Unfortunately, con artists have always been part of the New York City real estate landscape, seeking to bilk you out of your rental deposit, fool you with fake or misleading listings, or trick you into renting an apartment that’s not legal.
These days, most scams are facilitated by the internet, and are more sophisticated than ever, and may be even harder to spot. After all, it’s not hard to spoof an apartment listing or create a real estate agent bio that looks legit.
Knowing how to identify scams during your apartment search is crucial; after all, you don’t want to throw your hard-earned money away—or find yourself without a place to live at the last minute.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story ran in May 2019. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer 2019 Best of Brick week.]
To help you avoid scams, Brick Underground offers some of our best advice on protecting yourself—and your money. Read on.
Fake listings are one of the most common scams, and often involve some form of a bait and switch: A real estate agent lists a seemingly great apartment but when you ask to see it, the agent says it’s no longer available and offers to show you others. In other versions of this scam, brokers will hold open houses, collect nonrefundable application fees, and vanish. So how can you tell if a listing is fake?
The golden rule of NYC real estate is “if a listing looks too good to be true, it probably is,” says Matt Daimler, New York general manager and vice president at Zillow Group, which owns Zillow, StreetEasy, Naked Apartments, Trulia, and other listings sites. A listing on StreetEasy, for example, requires a real address, but some rental sites don’t require them, so take note if there’s only a street or intersection, it may be a red flag. If you’re interested in the apartment, contact the agent and ask for the address so you can independently research the address online.
Pay attention to the listing’s time on the market, too. If it looks like a great place but it’s been on the market for many months, that could be a red flag something’s wrong with the apartment or it’s a stale listing. (You also want to see if it looks like an apartment has been on and off the market several times). You can easily check how old a listing is on most sites, including Craiglist, but Craiglist often isn’t in chronological order, so you can see postings from one to three hours ago next to with ones from a day—and even 16 days—ago on the same page.
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Also proceed with caution if a rent seems like a great deal—it may not be a real apartment or could be listed inaccurately, such as bedroom that’s not legal.
There’s lots of online data to help you better understand the current market, so before going to see a place, familiarize yourself with what a typical asking rent is in the neighborhood. “That will give you a good sense of whether or not the apartment you’re looking for is above or below market value,” says Daimler. “If it’s way below an area’s market rate, that’s something to watch out for.”
Naked Apartments, for instance, has a Neighborhood Finder tool, which lets you set parameters for size and price and shows you units that match or are above or below your target rent. StreetEasy’s Data Dashboard shows inventory, median asking prices in your preferred neighborhood, and how they’ve changed over time. Real estate firms often provide neighborhood snapshots to give you an idea of what rents are like in a particular neighborhood.
What to ask
When you contact an agent about a listing, have a list of questions to ask a broker over the phone before meeting them in person. Some helpful questions are: “How many other renters have you shown this listing to?” and “Why is the listing still on the market?”
If there’s no floor plan shown in a listing, ask to see one because it can give you some crucial information before you waste time seeing it person. For example, it can tell you if the bedrooms are large enough or if there are enough closets, or a place for a dining table.
If the listing says the subway is “a five-minute walk,” confirm it yourself via Google Maps.
You’ll also want to research the broker. There was a StreetEasy-based scam in which agents outside NYC posted properties they didn’t actually represent. StreetEasy provides the real estate firm’s name and the name of the agent or landlord listing the apartment, but other sites might not, so do a quick Google search on the agent and company. If no agent is listed, search the address on Google to see if comes up on another listings site or firm’s sites, which it often will.
Also make sure the firm’s site is up-to-date, and not filled with broken links from years ago, Daimler says. If an agent doesn’t list a brokerage, “that’s not a great sign,” he adds. Check to see if they have any other listings on a particular site and review your findings—if they all look the same or have the same address, that’s a big red flag.
When you meet an agent in person, there are easy ways to make sure they’re legit. First ask to see their real estate license, which they are required to carry. It has their photo, firm, and date of issue, so they shouldn’t balk when asked to present it. Ask them to describe the terms of the lease and details about the building, landlord, and previous apartment tenants. These are good steps to take before putting down a deposit for an apartment.
Net effective rent vs what you’ll actually pay
You may see the term “net effective rent” while scrolling through NYC apartment listings. This is the discounted rent that factors in a concession a landlord may offer, like a free month or two, into the overall term of the lease. But what typically happens is the renter gets a “free month” in the beginning, and then pays a higher gross rent for the rest of the lease term, so knowing how to figure out your gross rent is key.
For example, if your max budget is $3,300, and you search accordingly, and find a place with a net effective rent of $3,300 with one month free on a 12-month lease, your gross rent—the amount you actually pay each month—could be $3,600.
This is not really a scam, but it’s confusing for even seasoned NYC renters, so it’s important to pay attention to the numbers to avoid a nasty surprise. Using Brick Underground’s new Gross Rent Calculator, below, you can easily figure out the rent you’ll actually pay each month.
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.
A request to wire money
Are you being asked to wire money for an apartment before you’ve even see it or before you’ve been promised a lease? Don’t do it—this is another common scam that out-of-towners looking for a NYC apartment often fall for.
“I can’t emphasize this one enough: Never, ever send any sensitive personal information or wire someone money before meeting an agent in person and seeing the apartment,” Daimler warns. “If they ask for your Social Security number, bank account information, pay stubs, etc. before showing you the apartment, that’s a sign that something isn’t right.”
Sometimes scammers will try to sublet a place that they have no rights to. In the case of this fraud, con artists sublet an apartment on Airbnb for the weekend, listed it on Craigslist, and showed it to several people who responded to the ad. The scammers collected deposits—and then disappeared.
These shams are unfortunately prevalent. Here’s another first-hand experience with a West Village listing on Craigslist that was bogus.
If something seems off about a sublet, ask for a copy of the lease from the tenant to confirm they have the ability to sublet. “We’ve heard stories where renters get bilked out of thousands of dollars because the subletter is behind on their rent and about to get evicted, or the landlord never approved the unit for subletting to begin with,” Daimler says.
There are a few things to watch out for when hiring a mover: Moving companies also have their own version of a bait and switch, when a mover offers you a great estimate but jacks up the price, essentially holding your belongings hostage until you agree to fork over more money; and even a “phantom delivery,” in which the movers will pack up your stuff, take your money, and disappear. As with your broker, research your mover: Get a recommendation for one from someone you trust, check reviews online, make sure their website has a legitimate address and contact info, and ask them for references.
You can check to see if your mover is licensed to operate in New York by the state’s Department of Transportation (call 800-786-5368, or email firstname.lastname@example.org). Any cost estimates should be given to you in writing, and you shouldn't pay upfront or give any type of deposit. The state Attorney General’s office also has a few other tips.
Switching utility companies without your permission
This scam is called slamming: When scammers pose as utility company reps, promise you lower energy bills, get your account information, and switch your service without permission. Con Edison doesn’t send reps to people’s homes to check their utility bills, so if someone comes by claiming to be with the company, tell them you’re not interested. (You can also call 1-800-75-CONED to confirm if someone is actually who they say they are.) This can also happen over the phone, so be wary if you get a call from someone claiming to be a utility rep, then asks for your account or any personal information.
The bottom line
In all cases, trust your gut. If anything seems shady—proceed with caution. Do your due diligence before handing over any money or financial information, and just walk away if something doesn’t seem right. If you’ve stumbled across a suspicious listing on a particular listing site, alert the site’s administrators—through the help or FAQ sections that cover how to flag questionable listings.
And if you do get scammed, it’s important to fight back by filing a police report so the authorities can track this illegal behavior and potentially catch the fraudsters.
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