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What are the most common questions first-time renters ask?

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Renting an apartment in New York City is unlike renting just about anywhere else. Inventory is low, prices are high, and competition is fierce. And then there is the fast pace of searching for an apartment in NYC: If you find a place you like you need to act lightening fast or it will be snatched away. If you are a first-time renter, it's understandable if you are feeling overwhelmed.

To jumpstart your search, we’ve asked brokers what the most common questions are from first-time renters. Read on to learn what those are, and how they're usually answered.

What is the broker’s fee?

“This is one of the first questions I get asked,” Nolan Taylor, a broker with Corcoran, says. “I always say we charge 15 percent for services. The next question is, ‘Is that negotiable?’” It depends on the property, he adds.

Not all broker fees are the same; they tend to range from 12-15 percent. Some listings are co-brokered, so the two brokers will split the percent fee, meaning there’s less room for negotiation. Sometimes, a property will offer an incentive, or concession, and offer to pay the broker’s fee. There also are no-fee apartments. (Check out our latest article on the eight best websites for no-fee rental apartments in NYC.)

But there can be a downside to the no-fee rental, says Michael Jeneralczuk, CEO and founder of Undorm, which specializes in finding apartments for students and recent college grads. “Nothing comes for free, especially in New York. If it’s no fee, it’s probably for a reason, and needs to be incentivized to rent.”

More than likely, the fee is factored into the rent. But the fee is only on the first year. If you plan to stay longer, you could be saving money on the long-term rent as opposed to saving just on that first year, he says. In other words, use your calculator app when you apartment shop.

When should I start viewing apartments?

A lot of people think they should look at apartments now even though they're not ready to move for several months.

That timeframe is too long. That's because renters usually don’t have to let their landlords know until 30 days before they’re moving, so the best time is within a month of your desired move-in date.

“They don’t understand the process in New York, which is extremely quick. I can take you out on Monday, have you sign a lease that day or Tuesday, and have keys in your hands by Wednesday,” says Natalia Padilla, an agent with Citi Habitats.

Can I move in a few days before my lease starts—for free?

What an early move-in means is the renter has the keys, and has taken occupancy. Some landlords may grant that wish, but most won't, Padilla says, citing that many say it's a liability issue. If something happens during those few days prior to the lease commencement, the insurance company might deny the claim, explains a landlord. The easiest solution is to have the lease start on the day the tenant wants to begin moving in their possessions.

I’m not ready to move right away. Will you hold the apartment for me?

“It’s not mine to hold, it belongs to a landlord,” Padilla says. Again, the answer will likely be no.

What documents are required? Do I qualify for this apartment?

Before beginning a search with a client, Douglas Elliman agent Loreta Attard will review a client’s income and other financials to ensure they’ll be able to afford the apartments they’ll visit.

“You’ll want to have all of your credentials gathered and available in order to submit your application in a timely manner,” she says.

That paperwork is significant and can include tax filings, bank statements, investment records, recommendation letters, and job confirmation. See a more detailed list here.

“Housing laws favor the tenants, so landlords want to make sure you’re fully qualified when it comes to financial resources,” Taylor says, adding that renters need to earn 40-50 times the monthly rent, and for guarantors, it’s 60-80 times. The guarantor is required to submit similar application paperwork and sign the lease. In addition to earning up to 80 times the rent, they usually need to live in the U.S.

“In some cases, landlords require that guarantors live in the tri-state area, and some don’t allow guarantors from Texas, Louisiana, or Florida due to the laws in those states,” says Laura Cook, a salesperson with Keller Williams NYC.

Another option is to pay for a guarantor service like Insurent (FYI, a Brick sponsor) which has less strict income and employment requirements, but you'll still need to have good credit.

Often, brokers won’t even take you out to view apartments unless you have most if not all of your paperwork ready to go, in case you find your dream apartment and have to move on it that day.

Cook also recommends having your credit score handy, and enough money in the bank for application fees, first month’s rent, security deposit (usually a month’s rent), and potential brokerage fees. “Speak with your bank ahead of time to make sure you can get certified funds the same day and on demand,” she says.

I’m an international student; can I get an apartment without a guarantor?

Yes, but it will require more upfront costs, including several months rent or a higher security deposit.

“Typically, I have seen six months to a full year upfront required in certain instances,” Cook says. “Some landlords will take Insurent.”

What neighborhood do you recommend? Is this neighborhood safe?

For Jeneralczuk’s student clients, he recommends being within walking distance to school (to cut down on being late to class). For recent grads or new hires, it’s based on price point and where they can get the best value for their money, he says.

Safety, though, is more subjective.

“Legally, I’m not allowed to talk about it,” Taylor says. “I always tell them to go back to the neighborhood at night and check it out. Walk around, even go to the local police precinct and ask what happens with crime there.”

Can I smoke pot in the apartment, or grow it on the fire escape?

Padilla says she gets a lot of weed questions. Many people want to know what to do about the scent wafting into the apartments next door or above.

“I say that legally the fire escape is not outdoor space, and I don’t have the jurisdiction to say what you can and cannot do with your apartment,” she says. “I say ‘I don’t know, but I can ask.’ But please don’t disclose your illegalities to me.”

How much money will I make on my security deposit?

They want to know the percentage, the bank it will be held in, how much money they’ll get back, Padilla says. “I think there’s one bank that actually pays a whopping 10 cents. No one has ever made money on their deposit that I know of.”

Why should I use a broker when every listing is now online?

Last but not least, this question should come as no surprise. Naturally, the brokers we spoke to justify their jobs. (If you want more pros and cons, check out Brick’s Renting 101 guide on whether it’s worth it to pay a broker’s fee.)

“The simple answer is, not every listing is online,” Jeneralczuk says, explaining that some landlords keep their inventory off the online market. “Maybe only half the listings are on the market,” he estimates, adding that he does suggest clients do some window shopping to get a general idea of what is on the market, but StreetEasy is the only online listing site he recommends. “The rest have too many fake ads.”

Brokers can guide you to find exactly what you are looking for, to properties that are actually available, and to negotiate the right price and conditions for you, Attard says.

Or, as she put it another way: “If you go to court, would you represent yourself, or would you have a lawyer with you?”