Sure, the New York City rental market has its ups and downs (which, just FYI, are usually seasonal), but there are some strategies that are timeless. Below, our favorite tips that'll help you conquer the rental market any time of year like a pro, and find the very best home.
[Note: This post first ran in June 2011, and was updated in June 2017.]
1. Think like a leasing agent
If you're dealing directly with an on-site leasing agent at a large, no-fee building, know that even if there are 10 or 20 vacancies, they will only tell you about two or three in order to preserve their negotiating leverage; therefore, make sure you are extremely clear about what you're looking for from the start. Also, the leasing agent probably won't volunteer information about existing concessions—you have to ask. Possible concessions include a free month's rent as well as health club or pool access free of charge—but be wary of nickel and diming in a hot rental market or during busy seasons, like spring and summer. Technically, if the owner pays the broker fee, that's a concession, too.
2. If you're working with a broker, find a good one
Not all agents have shady intentions, but some disreputable ones try to attract clients by advertising too-good-to-be-true apartments that are not actually available (or at least not at that price); you can read about other scams here. Rather than finding an agent through a listing, get a personal recommendation from a friend or your company's relocation office. Another good resource are the high-quality agents recruited by Brick Underground partner Triplemint.com —an upstart, tech-savvy brokerage founded by a pair of Yale grads in response to the dismal rental experiences of their classmates and colleagues. (Bonus: If you sign up here, Triplemint will charge a broker's fee of 10 percent of a year's rent instead of the usual 12 to 15 percent if the apartment is an "open" listing,versus an "exclusive" listing where the fee is split with the broker holding the listing.)
3. Get your broker fee agreement in writing
If you're using an agent, be sure to get an agreement in writing that the agent will disclose any fees paid by the landlord and offset your fee by that amount. Unscrupulous agents double-dip without disclosing; they may also steer you toward fee-paid apartments, skipping over a potentially better choice for you.
4. Expect objections to pianos & (some) pets
Landlords don't like renters with pianos, because they foresee all the noise complaints they're going to get, so don't mention it to a prospective landlord or even your rental agent, who has a long-term interest in keeping the landlord happy. As far as pets, even if an apartment is advertised as pet-friendly, your dog may not be welcome, particularly if it's known as a yappy or aggressive breed (many buildings have weight limitations around the 30-pound mark). Convey a sense of responsibility about making sure your dog behaves and about making sure your dog will get enough exercise to not be a bother.
5. Consider renting a co-op or condo
The application process is slower and costlier, but renting a condo or (especially) a co-op can be cheaper than a regular rental and yield an abode with higher-quality finishes. Most co-op buildings restrict the amount of time owners can rent out their units at two years in any 7-10 year period, so if you're looking for a more permanent living situation, a condo or rental in an entirely rental building is a better option. Some condos have time limits, too, but they're for the most part, less strict. Make sure your application has been approved by the board (not just the owner) or you can be kicked out after you've moved in. Also, be sure to ask if as a renter, you will be excluded from any amenities like bike spaces, roof decks, gyms, etc., or from having pets.
6. Know when & what to negotiate
It's tough to do in a hot market or during a hot season (spring and summer), but some signs that the rent may be negotiable include an apartment that has stayed on the market longer than normal (hours or days in hot market; in a slow market, days or several weeks), an access problem to the apartment (eg. current tenant won't allow you to see it), or an apartment in bad condition. Many renters find they have greater success negotiating perks rather than rent -- things like free gym membership or bike storage, or asking for a small improvement to the apartment such as appliance replacement or floor refinishing.
7. Line up a guarantor if you need one
If you don't meet the landlord's income requirements—which are usually 40 times the monthly rent—and don't have a tri-state guarantor who makes 80 times the monthly rent, try offering more security to make up for it. (Note: By law, rent-stabilized buildings can only accept one month's security deposit.) Alternatively, a company called Insurent, a Brick Underground sponsor, will act as a guarantor for a fee—usually less than one month's rent.
8. Know your bed bug rights
You are legally entitled to written disclosure of the building's bed bug history when you sign the lease. But to spare yourself some last minute drama and headache, ask about bed bug history up front (you can't be sure you're going to get an honest answer, but it can't hurt to come across as aware. Also check the Bed Bug Registry as well as the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development website, looking for signs of ongoing infestation and poor management.
9. Check the building amenities against your lease
If there's a roof deck, gym, bike spaces or other amenity in the building make sure access (and any fees) are included in the lease. Sometimes you can ask for the management company to waive the fees. Again, it's worth a try.
10. Be prepared to ask your prior landlord for a letter of recommendation
Some landlords may ask for a letter of recommendation from your prior landlord. Most important: That you paid rent on time all the time. Second most important: You're quiet and clean.
11. Know how to assess a building for kid-friendliness
Looking for a building with lots of families--or one with a more adults-only vibe? Because of laws against housing discrimination, real estate agents can't discuss whether a building is family friendly or not (or even whether the local schools are good). Some signs of a kid-friendly building include lots of family-sized apartments (two-bedrooms and up) and a well-tended playroom. You should also ask the doorman and park yourself outside the building in the morning when school starts or in the afternoon when school ends to watch for a kiddie parade.
12. Perform a late-night soundcheck
Before you sign your lease, come back around midnight to see if any rooftop bars or nightclubs might pose a threat to your peace and quiet. Street noise can be mitigated, however, by soundproofing your windows, so it's not necessarily a reason to disqualify an apartment you love.
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