The Search

How to tell if a NYC rental listing is too good to be true: Brick Underground's best advice

Austin Havens-Bowen
By Austin Havens-Bowen  |
March 11, 2021 - 12:30PM

Pay attention to bait-and-switch tactics, rentals that have been on the market a long time, and listings that don't show the actual apartment.

Austin Havens-Bowen for Brick Underground/Flickr

There are a lot of rental listings to sort through if you’re looking for a New York City apartment these days, so how do you know which ones are too good to be true? The extreme deals available today, like leases with several months free and rent deductions (a result of landlords competing to fill a higher number of vacant apartments) can make you feel like you're being scammed.

The NYC rental market has always had more of a rougher edge to it than the sales market, thanks to listings with incomplete information, or a few sentences in all caps and an exhortation to text a broker NOW!, or sketchy, messy photos.

But if you pay close attention to what’s in the listing, and what’s not in it—you can accomplish an important goal—avoiding wasting your time seeing apartments that are not the real deal and may cause you headaches in the future.

Keep reading for Brick’s best advice on how to sort through listings and decide which apartments are worth checking out in person. Also check out our podcast episode: ”How to read between the lines of apartment listings—and get the most out of your search.”

Scope out misleading photos and 3D tours

You should try to match up the photos with the floor plan and make sure the photos are of the actual unit. Sometimes listings will have photos of a similar unit that might not be similar at all. There may be a disclosure at the very bottom of a listing.

You should also look out for editing and staging tricks. For example, if photos have a fisheye effect, it’s a sign that the apartment may be much smaller than it appears. Another trick: Some brokers or landlords will brighten photos in the editing process to make it seem like the apartment gets a lot of natural light, when it might get very little. For more intel, read "A real estate photographer tells you how to spot staging tricks in listing photos."

In the Covid era, virtual apartment tours took over as an alternative to checking out apartments in person. These can be even more revealing than a photo because you can see every inch of an apartment—including the scuff marks on the bottom of the walls. If you’re doing a virtual tour, and there’s a room that’s not shown or you cannot see clearly out of the windows, you should ask some questions before visiting in person. For more, read "How to virtually tour an apartment when you can't visit it" and "Here are the best examples of virtual NYC apartment tours using Matterport, Asteroom, Listing3D, and Realync." 

Watch out for illegal rentals and other scams

In NYC, there are scams for everything, and the same goes for real estate. If a rental seems like it’s too much of a good deal, check if it’s an illegal apartment, or an illegal sublet. Sometimes an illegal rental is dangerous and if the city gets wind of it, you could be forced to vacate. To learn how to spot one, read "How to avoid renting an illegal apartment in NYC."

If you reach out to a broker to see an apartment in person, and they may say it's no longer available but they have other units to show you. That can be true but it can also be a bait-and-switch scam to get you to look at less-appealing apartments. Learn how to protect yourself and read, "Don't fall for any of these real estate scams." 

Understand gross rent vs. net rent 

Landlords offer freebies to get you to sign a lease, also called a concession. These can take the form of a paid broker fee or a month or more of free rent. Landlords prefer to do this rather than lower the actual rent because it makes them more money in the long run. But, be warned: Sometimes, a listing will advertise the net rent, which reflects the discount as if it was subtracted from each month—but that’s not what you’ll actually pay on a month-to-month basis. And any lease renewal will be based on your higher, or gross rent.

StreetEasy changed how it presents listings to make net and gross rent clearer. But, when you’re searching for apartments there, your results will bring up listings based on the net rent. So pay attention to the numbers before you fall in love with an apartment that your budget won't like. For a better understanding, check out "Net vs. gross rent confusion spurs StreetEasy to change how listings present concessions" and "What does 'net effective rent' mean? Here's how to calculate your real monthly rent" (Brick’s calculator is a way to find out how much you’ll actually pay).

Is there something wrong with it?

If an apartment has been listed on the market for a long time, it might be a sign that something may be wrong with it. Do your research—type the address into Google maps and check out the neighborhood. Is it near someplace noisy? Is there a bar or restaurant on the first floor? A highway nearby? Zoom in on streetview for a closere view of the building and the surrounding neighborhood for more clues as well. For more on this, read "How long is too long for an NYC apartment to be on the market?"  

Moving is more than just finding the right apartment, you also need to scope out the building. If an apartment seems too cheap, it could mean that it’s on the top floor of a walk-up building, so ask what floor it's on and check out the building’s profile on StreetEasy or whatever listing site you’re using. High-floor apartments tend to be a bit cheaper, so if walking up six flights of steps with groceries isn’t an issue, you might find a deal.

It could also mean that the building isn’t well managed or has other issues, like leaks, open violations, or pest problems. There are sites and apps like Openigloo that allow previous residents to rate the building and the landlord. To find out more on how to use these for your apartment search, read "How to check your NYC apartment building's ratings—or rate your own place" and "Questions renters should ask to avoid living in a badly managed building." 


Austin Havens-Bowen

Austin Havens-Bowen


Austin Havens-Bowen is a writer and reporter. He previously covered local news for the Queens Ledger and The Hunts Point Express in the Bronx. He graduated from Hunter College with a BA in media studies. He rents a one-bedroom apartment in Astoria with his boyfriend and their two cats.

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