A long search for a rental ends with taking the grassroots route

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For New York City renters, there's no shortage of websites promising to help you find your next place. The old standby, Craigslist, has been supplanted by services like StreetEasy, Zumper, and Naked Apartments, not to mention roommate matchmakers like Roomi. So naturally, when my two roommates and I found out in December that we'd have to leave our way-below-market-rate—but also somewhat decrepit—three-bedroom in Astoria because our landlord planned to gut-renovate, we immediately went online to find a new home. 

Our first worry: We knew we wouldn't find something as cheap as our current place; the landlord hadn't raised the rent in 10 years, with the tacit understanding that we wouldn't bug him very often and would handle minor repairs, like re-caulking the bathtub, ourselves. But we hoped we could at least avoid paying a broker's fee, or find a rental that offered some concessions, given that we were entering what's traditionally a slow season for rentals. 

My roommates and I wanted to stay in the neighborhood, though, and it's an increasingly popular one. Last spring, when the Furman Center analyzed the city's 15 most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, Astoria was the only one in Queens to make the list. And according to last quarter's market reports, sales prices in Queens broke records; one agent characterized Astoria as a "teenager," meaning its market has far more potential for strengthening, and prices will only go up (annoying like teenagers, I suppose).

False starts to our apartment search

The fast pace of Astoria's market—and the high number of unscrupulous real estate agents out there—was evident from our early attempts to hack it on our own, arranging apartment viewings based on listings we found online. First there was the bait-and-switch, with an apartment that looked pristine on StreetEasy suddenly turning into a unit at an entirely different address, where the downstairs neighbor smoked at home and the entire property reeked of stale tobacco. Turns out that it's technically legal for tenants to smoke cigarettes in their apartments, though some landlords opt to prohibit it on leases. In any case, it was something I'd never encountered as a renter before, even in my very first NYC apartment, a gritty East Village basement rental overrun with mice. 

Then there was the broker no-show at an apartment on a dead end street right alongside the BQE, where a construction worker in the midst of a renovation let us into a dust-clogged duplex with a baffling layout. ("Is this the living room or a bedroom?" we asked each other as we walked through.) We were beginning to feel disheartened by the poor quality of units available at our budget, but we still had over a month to find a place and we weren't prepared to settle yet.  

After that, a third broker was late for our appointment, so the departing tenant let us into the apartment, informing us that it was plagued by rodents and a mysterious black soot, origin unknown. When the broker finally texted me that she was downstairs and I replied that we'd already seen the place, she just wrote back, "WHAT???"

Despite having lived in NYC for eight years, I had previously managed to avoid using brokers by moving in with friends who had already gone through the trouble themselves. Now, I was left wondering whether shady tactics and a lack of decorum was par for the course for renters on a budget. 

Another broker was more professional, but upon showing us a spacious three-bedroom, two-bath apartment that included a balcony, he told us that heat and hot water was not included in the rent—an unexpected addition to utilities expenses that put us over our budget—and that we'd be expected to pay $75 each for credit checks, which seemed a bit high. 

Tapping into our local network

Despite Astoria's popularity, it's still a neighborhood where many of its low-rise, multi-family buildings are owned and rented out by longtime residents; StreetEasy characterizes the neighborhood as having a "more traditional community feel." Forming meaningful local connections, then, can go a long way. 

With this in mind, and less than a month to go before our move-out date, we decided to turn to our local network for help. I reached out to friends who had been living in Astoria for a decade and had recently, happily moved, asking for a broker recommendation.

We had been hoping to get away with renting directly from an owner and avoid paying an extra month's rent for a broker fee, but every promising listing we'd seen so far was represented by an agent, the majority of whom didn't exactly instill trust. Now, with time running out, it seemed the best route was to just work with one broker who knew Astoria well.  

My friends referred us to Angela, born and raised in the neighborhood, with a native New Yorker's resourcefulness. When I told her our budget and acknowledged that it was a bit tight, she disagreed, promising it would yield plenty of options. Luckily, we didn't have to consider many: The first apartment she showed us, a spotlessly clean three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath with an updated kitchen and tons of closet space, was perfect. 

It was in a multi-family home owned by an old friend and co-worker of Angela's, whom we met and clicked with right away. She even agreed, presumably thanks to their long-term connection, to drop the rent by $100 per month when we asked. (As far as I can tell, the apartment was never listed online, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. Even more reason to work with locals in the know.) 

So while we're not moving to a shiny new development offering concessions, we're heading somewhere arguably better—a building where the owner cares deeply about the shape her property is in, and prioritizes tenants' trustworthiness over cold hard cash. (And by the way, we only had to pay $30 apiece to have our broker run a credit check.)

Our new place comes with the kind of personal touch that renters might be hard-pressed to find in new luxury towers, but can be achieved with a little grassroots networking. So if you're seeking something cozy and hospitable rather than high-end, a low-tech approach may be best. People really do still find apartments by walking around a neighborhood, keeping an eye out for "For Rent" signs, and asking after vacancies, writes Thrillist, and making a positive in-person impression with the management can go further than a sizable income.  

So what can you do if you want to build a local network you can lean on? Consider attending your community board meetings, or joining (or starting) a block association to demonstrate your investment in the area and get to know your neighbors. And if that's too intimidating, there are now apps like Nextdoor that help you connect with locals remotely, forming neighborhood networks that might turn out to be even more useful than Craigslist. 

Web listings, it turns out, aren't the end-all, be-all for finding the right rental. And even in a city known for its cynical attitude (see Colin Quinn's recent Netflix special for more on the crankiness of New Yorkers), face-to-face connections go a long way.