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How to move to NYC: A crash course to finding an apartment—even in a pandemic

The rules of real estate are different in NYC. Here's what you need to know.

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Thinking of moving to New York City during a pandemic? Hindsight may prove your timing impeccable. Though the city was hard hit by the virus early on, smart leadership from Governor Andrew Cuomo and collective community action brought the outbreak under control by the start of the summer. Compared to many other parts of the U.S., in fact, New York City’s infection rate is now among the lowest. Some neighborhoods, like Corona in Queens, were so hard hit early on that it’s possible residents there now have herd immunity, according to The New York Times

Real-estate wise,  it’s easier—and cheaper—to get a foothold in New York City than in recent memory. The  exodus of many New Yorkers during the grim, scary early months of the pandemic, combined with a three-month moratorium on apartment showings that ended in late June, means there are a record number of apartments available for rent this summer. Sweet deals abound, with landlords more willing to negotiate and offer concessions in order to fill vacancies, especially at large rental buildings—throwing in freebies like free months or owner-paid broker fees. 

Here’s how best to navigate the process. 

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published in December 2019. We are presenting it again here with updated information for July 2020.] 

1. There's a lot more to a neighborhood than meets the eye

Start with a basic question: How well do you know the city? If the answer is “I’ve visited once,” or “Brooklyn is a neighborhood, right?” you should definitely engage in some on-the-ground research.

One option is to find yourself a short-term rental and do some recon on a few neighborhoods you think you might like. This will allow you to learn things you can’t fully grasp from internet research, like how long the walk to the subway really is, the quality of the produce selection at the local supermarket, and how the area feels at night. Sure, there’s a lot you can learn online, but never underestimate the importance of getting a feel for a place. If that’s not possible, at least take a virtual stroll around the area using Google Street View.

Once you think you’ve landed on a neighborhood, go more in depth. Online resources include Address Report, which generates maps with information on a particular address, such as commute times, nearby parks, and number of noise complaints. The listing site Localize.city allows you to research a building's address to learn about current and future construction nearby, views, road safety, and much more. StreetEasy also provides some neighborhood info.

Local blogs are another good way to get a sense of what’s happening in a particular area. You can also get insider information through our Neighborhood Secrets series. Of course, hanging out in an area is the best way to get a feel of it, especially if you know what to look for. 

Get up to speed on how to read listings. You will want to avoid getting tripped up by—among other things—net effective versus gross rent, and the difference between a safe, legal bedroom and a home office.

Here are the questions you and your broker should keep in mind:

How convenient is the area when it comes to subways? If you're more than a 10-minute walk from the train, or prefer to avoid the train altogether, do you have an alternative means of getting around, like a bus or Citi Bike? Keep in mind that during the pandemic, masks are (thankfully) required when you ride on the subway and you’ll need to plan transit alternatives overnight while the subway is shut down for cleaning.

You should also check the MTA for details on planned maintenance work and construction on the lines you’ll be using. 

What are your dining options? While many of the city’s restaurants shut down during the pandemic—some of them permanently—others continue to deliver or offer outside dining. A little bit of research on food blogs like Eater and Grub Street will give you a sense of what restaurants are nearby. 

Many New Yorkers are eating in more as a result of the pandemic.  There are plenty of apps to choose from if you want take-out delivery in NYC. Some neighborhoods are better served by food delivery options than others. In addition, local eateries need support to get through the coronavirus and in most cases you can call a restaurant directly, if it is operational, to order food to take home. 

If you have a doorman, don't assume they will accept grocery deliveries for you when you're not home. The soaring popularity of these services has led some buildings to refuse delivery, so be sure to ask what the building’s policy is. Another consideration is getting up to speed on etiquette when it comes to building staff in NYC—including tipping them during the holidays. To help you calibrate tips, consult our regularly updated tipping guide.

What are the schools like? If you're moving here with kids who you plan on sending to public school, your real estate search will be more complicated. Read our Parent's Guide to Buying and Renting in NYC, as well as our buyer’s and renter’s guide to the NYC elementary game and sort out your school options before zeroing in on an apartment. The Department of Education has the latest information on how and when schools plan to re-open during the pandemic. 

If you are moving within a few blocks of a school, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will attend that school. Sound confusing? There are actually consultants who specialize in parsing your educational options. Note: Brokers aren't allowed to tell you much more than whether the building you're looking at is within a certain school's zone. They aren't allowed to weigh in on the quality of the school because of federal fair housing regulations. And be warned: A listing may say an apartment or house is zoned for a school, but don’t rely on that information. It could be wrong or relying on outdated school zones. The only sure-fire way to know if an address is zoned for a certain school is to call the school and confirm. 

The Department of Education provides the most detailed and up-to-date school information. From there you can find out statistics about your zoned school and more. InsideSchools and GreatSchools are great resources if you're interested in public schools. You might also want to check out non-zoned charter schools and private schools. Arming yourself with stats is one helpful piece when evaluating a school, but nothing will give you the flavor of a school like seeing it in person. Tours and information sessions are typically offered at different points in the year, although this is on hold amid the current health crisis.

Looking to ease the transition to New York for the kids? We have some tips and encouragement from a child’s perspective.

What's the nightlife like? New York City has party neighborhoods, quiet family neighborhoods, and neighborhoods that are a mix. In Manhattan, major party hubs in normal times include the East Village, Murray Hill, and the Lower East Side. In Brooklyn and Queens, that means Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Ridgewood. While peaceful now, these neighborhoods will likely revert to their pre-pandemic decibel levels eventually, and might not be ideal unless you’re planning to take advantage of the city’s wilder offerings. If there are a few too many bars in a given area for your liking, you may want to refine your search.

What evacuation zone are you in? Superstorm Sandy taught us that severe weather can affect the city in dramatic ways, and climate experts say we are likely to see more intense weather in the future. Parts of the city at greatest risk for flooding are evacuated first. It's something to consider, as there'll be a temporary disruption even if your building isn't damaged, and a far bigger upheaval if it is. Plus, if you're buying, living in a flood zone might mean shelling out for high-priced flood insurance and having to pick up the pieces when the next big storm hits. 

How safe is the neighborhood? The official NYPD website has crime statistics, but the best way to get a sense of how comfortable you'll feel in the neighborhood is to ask someone who lives there, and to check it out yourself, especially at night. The vibe at 10 p.m. might be very different than at the 3 p.m. viewing you scheduled. Localize.city has information on crime rates, as well as how those stats compare to the rest of the city.

How easy is it to find a parking spot? With the exception of Staten Island, the answer to this question is probably going to be "not very." But if you plan to have a car, you can ask residents, brokers, and doormen about this and get familiar with alternate side street parking regulations. Street parking regulations have been scaled back amid the pandemic but typically you'll wind up moving your car less frequently in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. (Check out Brick Underground’s series on neighborhoods with the best and worst on-street parking, which covers Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx). If you decide to park your car in a garage, be sure to factor monthly fees into your budget. In Manhattan, $400-$500 a month is not unusual for garage parking. Some garages in prime locations charge as much as $800 to $900 a month. Renting a car is always an option, too. A Zipcar membership allows you to rent cars by the hour (most cost about $15 per hour, gas included). 

What's the landlord like? Before you plunk thousands of dollars down on your first NYC rental, run a background check of sorts on your landlord. Ask a few of your future neighbors what they think of the landlord, including how the building is maintained and how quickly (if at all) their requests are handled. Google your landlord, look up the building via the NYC Department of Buildings

2. Money can't buy you everything

Renters: Most New York landlords require that a tenant earn an annual salary of 40 to 50 times the monthly rent—which may seem astonishing. If you don't, you'll need to have a guarantor who makes 80-100 times the monthly rent and promises to pay the balance of your lease if you default. Often, the landlord also requires that the guarantor live in the tri-state area, so that it's easier to collect if you default. If you don’t have anyone who can do that for you, or if your guarantor isn't local, you may be able to pay for a guarantor like Insurent (FYI, a Brick sponsor) instead. Their income and employment requirements are significantly less strict, though you'll still need to have good credit.

Pro Tip:

Need expert help finding the perfect apartment in the perfect neighborhood? Looking for a landlord who is flexible about guarantors, pets, or "flexing" your space with temporary walls? Moving here for a job or for school? Put your search into the capable hands of Triplemint, a tech-savvy real estate brokerage founded by a pair of Yale grads in response to the frustrating apartment-search experiences of classmates and colleagues. Triplemint will charge a broker's fee of 10 percent of a year's rent on open listings instead of the usual 12 to 15 percent if you sign up here. Bonus: The agents at Triplemint are a delight to deal with.

One way to get around some of those pricey barriers is to opt for a co-living situation. Co-living offers residents a room in a furnished, fully-equipped apartment with utilities and other amenities for one, all-inclusive price. Pre-pandemic, multiple co-living companies entered the NYC market, each targeting a different niche. (For the full scoop, check out Brick Undergound’s guide to co-living options in New York City.)  Whether the co-living boom will be prematurely ended by the pandemic remains to be seen.

Buyers: Even if your finances are in tip-top shape, buying a co-op means you'll have to get past a co-op board first—and board requirements go way beyond finances. For an overview on everything you need to know as a first-time buyer, consult Brick Underground's “How to buy a NYC apartment.” Like much of the buying process during the pandemic, co-op board interviews are now done remotely and many boards prefer it this way. Find a quiet, well-lit place to do the interview, and try to reduce interruptions. For some real life examples of co-op board interviews, check out Brick’s series on the topic.

3. Brokers charge fees in New York

Buyers: Sellers pay a broker's fee of 5 to 6 percent, divided 50-50 between the buyer’s broker (if you’re using one) and the seller's broker. The good news is that it means buyers don't pay a fee. The bad news: Those fees are baked into the seller's asking price.

Tip: To reap substantial savings while retaining the most important services of an agent, work with a brokerage that offers a commission rebate if you do some of the legwork on your own. Prevu (a Brick Underground partner based in New York) will handle pretty much everything, including sending you to listings that fit your needs, advising you on the right price to offer, preparing the offer, negotiating with the seller, and assembling the board package you’ll need to prove your worth (literally and figuratively) to a co-op or condo board. As a participant in Prevu’s “Smart Buyer” program, you’ll pocket a rebate of two-thirds of the commission paid to the buyer’s broker at closing. On a $1 million condo with a 6 percent commission, the rebate equals 2 percent of the purchase price…a cool $20,000.

Renters: In New York City, renters pay broker fees too, and they’re steep. Brokers frequently charge 15 percent of the yearly rent as their fee, but that can sometimes be negotiated down to around 12 percent or even one month's rent, especially if you're willing to move fast on an apartment. 

If it seems unfair that renters carry this cost, you’re not the only one who thinks as much.  There’s pending legal action—delayed by the coronavirus—to decide whether the landlord or tenant should pay a broker fee. Keep in mind, if you specifically hire a broker to find you an apartment you will still pay a fee regardless of what decision comes from the courts. 

There are rentals that come without broker fees (and websites dedicated to helping you find them), but these deals tend to either be higher-end luxury apartments where the landlord either employs their own leasing agents or pays the fees of outside brokers. If you're determined to avoid the broker's fee, be prepared to do some digging.

4. Buyers: Don't forget about carrying costs

Buying a co-op is not like buying a house. Technically, you're not buying the unit but rather shares of the cooperative, and you still have to pay for the maintenance of the building each month. So in addition to your monthly mortgage payments, you'll have a maintenance fee, too. Keep that in mind when budgeting, and know that maintenance typically goes up a bit each year.

The maintenance fees for condos are referred to as common charges. Though less common than these days, many newer developments received property tax abatements that keep property taxes extremely low for a number of years. Make sure you know what you're getting, and have a realistic estimate (from your attorney, not the developer) of what taxes could be when a property tax abatement ends.

5. Not all rentals are in rental buildings

Renting an apartment in a rental building is not the same thing as renting an apartment in a co-op or condo building. The latter will probably be a bit nicer in terms of appliances, finishes, and amenities, but there is a lot more red tape involved (especially in co-ops, where you'll have to be approved by the co-op board as well as the apartment owner), plus higher application fees, and frequently, restrictions on how long you may rent. For more information, see Brick Underground’s tips for renting a non-rental.

6. Cash is king

Renters: When you rent an apartment, prepare to have a lot of money handy, usually in the form of a bank-certified check. You'll need to pay the broker fee if there is one, a month’s rent as a security deposit, and the first month's rent, within a few days of signing your lease. One way to cut down on upfront costs is to find a roommate or apartment-share situation (but be sure to heed these tell-tale signs and warnings). 

Buyers: Financing requirements have been tightened amid the pandemic and whether or not a mortgage will be issued can still cast a cloud of uncertainty over a deal. More than ever the ability to offer all cash will put you at the front of the line when it comes to buying an apartment here, especially if the seller wants to make a deal quickly.

7. Net effective rent is lower than what you'll actually pay

You may find a rental with a free month or two, especially now. Lots of New York City landlords offer a freebie at the beginning or end of a lease—to encourage you to sign a lease. Some landlords spread the discount over the term of the lease in what's called the net effective rent or the advertised rent, but 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.

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

8. Your housing options will be more limited if you have a dog—especially a big one

Many buildings in New York either prohibit pets outright or have limits on the weight and breed of dogs permitted, so check before you sign anything. (If you have a big dog, consult this guide.) Also, check the rules of buildings that have pets. Your landlord or management company may want to screen your dog.

Outdoor space is increasingly sought after in light of the pandemic and if you have a dog, you’ll want to be close to parks and dog runs. Just like buildings, some neighborhoods are more pet-friendly than others.

Keep your animal's personality in mind when looking for an apartment. Does your Yorkie freak out at the sound of footsteps? Better forget the first-floor apartment then. Is he getting on in years and having trouble holding it in? In that case, the first floor might be a smarter choice than the 38th.

If you're looking to buy a co-op, your pet will have to pass muster with the board. Sometimes that'll include an "interview" with the pet, but usually it's a pretty straightforward process.

9. Descriptions can be deceiving

Sure, we'd like to believe that listings are entirely truthful, but we know brokers can be flexible with the facts. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking at listings:

"Luxury" is subjective. Some "luxury" buildings can seem like tired 1960s TV sets, with a few doormen and a parking garage.

Don't take a broker's word for it that an apartment is "convertible" to more bedrooms. Sometimes “convertible” just means a living room that isn't insanely small. Also, lots of buildings now prohibit temporary walls, so make sure your management company is okay with them before you rent a one-bedroom you plan to make into a two-bedroom or want to close off space for a home office. Generally, though, bookshelf walls that don't reach all the way up to the ceiling are okay.

"Cozy" usually means so small you can't fit yourself and your clothes.

"Charming" can often translate into "dilapidated."

"Unique" might mean a strange layout, or worse.

"Quiet" can mean it overlooks an air shaft or brick wall.

Some additional "bedrooms" may not be legal. A key tell is whether they have windows. If they don't, they're not

An outdoor space in need of some "TLC" could moonlight as a junkyard. If that's okay with you, you’ll need tips on fixing up a decrepit outdoor space.

If a listing doesn’t mention a doorman or elevator, that's because there isn't one. The same is true with laundry facilities.

Previous versions of this article included writing and reporting by Lauren Evans and Lucy Cohen Blatter.