I've lived in NYC a long time residing in Queens, Brooklyn & now Manhattan. Because I've always managed to find great apts for myself & others without ever paying a fee (& even secured a rent stabilized apt!), I'm often asked for my apt hunting secrets. So here's all the magic.
STEP A - Where to Look
NYC is pricey, but some neighborhoods are more expensive than others. This Livability Calculator can help you find out about the different areas of NYC. You can also use the tool to help you rank the best areas specifically for you by using the sliding scales on the calculator.
Here are my favorite no fee apt sites. I'd also suggest walking around to find a few blocks you love & keep your eyes out for "apt for rent" signs. (If you're looking specifically for a roommate situation, skip to the second set of sites below.)
Brodsky (Mgt company that works directly with renters so there's no fee)
City Realty (Real estate company which offers no fee apts)
Craigslist (Be careful! Many small landlords list here, but so do realtors, scam artists & creepers)
InsideDigs (To join: You have to refer 3 people, share info about your current apt OR pay $20 for membership)
Naked Apartments (In the search results, select Filter > No fee)
Padmapper (Select Filter > No fee)
RentHop (In the search results, select Filter > No fee)
Use these sites if you're looking specifically for a roommate situation:
Craigslist for rooms & shares (Be careful! Lots of great people list here, but so do realtors, scam artists & creepers)
Speedroommating (The roommate version of speed dating where you'll attend an event to meet people who have rooms to let)
Symbi (Similar to a dating service, you'll answer questions & then be presented with the options which match you best)
STEP B - How to Look
1. Make apt hunting your part-time job. It only took me 3 apt viewings to find my current Manhattan apt, but I had to visit 37 freakin apts (& call a whole helluva more) to help an out-of-state friend find her perfect studio. It takes effort to do this right, but you'll find an ideal place if you work at it.
2. Most people tend to look at apts on the weekends. If you can swing it during off times like the daytime or on weeknights, it's more likely you'll be able to snag that ideal apt.
3. NYC apts are taken quickly. The faster you contact someone about a posting & go see it, the better chance you have of getting it. So call & then see it that same day or the next.
4. Most NYC landlords are looking for tenants with dependable income that is at least 40 times the rent so it's better to look for places in this range. Also, be aware that most landlords require at least a month's security deposit on top of the first month's rent. Some even require 2 months of security.
5. Never take a place sight unseen.
6. Depending on the building & timing, you might be shown a comparable apt (i.e., the exact same apt on a lower or higher floor). This is fine for the viewing, but before you sign a lease, make sure you see the actual apt. The condition of the apt & appliances may significantly differ.
STEP C - Prep Before You Visit Each Apt
Set-up the appointment to visit the apt & secure the address. But don't waste your time visiting it until you've done the following:
1. Look up its address report to see complaints about the property & other info.
2. Check online for bedbug reports using multiple sites. (These are far worse than roaches. Some people even have to move to get rid of them.)
3. Determine whether the apt is in a flood evacuation zone using this map. (A friend wasn't allowed into her apt for months after a hurricane though she lived high up.)
4. Google everything about the property: landlord, sublettor (if applicable), address & parts of the ad you saw. Sometimes, there can be scary surprises.
STEP D - What to Look for/Have in the Apt
When visiting apts, take a copy of your credit report with you as well as whatever other positive documentation you can bring (e.g., a letter from your employer, your tax return, a letter from your previous landlord, your ID, etc.). I secured my current rent-stabilized apt which someone else was vying for because I had my ID, a copy of my credit report & a letter from my employer on me. The competition only had his ID.
1. Bring a flashlight with you & look for for roaches/roach poop in gaps in walls & ceilings, near the tub & plumbing, around wires & cables, behind the stove/fridge & in the cabinets. If there are any in your apt, this is a red flag. Note: If there is a bed/couch in the apt, look closely for bedbugs as well.
2. Check the water pressure in the shower & also confirm that rust isn't pouring out of it.
3. Test the refrigerator, stove & other appliances to make sure everything’s in working order. If something isn't working, ask when/how it will be fixed or replaced. Also, make note of it for when you review your lease.
4. Test all the electrical outlets to make sure they work. One friend sadly found out after she moved in that 90% of her outlets didn't work & the landlord wouldn't fix them.
5. Try to speak with someone in the building without the landlord or super around. Ask them how they like living there & if there are any problems of which you should be aware like noise, bugs or a horrible super.
6. Some apts will feel like a cave no matter the time of day in NYC. It's a good idea to figure out what kind of sun you'll get in the apt ahead of time.
7. Determine how much cell phone reception you receive in the apt. NYC is fairly well covered, but there are some crazy gaps.
8. Look out the windows especially those that are covered. There may be a not-so-fun surprise across from the apt or down on the street below.
9. Ask who lives above & below the apt as well as next door. A baby or a college kid may make too much noise for you. Living below or above your super/landlord means you have to be very quiet & can never complain.
10. Sometimes, the current tenant will still be there or the apt's a mess. Look beyond that & you can sometimes find a real gem. If you offer to take the apt "as is" without it being cleaned/painted, you'll be a step ahead of the competition. (You can also try & negotiate a credit for this.)
11. If you like the apt, take photos. Not only to remind yourself of what you liked, but also to document any problems so they are either fixed and/or you're not charged for them. (To prove this in court, you need to have dates for the photos so either time stamp them or email a copy to yourself.)
12. Walk 2 blocks in each direction around the neighborhood looking at all the businesses including behind your building. Look at Google Maps for the businesses above ground level. Try to also figure out what the area is like during rush hour & nighttime. For example: A hospital 2 blocks away will have ambulances with sirens. Sedate places during the day can turn into rowdy clubs at night.
- Near a laundromat.
- Near the subway, but not close enough to hear it. (Trains are faster than buses. While reviewing how far the apt is from your job, try to find a place that's along one train line. Having a single transfer to another line is ok; more than one is often not worth it.)
- Near a grocery store. (People are often told by landlords that a great store is near by, only to find out it’s a tiny hole.)
NOT SO GOOD:
- Near a bar, hospital or fire station as it'll be noisy.
- Above any place with any type of food (e.g., a restaurant, grocery store, etc.) as they will likely have more roaches.
- Across the street from or above a bus stop. (Convenient until you have to listen to a bus raising & lowering itself at 3am with loud beeping.)
- Directly next to or across from a trash chute or elevator both of which are often loud.
- 1st floor or basement apts since these are not as safe.
STEP E - Before You Sign the Lease
1. Read your lease in full including any addendums. Sometimes NYC landlords get tricky by letting you read the lease, but not a separate section referenced in the lease which ends up having a ton of crazy things included.
2. Find out how emergency repairs are taken care of, when regular maintenance is available & how quickly they typically respond to both situations.
3. Ask how often the rent goes up & by how much. You may not get a straight answer, but sometimes you may get one that may make you decide not to move in (e.g., a friend was told that the rent would be adjusted based upon market value!).
4. Find out what utilities are not included & how much they generally cost. Most apts will cover heat, hot water & gas.
5. Don't hand over a check without a signed lease in hand & never pay cash. A lease is your only protection!
6. Use Google to find out who owns the building & check to confirm that the unit you saw is truly available. (Don't ask someone for the owner's number. They could lie.) If you’re subletting, confirm the ability for the apt to be subletted. (Some criminals have broken into buildings & shown an empty apt that's not theirs just to steal money from prospective tenants! Others found out that the landlord never approved subletting.)
7. Find out what provider(s) you can use for cable & internet. You may be locked into only one—& it may be the most expensive one or one you hate.
Ask that your locks be changed. Former tenants often keep keys so it's better to be safe than sorry.
Get all verbal promises in writing including anything major that you know is broken as well as any special considerations which may be important to you such as whether pets are allowed. This is your only legal protection! Otherwise, the landlord can kick you out or charge you extra fees.
STEP F - How to Secure the Apt
1. If you find something you adore, rent it IMMEDIATELY. If it's during the day, tell them you'll come back within the hour with a bank check for the rent & deposit. The bank will charge you a $5-10 fee, but it means that the landlord will likely feel better about choosing you since it's not a personal check.
2. If you love a place, tell the landlord or the landlord's agent when you go to rent it. If they don't tell you that the apt is yours, ask what it would take to get it. They like the sincerity/interest & will often tell you exactly what they want. This might just be knowing that you're excited about the place, but they also might give preference to people who put more money down, who set up a longer lease, etc. (Just be careful. Some landlords use this as a tactic to ask for more money per month. If they do, don't acquiesce.)