Finding an apartment in NYC isn’t as hard as it may seem, but there are some tips that make the process smoother. I recently found the apartment I’ll be moving into this spring and, upon toasting this with a cocktail, I realized that I’ve 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… 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.
But the fact that I can no longer think through them in my mind means my serial-mover status has reached a whole new level.
Apartment hunting intimidates a lot of people because it’s always a little bit different. 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. There seem to be endless websites, Facebook groups, and resources that promise to reveal “the perfect place”.
Anyway, since I often find myself giving encouragement and advice to others about finding apartments in NYC, I thought I’d put all of my tips into one post. Below you’ll find the standard advice I give to everyone who’s looking for an apartment in New York, whether they’re moving within the boroughs or into the city for the first time.
☕️ Approach the entire process with optimism. We have to start by nipping apartment hunting stress in the bud, or this will be painful. I’m not sure if you mess with quantum manifestation, but few can deny the power that optimism and openness bring when taking on a challenge. I’ve found that stressing over the apartment hunt does nothing to help the process go smoothly. In fact, it makes it harder! Trust that the perfect place will appear at the right time.
There are millions of apartments in New York, with millions of people moving in and out of them. The market changes weekly, creating totally new circumstances and search results all the time. Don’t lose hope if “the one” you love doesn’t work out or you’ve seen a few places and they weren’t right. Just go with the flow and trust that you’ll find the right place (and you will). Sounds cheesy, but I’m serious.
☕️ Start doing your research. When you’re thinking of moving, start doing your research—but know that you may not find apartments that match your move-in date until you’re closer to that date. Units you can move into will be listed 30-60 days before they become available.
Beforehand, you can start narrowing down neighborhoods and making a list of non-negotiables. For example, you can look into different neighborhoods and even blocks you would consider based on commute time, amenities, and lifestyle. Do you need to live close to a park? Close to museums? Close to your job? Do you care if you have to carry groceries 5-6 blocks home? Etc.
When you’re 30-60 days from moving to NYC, start scheduling appointments to see available units. Try to schedule similar neighborhoods on the same day to avoid running all over the place or being late to appointments.
☕️ Make a list of things that are important to you. The cliche is that NYC apartments are comically cramped, but many actually have backyards, rooftop access, and other amenities. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to narrow down the units you’re interested in renting.
That said, it does seem true that you can never have it all. Be emotionally prepared to compromise. You may find yourself choosing between the 6th floor walk-up with the dreamy skylight or the backyard apartment with noisy neighbors. Such is the nature of city living.
☕️ 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. 😉
☕️ 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 look 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. Apartment searches are different for everyone and results depend on so many factors that are out of our control—but we’re being fully optimistic, remember?
Don’t wear yourself out by overbooking appointments from a place of desperation or 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 your money 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.
Moving to NYC?
We can’t talk about moving to New York City without talking about gentrification. It’s a source of great distress for many lifelong NYC residents. The ever-increasing influx of new residents has caused real estate inflation, problematic development, and over-policing.
If you’re moving to the city, be conscious of how your presence impacts established communities. Then do something to counter at least a fraction of that negative impact. In other words, make sure you’re giving back in some way. You can do things like…
Support 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 regularly. This is crucial, especially now that the pandemic has devastated businesses across the board.
Donate time, money, and resources to local organizations, both neighborhood-specific and citywide. I’ve listed a few in this post, but do some research on others, too. Brownstoner has put together a list here.
Participate in street clean-ups and neighborhood projects. There are so many of these, including projects initiated by some of the organizations listed above. Search for projects in your neighborhood, pay attention to signage, and seek out local social media to follow.
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. It’s super cool!
Just be a good neighbor. People will always want to live in this city. It’s magical, challenging, and inspiring. But yes, your presence will impact people. Whichever neighborhood you pick, commit to being a good neighbor. Be friendly. Be kind. Know when to mind your business.
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.