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Fair warning: The New York City rental market has plenty of pitfalls that can trip up the rookie renter. For starters, the rent here is exorbitant, of course, and there are stringent income requirements to satisfy (or otherwise find a way to work around). And if you've never signed a lease before—and lack a solid work or credit history or a track record of being a responsible renter—it’s even harder to get an apartment.
Plus there is a mountain of paperwork to assemble, not to mention nervous parents to assuage about your new life in NYC.
Those are just the more common challenges facing college and international students, interns, and recent grads. Unfortunately, still other potential stumbling blocks await you and other first-time renters.
To help demystify the process, here’s what you need to know so you can effectively navigate the NYC rental market with eyes wide open and expectations in check.
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in November 2017. We are presenting it again with updated information for August 2019].
1. Missing paperwork
Like all things in this fast-paced city, desirable rentals tend to get grabbed up as soon as they are listed. The competition is stiff and the supply is short. Plus, as a first-time renter, you may not stack up against someone with a 10-year track record, 750 credit score, and $250,000 salary.
Even if you do have a six-figure income, there will be scores of equally qualified folks looking at the same apartment, ready to pounce. That’s where speed can be on your side. “Some landlords will accept a refundable deposit to secure the rental for a couple hours while you complete the paperwork,” says Natalia Padilla, an agent at Citi Habitats. “But you should never count on that being the case, especially during the May to August rental season. Then it’s a rat race.”
Recent changes in New York’s rent laws mean that landlords can no longer take more money upfront if your credit is less than stellar, as they did in the past. The law now limits them to a security deposit that’s equal to one month’s rent—that means landlords can no longer ask for “last month’s rent” in addition to a security deposit.
Indeed, according to Elizabeth Lawton, an agent at Douglas Elliman. “This season more than any other, given the recent legislation, I have had remarkably fewer landlords take these good-faith deposits so it’s that much more important to have all your paperwork ready from the outset.”
Not that you can’t afford to have any holes in your documents; most management companies will understand if you can’t submit a letter from a landlord because you lived in campus housing or at home for the past few years, for example.
So what exactly does this paperwork entail? Although it can vary slightly by landlord, there are some standard documents that apply across the board. Joe Tartaglia-Malter, an agent with Real NY Properties, emails each new client the following list after the very first phone call, noting that landlords will want to see the items from everyone who will be on the lease, including guarantors and roommates.
Government-issued photo ID (a clear picture from your phone is best)
Letter of employment; or offer letter; or from a CPA if self-employed that states your annual income
Three most recent bank statements (summary pages only)
Three most recent pay stubs
Two most recent tax returns (first two pages only)
Application fee newly limited to $20 per person (non-refundable)
Current landlord reference letter (if available, or explain if no prior rentals)
Renters insurance (sometimes required)
Refundable security deposit (limited to the equivalent of one month’s rent).
Tartaglia is also sure to point out another critical hurdle: When it comes to your initial funds, including the application fee, first month’s rent, broker’s fee, and security deposit, you will need hard funds in the way of a certified check, money order, or possibly online credit card payment. (He says Stuy Town is one such building that accepts the latter.) No personal checks.
Lawton also encourages anyone who has brokerage accounts or other quantifiable assets to offer proof of those in the initial package. “This, for sure, has helped a few clients be more successful by rising above the pack,” she says.
And lest you fear that your personal information is going to be compromised by electronic transmission, something Padilla and Lawton report as a common concern (especially among parent-guarantors), know that established brokerages handle scores of these transactions every day using the latest in online security. “Help us help you by turning over all necessary information so we can get you that apartment,” Padilla says. “No screen shots of your bank statements or crossed-out information on your tax returns, either,” she says.
Indeed, this is one area where having a broker on your side may give you a leg up. As Tartaglia puts it, “I am like a personal trainer at the gym who will get you where you want to be in the most effective and efficient manner.”
2. Insufficient funds
Qualifying for a starter rental in NYC can be more difficult than getting an apartment elsewhere. First you must earn an annual salary equal to (or greater than) 40 to 50 times the monthly rent. That works out to $120,000 for a $3,000 apartment (the median rent for an apartment in Brooklyn these days—a record high).
“The good news is that while it was fairly typical for landlords to ask for last month’s rent in addition to the first month and a security deposit upon signing the lease, the new law prevents them from doing so,” says attorney Sam Himmelstein, a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations (and is a Brick sponsor, FYI). “They also can no longer ask for anything more than the equivalent of one month’s rent as a security deposit, making the initial costs less of a hindrance.”
(Himmelstein also points out that now landlords are required to return the security deposit within 14 days after the lease ends, something that renters should rejoice in given how notoriously hard it has been to recover these funds in the past.)
What if your salary doesn’t pass muster? In this era of the gig economy, biweekly, predictable paychecks are just not that commonplace. Or you may lack any work history prior to your current entry-level position—even if it is at Goldman Sachs or Google.
Never fear, you have options.
First, you can split the costs with one or more roommates. You’ll still have to meet the minimum threshold based on your combined income, and it will behoove you to have all roommates get their paperwork in order. (See below for more on roommates.)
If you prefer to live alone, your best (and perhaps only) bet is to find a guarantor. Personal guarantors, by far the most common scenario, must show an annual income of at least 80 times the monthly rental each year. Why so high? The thinking is that a guarantor needs to be able to cover your housing costs, plus their own.
“Even if you are a renter who makes the salary cut but is a new hire without any work history, some landlords will still require you to get a guarantor,” Padilla adds. She says a good 85 percent of her clients who need guarantors turn to their parents (or grandparents), with a few relying on random relationships like a boyfriend or boss.
Those who cannot find a qualified guarantor (including internationals, whose parents don’t reside in the U.S.) can hire an institutional guarantor such as Insurent Lease Guaranty (a Brick Underground sponsor). These third-party guarantors charge an average fee of about 85 percent of a month's rent for U.S. citizens and 110 percent for foreign nationals.
“Before the recent legislation was passed, someone who did not meet the salary threshold or was lacking work history could offer to pay six months of security or even a full year’s rent up front,” Padilla says. “Now that is no longer an option so these same people have to turn to a full guarantor.”
Finally, if neither roommates nor guarantors are viable options, you’ll need to lower your budget and adjust your priorities (see more on those later).
Need help finding the perfect starter apartment in the right neighborhood—or a landlord inclined to be flexible about guarantors, work history, rental history, or "flexing" your space with temporary walls? Place 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.
3. No credit history
Paying your bills on time is an important step toward building good credit, yet that often does not happen until after graduation or entering the job market. For overseas renters, be aware that credit history in another country doesn’t transfer to the U.S., and guarantors are required to be in the tri-state area.
Never fear, say the experts. “No credit is better than bad credit, so long as you have a reason why,” says Lawton.
Padilla says there are still landlords who are reasonable and willing to bend a bit and take someone with no or less than stellar credit if you are making the required salary. “Part of my job is to educate the landlords as much as the tenants in getting them to understand what is happening in the marketplace and structuring a deal that puts both sides at ease,” she says.
Alternatively, this is another situation that can be solved by using a personal guarantor or an institutional guarantor like Insurent.
Gross Rent Calculator
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?.
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.
4. Unrealistic expectations
Above all else, brokers say they spend the most time and energy on this one issue. It gets exponentially more difficult when there is more than one person in the picture, be it roommates or parent-guarantors.
Tartaglia always starts by telling people who are moving here from anywhere else, “You’ll be paying much more and getting much less, but you’ll be living in NYC.” The difference between what renters earn and the apartments they qualify for often clashes with their lost dreams, “but those numbers don’t lie,” Tartaglia says.
Lawton says the preponderance of fake ads and word-of-mouth hype has people looking for what she calls a “unicorn apartment,” like a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom unit with a terrace, doorman, and washer-dryer in the West Village for $3,000. (Apartments like that don’t exist at that price in that neighborhood.)
In these instances, Lawton tells clients to set their parameters on sites like StreetEasy, and pay close attention to the photos and objective criteria. “If you don’t see what you want within your budget, it’s not the market, it’s you,” she says.
If you find yourself holding out for the perfect apartment, you can miss out, because the apartments you saw that were good but didn’t quite meet your standards will be snapped up by other renters.
Padilla says try to find an apartment that checks off your top three boxes, like location, square footage, the quality of a building, or a doorman, all while staying within your budget.
Unfortunately, brokers say it often takes seeing apartments firsthand in order to understand what you can afford, especially if you have your heart set on a specific neighborhood.
5. Anxious parents
Crime in NYC is at a record low, but people who have never lived here (or who haven’t lived here since the 1970s or 1980s) may need some convincing—particularly when it comes to their offspring.
Brokers aren’t allowed to comment on the safety of any particular neighborhood, but they can point out that they happen to live there themselves, which is what Lawton has often done (she lives in Alphabet City).
“I had one mom who said her son would never be allowed to live near the Hell’s Angels until I pointed out that they were all in their 50s and 60s now,” she says. “I also tend to bring the conversation back to perks such as being close to transportation and affordable restaurants.”
Lawton finds that parents can be unrealistic in what their kids really need, too, saying they “must” have a doorman and elevator even when that is not within their budget.
“Since most of my clients need a guarantor, I tend to speak to parents more than I speak to the actual renters,” says Padilla, who had a set of parents this past summer who insisted on being involved in every step of what turned out to be a long, drawn-out search for the ideal apartment. For the most part, however, she says she is able to appease any parents who are not familiar with the city by educating them about the process and the market and keeping them informed and in the loop.
For your part, you can share links to the buildings you are interested in with your parents, as well as neighborhood guides, available on many brokerage sites. If safety is a concern, you can direct your parents to the local police precinct for crime statistics and surveillance information. Or point them to community news sites that will give parents a better handle on what’s happening (and not happening) in your prospective new home.
6. Short-term stays
If you’re looking to test the waters in New York—say, a semester in the city or a temporary job stint—it will be harder to find a place, considering that the vast majority of leases here run for a year. You will also want to stay on the right side of NYC law when renting from sites like Airbnb and Craigslist: It’s illegal to rent an apartment here when the owner is not present for less than 30 days.
That said, there are companies who offer furnished apartments on a short-term basis as well as co-living arrangements, which offer a turn-key approach to renting. According to Padilla, who has placed many people in short-term rentals over the past seven years, these are typically for a three-month minimum and often don’t have the same salary requirements as regular rental buildings. You will typically pay more per month than for longer term rentals, but that extra money might be worth it if you want to live in high-end buildings with lots of amenities (or forego the need to furnish your temporary home yourself).
You can also look for legal sublets or lease takeovers (for a rundown on subletting rules and regs, check out Brick Underground’s best advice on subletting a New York City apartment.) Rooms for share are yet another option.
7. Getting roommates to agree
Whether you go it alone or use a reputable matching service, finding a qualified roommate takes time, as does pulling together everyone’s paperwork. Padilla has had many clients find roommates (and fast) through the bulletin board at Columbia or NYU or other campuses. Tartaglia refers his clients to Real NY’s roommate portal.
Then there’s the matter of getting everyone to sign off on a particular space.
“I have seen this happen so many times where a deal falls through because three people love the apartment but the fourth one—inevitably the one who will be spending the least—has reservations,” says Lawton. Even worse is when one of a group of roommates turns out not to have the means to pay for it. “That can be such a tense and uncomfortable situation for everyone involved.”
When there are parent-guarantors in the picture, things can get even thornier. Padilla recalls having to take three male roommates and their parents (who had flown in for the occasion) to see 15 apartments over a couple days, with everyone asking questions and having differing opinions. “It was like a reality show.” Somehow she managed to find something that pleased everyone at the table, but not without lots of hand-holding.
8. Finding a roomie-friendly building
If roommates are the only way you can afford the rent, you’ll still need to make sure the landlord is open to the arrangement. Splitting the costs of a two-bedroom with another roommate is one thing; converting a one bedroom into two (or a two bedroom into three) is another. Most buildings no longer allow anything other than partial “bookcase” walls, meaning you will have a foot of space at the ceiling (and limited privacy).
Many brokers (like Padilla) can help you locate these roomie-friendly buildings, or you can search for “flex one-bedroom” apartments, or those that have “shares OK,” “great for roommates,” and “guarantors accepted” in the descriptions. Buildings near campuses are other strong contenders.
Lawton has also placed clients in roommate rentals, though she usually encourages people to have their own bedrooms. “A lot of people say they are okay with that kind of flex situation because it will save them money, but they don’t really think about how that will affect their quality of life over time,” says Lawton. “Losing all that privacy tends to cause strife.”
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen.
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