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14 insider tips for renting an apartment in NYC

It’s more important than ever to work with a reputable broker, double check information, and ask lots of questions. 

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It’s not easy to move during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why New York City landlords are trying to encourage their tenants to renew their leases right now. But if you are looking for a new place, you should be aware that rents are expected to fall from the record highs reached in recent quarters, at least in the next few months. 

You are more likely than ever to get a good deal as we enter the summer months. Competition is low because there is so much uncertainty and landlords are increasingly offering freebies to encourage you to sign a lease, says Elizabeth Kee, a broker at CORE. For example, she's heard of concessions like four months free on an 18-month lease or eight months free on a three-year lease.

Regardless of your situation, you want to make sure you protect yourself from scams, work with a reputable broker, and get things in writing. Read on for more details on navigating NYC’s rental market.


[Editor's note: This article was originally published in May 2020. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer Best of Brick week.]


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. So 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, which are offered in lieu of lowering an apartment’s asking rent—you have to ask. Possible concessions include one or more free months’ rent, the owner paying the broker’s fee, and free access to building amenities like the pool or fitness club, which can often cost extra. In normal times, you’d be wise to avoid nickel and diming during busy seasons like spring and summer. However, during the current climate, with amenities like gyms and pools closed for public health reasons, there’s more latitude. 

Pro Tip:

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2. If you're working with a broker, find a good one

Apartment hunters are discouraged from renting places sight unseen. You risk falling for bait-and-switch schemes, where prospective tenants are enticed with photos but find the apartment has been swapped out to a sub-standard one by the time they get the keys. However, the coronavirus pandemic means virtual tours are being offered as opposed to in-person viewings, so it’s more important than ever to work with a reputable broker, cross-check information and ask lots of questions. 

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 is 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 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. 

Additionally, checking out a listing in an unfamiliar area or with a broker you’ve never met puts you in a vulnerable position, so check out these tips for staying safe while apartment hunting in NYC. 

3. Know the difference between advertised rent and what you’ll actually pay

If you’re being offered a free month or two as a concession, that’s great, but know these discounts may be used to advertise apartments at a lower rent, aka the net effective rent that you would pay if the amount you saved from your free month(s) was spread throughout the term of your lease. 

But that’s not how it usually works. Instead, you typically get your free month(s)—your lease will tell you when—but what you otherwise actually pay each month is a higher “gross rent.” 

If the thought of doing the math to figure all of this out makes you break out in a cold sweat, Brick Underground’s new gross rent calculator below is here to do the math for you. 

calculator

Brick Underground's

Gross Rent Calculator

What's this?

Some New York City landlords offer a free month (or more) at the beginning or end of a lease. The advertised rent is the net effective rent.  The net effective rent is less than the amount you will actually have to pay --- known as your gross rent --- during your non-free months.

Brick Underground's Gross Rent Calculator enables you to easily calculate your gross rent, make quick apples-to-apples comparisons between apartments and avoid expensive surprises. All you'll need to figure out your gross rent is 1) the net effective rent, 2) the length of your lease, and 3) how many free months your landlord is offering.  [Hint: Bookmark this page for easy reference!]

To learn more about net effective versus gross rents, read What does 'net effective rent' mean?.

Per Month
Months
Months

If the landlord is offering partial months free, enter it with a decimal point. For example, 6 weeks free rent should be entered as 1.5 months.

Per Month

4. Consider a temporary, short-term rental

If you need somewhere temporary to stay, now is a very good time to consider a short-term rental. These types of apartments typically accommodate business travelers and visitors who come to the city for extended stays—but that demand has all but dried up as a result of the pandemic. Short-term corporate rental apartments can be found for as little as $99 a night, making these a good deal for New Yorkers in-between apartments, or those who need a place to isolate a sick family member.

But we warned: There are lots of scams out there among short-term rentals. Knowing the rules and red flags is essential. 

5. Manage expectations about music and (some) pets

Landlords might be hesitant about renting to people who they think are going to make a lot of noise, so you may not want to mention, for example, your need to rehearse a musical instrument to a prospective landlord or even your rental agent, who has a long-term interest in keeping the landlord happy. (Obviously, you need to be a good, respectful neighbor, so you can’t have a jam session whenever you want, like at odd or late hours when you may disturb others.) 

As far as pets, even if an apartment is advertised as pet-friendly, some dogs above a certain weight (typically 30-50 pounds) may be restricted. Some buildings may even want to screen your dog before you move in (think a temperament assessment, behavior training, or another type of evaluation) to ensure they’ll be a good resident. 

6. 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 apartment with higher-quality finishes. Most co-op buildings restrict the length of time owners can rent out their units to two years in any seven- to 10-year period, so if you're looking for a more permanent living situation, a condo or regular rental building is a better option.

Some condos have limits too, but they're less strict for the most part. 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 storage, roof deck, or gym, or from having pets. 

7. Take on a sublet

All tenants in NYC can sublet their apartments—even if your lease says otherwise, although there are certain procedures to follow and you must notify your landlord in writing of your intention to do so. 

With a sublet, the leaseholder remains on the hook for the rent and any damage to the apartment. A lease takeover is something different and involves a transfer of the lease assignment to a new renter, who must be approved by the landlord and have their finances and background checked. There are advantages here to the leaseholder who is able to break free of the lease and to the new tenant, who gets an apartment without paying a broker fee for a shorter time period, often with an option to sign a new lease.

8. Know when and 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 been on the market longer than normal (hours or days in hot market; days or several weeks in a slow market—but keep in mind that days on the market counters are now frozen); 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.

9. Line up a guarantor if you need one 

If you don't meet the landlord's income requirement—which is usually 40 times the monthly rent—and don't have a tri-state guarantor who makes 80 times the monthly rent or has that in bank, savings, or a stock market account if they’re retired—try offering more security to make up for it. (Note: By law, rent-stabilized buildings can only accept one month's security deposit.)  Alternatively, Brick Underground sponsor Insurent will act as a guarantor for a fee, which could be as low as 60 percent of one month’s rent.

10. 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 a 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 to look for signs of ongoing infestation and poor management.

11. Check the building amenities against your lease

If your building has a roof deck, gym, bike storage, or other amenities, make sure your access (and any fees) are included in the lease. Sometimes you can ask for the management company to waive the fees.

12. 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. What they really want to know is whether you paid your rent on time. The second thing they want is to know is whether you're a quiet, clean neighbor.

13. 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? Anti-housing discrimination laws prevent real estate agents from discussing 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 before or after school to see if you notice families coming in or out of the building.

14. 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.