Relocating to New York City is both exciting and daunting, and it is an even bigger challenge for foreign nationals without a U.S. financial history who face a tougher time than domestic renters landing an apartment in a competitive market.
As of the last census, there were over 3 million foreign-born people living in the city, so this isn't exactly a niche predicament. For those transferring for a job, an employer will often supply an employment letter with an income projection, which is an important document when looking for housing. A company may also connect incoming employees with a relocation expert who can help navigate the process.
With or without that kind of support, here’s what foreign nationals need to know.
[Editor's note: A previous version of this post was published in December 2017. We are presenting it again with updated information for December 2021.]
Be sure to prep your paperwork ahead of time
These days there's lots of competition for rentals, so you need to gather your paperwork and be ready to put in an application on the spot. That might sound crazy—but when there are 20 people touring an apartment, you need to be able to move fast or you will miss out.
Most landlords require evidence of employment, two years of tax returns, and a good credit score before they’ll let you sign a lease. As a foreign national arriving in the U.S. for the first time, you won’t have a U.S. tax return, and even if you’ve had a credit card or mortgage from an international bank abroad, you’ll have no U.S. credit history. On the bright side, if you’ve been late with payments that poor credit won’t follow you.
Having evidence of employment, copies of your visa and passport, as well as any supporting documents, like a few months’ worth of bank statements showing a regular income, will help present yourself as a reliable and financially stable tenant. For students, it’s important to have a copy of your school enrollment or acceptance letter.
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Consider renting in a condo
Gea Elika, relocation specialist and founder of Elika Real Estate, recommends foreign nationals look to rent privately-owned condos instead of apartments run by management companies. He says the latter will likely have a bureaucratic application process unfavorable to prospective tenants without U.S. tax returns or a U.S. credit rating.
Renting a condo has pros and cons. It does require some financial scrutiny, like providing bank statements and letters of recommendation, but instead of dealing with the rigid policies of a management company, you’ll be dealing with individual owners, possibly foreigners themselves, who will likely be more reasonable once a good rapport is established.
Know you may pay more in rent
New York’s sky-high rents will come as no surprise, but most landlords also require tenants have an annual income of at least 40 times the monthly rent.
Be aware that a landlord can no longer ask for more than one month's rent as a security deposit. This change came about as a result of the new rent laws of 2019. Unfortunately, these new laws, designed to protect renters, create a hurdle for internationa renters. Those that don't meet the required standard qualifications may have to pay more in rent if a landlord decides to offset the risk of taking on a tenants with weaker credit.
Neil Garfinkel, broker counsel to the Real Estate Board of New York, says that under New York City law it’s illegal to discriminate against anyone based on their citizenship, so the only thing a landlord should be trying to establish through the application process is financial viability.
Use a personal or institutional guarantor
Having a guarantor can solve some of the financial headaches when it comes to proving your income. Most foreigners can't use a family member to vouch for them because landlords often require a guarantor live in the tri-state area and earn a hefty 80 times the asking rent.
There are companies that will take on the role of a guarantor for a fee, such as Insurent, a Brick Underground sponsor. Many Insurent clients are foreign nationals with a range of incomes, says Insurent's Charles Schoenau, including students and self-employed contractors at Google. If you are an international student, Insurent is able to guarantee your lease based on your U.S. or foreign parent having a minimum annual income of 50 times the monthly rent or having 80 times the monthly rent in the bank. Insurent's fee to guarantee the lease of an international student without a U.S. credit score is 98.4 percent of one month's rent for a one-year lease.
Schoenau advises that you make sure you have the correct visa and keep an eye on its expiration date. A student or working visa will need to be valid for the entire rental period.
Avoid rental scams
Unfortunately scams do happen when you're trying to rent an apartment in New York City. But if you proceed cautiously and follow a few time-tested rules, you can steer clear of con artists.
Here are the best ways to avoid scams:
- Be careful about who you work with. It makes sense to use a reputable real estate agent, preferably one that’s a member of REBNY.
- Don’t wire money or pay in cash. Most landlords will ask for bank-certified checks, which provide some fraud protection. Be wary if asked to pay with a personal check.
- Never rent sight unseen. If you're unable to see the apartment yourself, have a friend or relative visit the place for you to check it out. This helps weed out bait-and-switch schemes. At the very least, the agent or landlord should FaceTime you from the apartment and show it to you.
- Fully understand what you are signing. Use Google Translate if it helps, and cross-reference the names on the documents to make sure you are dealing with the actual owner, not someone pretending to be the owner.
- Get to know the market. You want to able to spot an apartment that’s too good to be true. To do that you need a sense of the median rent for apartments in the area you are considering, so do a Google search for the neighborhood's median rent.
- Deal with reality. The realization that you can’t afford the space you want isn’t unique to foreign nationals. Most NYC renters have to compromise—for example, a small space in order to live in a great location, or a noisy first-floor studio to get cheap rent. When you get a sense of what you can afford with your budget, you’ll be a savvier shopper.
Make use of student resources
For students, one solution is to sublet or find a roommate share, which means you won’t have to deal with getting on a lease. It’s also worth taking advantage of the resources provided by your school. Most have housing services to help with the process.
Start your U.S. credit history
Put time aside after your arrival for the process of setting up a bank account, getting a social security number, a tax identification number, and/or or New York City ID.
Also, the way to get a good credit score going is to apply for a credit card, buy things with it, and start paying it off regularly. It can take a year or two to get a credit rating, so start the process when you arrive to put yourself in a better position ahead of your next move.
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