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If you are looking for an affordable place to live now, the pressure to find an apartment quickly during the pandemic can make you more susceptible to real estate scams. Con artists have always been part of the New York City real estate landscape. However, with virtual listings the norm, you may be signing a lease for an apartment you have not seen in person, so it’s important to know what to look out for.
Most scams happen online and involve con artists trying to make quick money by posing as brokers, and tricking you with misleading or illegal listings and stolen photos. It’s not hard to spoof an apartment listing or create a real estate agent bio that looks legit.
“The circumstances where scammers impersonate a landlord or a broker are often very dangerous, financially, and possibly in other ways, to an unsuspecting client who is led to believe they are dealing with a legitimate property owner or representative,” says Aleksandra Scepanovic, managing director of Ideal Properties Group.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story ran in August 2019. We are presenting it again here with updated information for June 2020.]
That’s why it’s crucial to know how to identify scams during your apartment search. To help you avoid scams, Brick Underground offers some of our best advice on protecting yourself—and your money.
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?
As with most things in life, “if something is too good to be true, most of the time it isn’t,” says Gary Malin, chief operating officer at The Corcoran Group.
You should research the agent and the brokerage that is posting a listing to ensure it is a credible firm, Malin says. “Your own due diligence is obviously very important. You can go on Yelp. You can also ensure the agent doesn’t have any complaints filed against him or her,” he says.
Make sure the firm’s site is up-to-date, and not filled with broken links from years ago. If an agent doesn’t list a brokerage, that’s a red flag. Check to see if the agent has any other listings on a particular site and review your findings—it’s not a good sign if they all look the same or have the same address.
A listing should have a real address, so take note if there’s only a street or intersection. If you’re interested in the apartment, contact the agent and ask for the specific address so you can independently research it online.
Also pay attention to the listing’s time on the market. During New York City’s shutdown due to the coronavirus, many sites, including StreetEasy suspended days on market counters. This meant renters (and buyers) lost an important data point. The days on market can help you tell whether a place is lingering because it is overpriced or there are other red flags associated with the apartment.
If it looks like a great place but it’s been on the market for many months, that could indicate 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 posts often are not 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.
Looking for a rental agent you can trust--and a landlord with a good reputation? Put your search in the hands of Triplemint, a tech-savvy real estate brokerage and Brick Underground partner. 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 instead of the usual 12 to 15 percent if the apartment is an "open" listing and you sign up here. Bonus: The agents at Triplemint are a delight to deal with.
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 a bedroom that’s not considered 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. This can give you “a good sense of whether or not the apartment you’re looking for is above or below market value,” says Matt Daimler, general manager at StreetEasy. “If it’s way below an area’s market rate, that’s something to watch out for.”
Some listing sites allow you to set parameters for size and price and show you apartments that match or are above or below your target rent. 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 in person. For example, it can tell you if the bedrooms are large enough or if there are enough closets, or space for a dining table.
If the listing says the subway is a “five-minute walk,” confirm it yourself via Google Maps.
The more questions you ask, the more opportunity you have to see if the representative you’re dealing with is fully informed and professional. “If someone’s intent is to scam you, typically the more questions you ask—they start to back away from you,” Malin says.
If you are doing the search alone, it might be a good idea to have a friend or family member be your backup and vet the information with you. Malin says this can help you “make sure you are not making a decision based on emotion versus intellect.”
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.
If you are limited to virtual tours only, you can try to ask for some kind of provision in the lease to protect you from bait and switch schemes. Malin suggests a clause that says “if for any reason the representations that were made by the virtual showing are not accurate [you] have a certain amount of time to terminate the lease.”
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 seen it or before you’ve been promised a lease? Don’t do it—this is another common scam that newcomers to New York City often fall for.
Scammers sometimes operate by requesting a deposit to show the apartment, or a month’s rent to secure a prompt lease signing. “Renters need to know not to fork out a cash deposit to be shown a property,” Scepanovic says. She points out this applies to the video tours in the days of coronavirus. “No reputable agent or broker in New York City will require money to be paid for them to show you a property. In fact, it would be illegal for them to do so,” she says.
Brokers cannot ask for checks to be written out to them as individuals, payment must go through a brokerage. “If they look like they are pocketing the money, it tells you they are not doing something proper. Put the brakes on,” Malin says.
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. Remember it’s illegal for New Yorkers who live in buildings with three or more residential units to rent their apartments out for less than 30 days, unless the owner or leaseholder is present during the stay.
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. Follow your gut—if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
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 from the 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.
“If you feel uneasy, the best thing to do is put the breaks on and take some time to reflect and maybe go in a different direction,” Malin says.
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.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Emily Nonko and Nikki M. Mascali
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