The Search

How to find a New York rental without seeing it first

By Lucy Cohen Blatter  | January 26, 2015 - 8:59AM

No doubt you want to step foot in your apartment before moving in, but for reasons of time and distance, that may not always be possible. At the same time, landlords have traditionally shied away from—or outright forbidden—renters signing leases remotely, for fear that they’ll back out of the deal if a place doesn’t live up to their exact expectations. Meanwhile, technologies like FaceTime, Skype and video listings are making it easier to get a sense of what a place is really like without ever crossing the threshold in person.

But how do you make sure you’re not stuck with a dud—even if you’re apartment hunting from afar? Read on:

Use your smartphone—and be smart about it

These days, many brokers are conducting apartment tours for out-of-towners via FaceTime and Skype, and landlords see the technology as a fair replacement for visiting the apartment in the flesh, brokers say. "Many landlords feel that FaceTime and Skype tours are a viable option, as long as the tenant understands that the apartment is being rented in its current condition—whether or not the tenant inspects the unit in person—prior to signing the lease, and the tenant will agree to this in writing," says broker Lela Bourne of Bond New York. (A real estate attorney can draft language to include in the lease to confirm that both the landlord and tenant understand, she adds.)

When it comes to the video tour, it helps to be prepared with the same questions that you'd have for an in-person tour. First, make a list of your requirements (like a bedroom that will fit a king-size bed or a dishwasher) and make sure you ask the broker. Double check room-by-room measurements to make sure your furniture will fit, and note hallway dimensions for moving said furniture (something that's harder to tell remotely).

Also, make sure your tour guide covers every nook and cranny, and also expands the walk-through beyond the apartment walls. For example, broker Neeta Mulgaokar of Mirador Real Estate, who’s rented four apartments to people who'd only seen them via the Apple video application, shows viewers the outside of the building, the lobby and the hallway; narrates when she's turning left and right; and opens closets and drawers. 

Prepare to spend about 15 or 20 minutes longer doing a video tour than seeing the place live, advises Bourne, because you'll want the broker to get even more detailed about what's in the apartment, and you'll need to ask more questions.

Above, video tours are becoming increasingly common for out-of-town renters

Unearth lenient landlords

Some management companies, typically the bigger ones, allow you to rent from afar, and give you the option of completing everything from the application to the lease signing online.  Related and Equity Residential, in particular, do it all the time, according to brokers.  (Equity even offers a get-out-of-the-deal-free card, so if you don't like the apartment, you can move out within 30 days and not risk any lease-break penalties.)

Many landlords don't, however. But brokers can point you toward more flexible landlords, or help negotiate special treatment. "If the broker has a good relationship with the management, they may make exceptions, especially if the applicants are very qualified and their financials are great," says Rachel Slelatt of GZ Brokers, who helped a Geneva couple rent a three-bedroom with a video she shot on her smartphone and sent via the What’s App messaging service. 

If you're not working with a broker, you'll have to ask leasing agents and landlords directly (you can find their contact info on their websites or listings). Sometimes listings that say "roommate friendly" or "guarantors accepted" indicate a landlord is more flexible. (If you don't have a guarantor who lives in the tri-state area, you can pay Insurent Lease Guaranty, a BrickUnderground sponsor, to act as one for you, as long as the building accepts it. Insurent backs up leases at an average cost of about 80 percent of a month’s rent if you have U.S. credit and 110 percent if you are foreign with no U.S. credit.)

Get a little help from your friends

Relying on a particularly close—or obliging—compatriot to check out an apartment (or even a building or neighborhood) is a time-honored strategy for New York newcomers.

Lambeth Hochwald, a BrickUnderground contributor who recently returned here from Arizona, rented in an Upper West Side doorman building without even seeing photos of it. She knew which neighborhoods to zero in on, since she'd lived here before, but she had her mom peek into the building's lobby, hang out across the street, and "watch the comings and goings, to get a sense of whether anyone was hanging out out front, etc." She hesitated to ask her busy friends to perform the mission, she says. 

Also, sometimes a management company will require anyone going to see the apartment on your behalf to sign an affidavit vouching that they were the ones who gave you the information about it. 

If you don't know anyone in the city to check out a prospective place, there's a site for that. For $59 and up, will send someone to look at the place, and give you a report of what they saw. You could also hire a professional on TaskRabbit—a site that allows you to outsource errands, and name your price for the work—to take a look.

Above, Zenly offers video walk-throughs of listings on their site, which are filmed by a half dozen company employees

Read Yelp reviews 
Both management companies and individual buildings appear on the site, though remember that renters frequently take to Yelp to air their grievances, rather than sing their landlord’s praises, so it’s possible that some ratings are skewed.

Seek out video listings
Brokers, landlords and apartment search sites are slowly embracing video—which is good news for the out-of-town renter. Indeed, StreetEasy listings include video, and one hybrid brokerage and listings site called Zenly focuses exclusively on video listings. (They employ a team of people who perform video walk-throughs of available apartments.) 

Research the neighborhood
Between Google StreetView; real estate data sites like Address ReportRevaluatePropertyShark and StreetEasy; and (ahem) BrickUnderground columns like Neighborhood Secrets and Transitions, it’s easier than ever to get a clear picture of what different parts of the city are actually like to live in. It also doesn’t hurt to ask your broker (if you’re working with one) about specifics. "If you’re in need of certain services, like dry cleaning, day care or pet care, make sure to ask your broker about the immediate area. The unit is one thing, but you need to know what’s going on around you," says Bond's Bourne.


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