than bad credit, since landlords expect the former.
“Having no credit history doesn’t reflect on how you handle your finances, bad credit does,” Lawton says.
For overseas renters, be aware that credit history in another country doesn’t transfer to the U.S., and many landlords won't rely on guarantors from outside the tristate area, so parents back home won’t be able to co-sign a lease.
In these situations, cash is king: Offer to pay the landlord six months to a year’s worth of rent upfront, so they know you’re good for it. Alternatively, you could offer to put down a bigger security deposit (one month’s rent is typical), though this solution isn’t the best one for the tenant. That’s because when it comes time to move out, your landlord could withhold the entire deposit if you get into any kind of spat over damage to the apartment, no matter how minor. (Note that in the case of rent-stabilized apartments, landlords are not allowed to take more than the equivalent of a month’s rent as a deposit, and cannot take rent upfront.)
Alternatively, this is another situation that can be working around by using a guarantor or a service like Insurent, or by subletting a room in a shared apartment.
You may also be able to work something out with a landlord, particularly one that isn't a big corporate building owner. For example, Elliman's Hamersley had a client who came from London and rented a Gramercy Park condo.
“It happened that the investor who owned the apartment was from London as well, so with that information, the owner set up a rent payment schedule of four installments of two months each,” she says. This gave the condo owner security but was less onerous for the tenant than paying a year up front.
7. Short-term stays
If you’re looking to test the waters in New York—say, a semester in the city—it will be harder to find a place, considering that the vast majority of leases here run for a year. In this case, your best bet is probably to sublet a room in an apartment or take over someone’s lease.
Several websites exist to connect renters with other tenants (and even landlords) who are looking for short-term arrangements.
Try Leasebreak, Renthackr, SabbaticalHomes, Airbnb or Craigslist, and sign up for the Listings Project's weekly newsletter. Also, don’t neglect your own social media accounts—you never know which friend of a Facebook friend will have a spare room.
And note that sublets of under 30 days are illegal in New York State unless the person who’s renting out the room is occupying the apartment at the same time. (For a full rundown of the laws on sublets, click here.)
8. Finding a newbie-friendly landlord
Technically, no building can turn away a tenant because of his or her age. But in some cases, a building may actually want to attract students or recent graduates, and for the newbie renter, it might ease your hunt to check out ones that do. Even if you're not a college alum, you'll be dealing with landlords who are accustomed to fielding renters with similar issues.
Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, for example, has developed something of a reputation for attracting NYU grads. You can also look for apartment ads that have language like “shares OK,” “great for roommates," and so on. Those phrases indicate that a landlord is willing to rent to a group of roomies. Also, “guarantors accepted” is a signal that a landlord is open to tenants with less than stellar financials.
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