Finding an apartment in the big bad apple isn’t as hard as it may seem, but there are certainly some tips that make the process smoother. I recently found the apartment I’ll be moving to in this spring and, upon toasting this with a cocktail, I realized that I have officially lost count of how many times I’ve moved in NYC.
I mean, if I sit down and go through my timeline, I’m sure I can trace back from today to 2005 and figure it out. But the fact that I can no longer think through them in my mind means my serial-mover status has reached new heights of just plain silly.
I’ve moved a lot in the past few years as I’ve sort of struggled to find a place that feels like home, but since I got so used to moving, I stopped thinking of apartments as long-haul living arrangements and more as experiments. I have moved into places only to move a few months later because I felt they weren’t quite suited for me. My friends and family have gotten used to asking, “You’re moving again?!”
And I’ve got used to saying, “Yup!”
I know not everyone can do this. I don’t have kids and I work online, so I have a lot more flexibility in my life than some people do. I don’t take that for granted. But it also means I have some commitment issues when it comes to settling down.
Anyway, hunting for an apartment here is a trip. I’ve lived in Chelsea, the Lower East Side, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, and more. I’ve lived in swanky duplex condos and… well, not so swanky places too. I’ve been to showings that are as stoic as a funeral and as welcoming as a family dinner. I’ve found apartments after weeks of searching and sometimes in a day. It’s always a bit different.
But since I often find myself giving encouragement and advice to others about finding apartments in Brooklyn and beyond, I thought I would compile some quick tips here. This is the standard advice I’d give anyone who is looking for an apartment in NYC, whether you’re moving within the boroughs or into the city for the first time.
Here are some quick tips for finding a place that ticks your boxes—without losing your patience in the process.
☕️ Approach the entire process with optimism. Stressing out over finding an apartment isn’t going to help you, but putting your trust in the universe can. It might seem silly, but just saying “the perfect place will reveal itself” and letting it go can do wonders. This doesn’t mean stop looking for an apartment, it just means stop stressing about it.
There are millions of apartments in New York, with millions of people moving in and out of them. The market changes daily, creating totally new circumstances and search results all the time. You will find a place, so don’t sweat it.
☕️ Conduct your search in phases. Moving to or within NYC can bring up a lot of stress, and even though we’re in optimism-mode, you may find the process hectic. When you’re thinking of moving, start doing your research right away. Actual units you can move into will be listed 30-90 days before move-in, but beforehand you can start narrowing down neighborhoods and manifesting that ideal home.
Once you’re a bit closer to the move-in date (for me it’s max 2 months beforehand, usually more like 30 days), start scheduling appointments to see available units. Schedule similar neighborhoods on the same day to avoid running all over the place. I have done this before and I had NYFW flashbacks when I would have to book it from one show at Lincoln Center to another downtown at Milk Studios. Phew!
☕️ Make a list of things that are important to you. You might think everyone is living in small cement cubes, but in reality, a lot of New York apartments have back yards, rooftop access, and other amenities. Know what you’re looking for before you start looking. This makes it easy to narrow down the potential units you’re interested in seeing. Also, be emotionally prepared to cross some of those things off your list.
You may find yourself trying to choose between the 6th floor walk-up with the skylight or the back yard apartment with noisy neighbors. Such is the nature of city living! Just get clear on what you absolutely want (non-negotiable) and what would also be nice to have, but isn’t a deal-breaker.
☕️ Let your New York friends know you’re moving. This is an often-overlooked tip because people tend to keep to themselves, but it’s worth letting your friends in New York know about your move. One of the most common conversation topics is “Hey, so-and-so has a room available” or “so-and-so needs a roommate”.
Don’t be surprised if you find an apartment in a single day because you casually mentioned your move to a friend with something available—or a friend-of-a-friend with one. 😉
☕️ Choose a neighborhood that makes sense. If you work remotely, this isn’t such a big deal. But if you plan to commute to work or conduct daily business outside of the house, figure out how your commute will shake out. You may find a great apartment with all of the things you want, but if it’s a 1.5-hour commute each day, is that going to impact your quality of life? Balance the pros and cons accordingly.
You should also check for things you need like a nearby laundromat, grocery store, and your bank of choice. Being able to walk to the bank and avoid ATM fees is the dream, friends. Before or after you view the apartment, take a stroll around the block, and see what’s available. Consider this when you’re deciding on whether to take the apartment.
☕️ See the apartment. If you’re in town or you can get to town, see the place in person before you sign anything. It’s possible to rent from afar without being scammed, but you may arrive to find that magical camera tricks were used to make the rooms like 2-3x bigger or that certain features just aren’t what they seem.
You should also walk in with your own two feet (as opposed to being given a video tour on a cellphone) to examine things like fire exits, any alarming aromas, or other quirks.
As for the possibility of being scammed, it’s pretty easy for someone to post a fake listing with stunning photos, collect your “deposit” online, and then disappear. Be vigilant, Google broker names, and look out for potential red flags.
☕️ Find out about restrictions. Are you interested in painting the walls bright teal or moving in with a doggo? If so, you need to clear that sort of thing with management beforehand. Pets and wall painting is completely fine in some buildings and absolutely not in others.
Do your homework on any alterations, sublet agreements, and other potential modifications and conditions.
☕️ Get familiar with the rules of housing in New York. If you notice shady behavior, step back. This could be an unsafe apartment setup, additional fees with no explanation, lack of rental contract, or just a sneaking suspicion that something isn’t right. It doesn’t hurt to be over-cautious.
If you feel like something is wrong, you can thank the person you’re interacting with and seek a second opinion. There definitely are risky rental arrangements out there. Try to stay sharp.
☕️ Search for your apartment safely. This kind of falls in line with the points above, but I’ll just come out and say it. Be safe! Bring someone with you if you feel you may be vulnerable. You’ll be meeting with brokers, property managers, and potential roommates who you don’t know. You’ll be entering buildings with them and walking around with them in unfamiliar places. No trustworthy individual will deny you the right to bring a buddy along for security.
☕️ Create a list of questions to bring along. It can be hard to remember all of the things you want to ask and check for when you’re seeing an apartment. It’s an exciting process and sometimes you’ll be distracted by perks or the person showing the place and forget to cover your bases.
I have a list of things like “Check water pressure”, “Move-in date”, “Fire escape”, and “Ask current tenant why they’re moving” among other things. You can bring a checklist on your phone or a piece of paper. There’s no being too nerdy when you’re collecting information during an apartment hunt. Get the details you need.
☕️ In fact, create an apartment touring routine. When you show up to see the apartment, it’s tempting to experience some overwhelm or look around briefly before nodding awkwardly and showing yourself out. You’re there to examine the space and make sure it’s right for you, so don’t be shy about it.
Bring a tape measure to check out any necessary measurements (ie: will your bed frame really fit in that corner?), your phone so you can take photos, and that trusty list of questions mentioned above. Before long, you’ll be a pro at showing up, collecting the necessary data, and sprinting off to the next showing.
☕️ Don’t exhaust yourself. Don’t try to see 20 apartments in one day or 100 in a week. In my opinion, that’s just not necessary. The longest I have searched for a place is two weeks (because I was being lazy). I usually find the place I want after two or three viewings. Sometimes one.
It’s different for everyone and it depends on a million factors that are buzzing around in the universe out of view. We’re fully optimistic, remember? Just don’t think you need to see every apartment in the city to find yours.
☕️ If you’re truly overwhelmed... you may want to work with a real estate agent. I grew up thinking they were “scammy”, but they actually make the process easier, and a good one can save you a lot of frustration. Get clear on the fees they charge and be sure you’re happy with their level of communication before you decide to work with them.
When you find a good agent, they’ll help you learn everything you can about the property and even facilitate repairs and items that need to be addressed before you move in. They also have access to listings you won’t find publically.
☕️ Have those money bags ready. Apartment hunting can be expensive, between broker and application fees, Uber-ing around to see the apartments, and of course, a good faith deposit, which allows you to apply for an apartment off-market without others trying to grab it.
You’ll need to save 2-3x the rent to move in (including the deposit) in addition to any other fees, so run your numbers and be prepared.
☕️ Have your paperwork prepped beforehand. For real, just save yourself the scramble. A standard stack of paperwork for applying for an apartment includes copies of your ID, bank statements, the first page of your most recent tax return, and a statement of employment.
Apartment applications happen fast, so you’ll want to have this stuff together in a nice folder on your laptop (or wherever) to fire off to the landlord or management company when the time comes.
Worried you won’t get approved because you’re a freelancer or don’t look “traditionally” good on paper? That brings us to the next point…
☕️ Overcompensate if you have discrepancies. I’m freelance, so my income isn’t as consistent as a full-time employee, and that makes landlords nervous. I compensate by including roommate referrals, screenshots of consistent digital payments made to previous landlords, and additional paperwork showcasing my income month to month.
I’ve been approved for several apartments this way. I also include a cover letter introducing myself and vouching for myself, which is surprisingly effective. It’s a lot like applying for a freelance job. Be friendly, organized, and establish trust.
☕️ In fact, get referrals from everyone! I have found this very effective, and it’s a good reason to end the current roommate and landlord situations on good terms. When roommates and landlords are willing to give you referral letters, it will strengthen your entire application.
Much like seeing a positive review on Amazon or Glassdoor, seeing other people’s opinions can inspire more trust. It’s an interesting phenomenon because, even though you don’t know the person making the testimonial, that social proof counts for a lot.
☕️ Find out what’s actually included. I’ve never lived in a ~fancy~ building, but I’ve had friends in high places (meaning buildings with more than four floors). Some might have built-in gyms, storage units, and other communal spaces available. Make sure the use of them is included in your rent, and if not, ask for the fees to be waived. There’s usually wiggle room to negotiate things like that, just make sure you get it in writing.
☕️ Make sure the building is free of… that which must not be named. Search potential buildings on the Bed Bug Registry. This will show you whether your building has ever had reports of being infested with bed bugs, which is mandated by the city. Also, while we’re on the topic definitely sidestep mattresses on the street that say “bed bugs”…
☕️ Use The Listings Project. The Listings Project is one of my favorite ways to list rooms and rent them (I sound like a real estate agent but I swear, I just move a lot). It’s a curated newsletter that goes out each Wednesday and it’s packed with high-quality rentals around the city (and other places, too).
It’s free to browse and there’s a fee to post your own ad. Listings include entire apartments, room shares, sublets, art studios, and other arrangements. You can’t browse rentals until the new week’s link is revealed, so sign up here.
☕️ Bad credit? No credit? If you are worried you may never be approved for an apartment the traditional way, there are still resources for finding an apartment. Sublets are very popular, and you may be able to rent a room based on a simple rental agreement along with some piece of paper stating that you are generating income.
It’s not uncommon for leaseholders to rent out rooms by the month without a lease. Some landlords also just want to see basic paperwork and won’t do a formal credit check. Just be open about your situation. Convince them you’re prepared to pay rent on time, and you’ll be able to make it work.
You can’t make a post about moving to/within New York City without mentioning gentrification. There are many New Yorkers who would prefer no one else moved to their block at all. This is completely understandable. The ever-increasing influx of new residents has caused real estate inflation, problematic development, and over-policing of POC on their own blocks.
It’s an in-depth topic that I’m no expert on, but we all need to do our research. My mom’s entire family is from Brooklyn and I’ve been living in NYC since 2005 (BK since 2011). But I didn’t grow up here and, statistically speaking, I’m considered one of the residents for whom this development is constantly taking place. So I, too, play a role in this phenomenon.
I think people who’ve realized their lifelong dream of moving to NYC don’t want to hear about gentrification because it feels like they’re being labeled cold and heartless. In reality, the fault lies with the lack of regulation and lack of protection “popular” neighborhoods have from overdevelopment (and there’s a unique history behind each neighborhood and why it became a target for developers). So while you might contribute to gentrification by living here, it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person.
It does mean you need to do something to counter the negative impacts your presence might be having. So if you’re financially secure and living in the city, especially in neighborhoods where gentrification is causing marginalized communities to be displaced, make sure you’re giving back. You can do this by doing things like…
🍎 Supporting local small businesses instead of large chains (groceries, clothing and home goods stores, etc). Walk around your neighborhood to find these places and make a point of patronizing them.
🍎 Donating time, money, and resources to local organizations, both neighborhood-specific and citywide. Here are a few I give to (because I’ve lived in Bushwick since 2014):
Bushwick Ayuda Mutua is a network of Bushwick neighbors supporting neighbors. Update 2020: This is the organization that fed over 2K Bushwick residents during the COVID-19 crisis and continues to do great work.
Clean Bushwick Initiative is committed to cleaning up parks and streets as well as connecting the community through environmental awareness, education, art, and fun.
Bushwick City Farms provides free food, access to space and education programs for community members. They operate by a “give what you can, take what you need” philosophy.
Girls Write Now is a writing and mentoring organization for NYC girls and gender non-conforming youth.
Materials For The Arts collect arts and crafts supplies for NYC educators to utilize in their classrooms and programs.
EV Loves NYC delivers free food to those who need it most in NYC.
There are many more here.
🍎 Participating in street clean-ups and grassroots neighborhood projects without making it about your involvement. There are so many of these, including projects initiated by some of the organizes listed above. Google projects in your neighborhood, pay attention to local signage and local social media content.
A recent project co-founded by my friend Fei is Plants For The People Brooklyn. They provide free plant clippings, gardening tools, and information about growing plants to community members. They also participate in street cleanups.
🍎 Be a good neighbor. People will always want to live in this city. It’s magical, challenging, and inspiring. The memories you can make here are unreal. But yes, your presence will impact people. After all, it’s home to many, even though it’s treated as a playground by some people passing through.
Whichever neighborhood you pick, commit to being a good neighbor. Consider giving back in a tangible way. Many neighborhoods have blogs dedicated to them so you can keep tabs on local politics and happenings.
And it’s not said enough, but just be friendly… and know when to mind your business. That’s the magic formula for living in NYC.
Your efforts will be appreciated because, at the end of the day, New Yorkers are a loving, diverse population who just want to keep their homes and see their families thrive. If you’re moving to the neighborhood, make sure you’re open to contributing in some positive way.
That’s all I have for tips, friends! I hope this post helped to demystify the process of apartment hunting in NYC.
Good luck and stay optimistic. You’ll find the right place for you.