Home > Bitching, Depressing, Neurosis, New York, Scary > The I Time I Found an Apartment in New York

The I Time I Found an Apartment in New York

So, apartment hunting in New York City is objectively awful. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Even attempting the process is enough to make many people want to forgo a move at all. I’ve moved four times within the city in the past five years, so I figured I should share some advice.

First, figure out where you want to live. Sounds simple, right? But NYC is HUGE, and if you have never lived here before, you will know nothing about the different neighborhoods. So start off simple, and think about the boroughs. NYC has five of them (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island). Most people come here wanting to live in Manhattan since they’ve seen way too many Sex and the City episodes and think they’re going to be the next Carrie Bradshaw. Let me make it easy for you – you won’t be. So fucking stop it and look at your budget. Do you value space? Is the thought of being able to reach your fridge from your bed upsetting to you? Then unless you have a lot of cash to blow, you might want to look outside Manhattan. Though hell, I make well below $50K and live downtown, and was living on $22K my first year living in Manhattan, so you can do it if you don’t mind never going out to bars or eating in restaurants.

For people new to the city, Brooklyn is probably the first place to look, followed by Queens, the Bronx, and finally Staten Island. Staten Island is just rough since there isn’t much subway presence there, and you have to take ferries a lot. Then you have to think about the neighborhoods within each borough, of which there are dozens. I had no idea where to live when I first came here since I arrived on the spur of the moment with two suitcases and no job. I don’t recommend doing this, since you’ll then be living on $22K and ramen if you’re lucky, which I was.

Anyway, since I’ve been living in Manhattan for the past five years, I’m going to focus my discussion on that borough.

Basically, unless you’re making at least $60K, I’d stay away from studios or 1-bedrooms, since you won’t be able to afford them anyway. If you are the type of person who doesn’t live well with roommates, then don’t fucking move here. There are enough crazies here without adding you to the mix. My entire time in NYC, I’ve been living with two roommates in 3-bedroom (or converted 3-bedroom) apartments. This is the minimum number of roommates I need to afford to live here, so if you are a starving artist, you might need to shack up with up to five others. Leave your neuroses at home, or you’ll go insane in that kind of environment.

So now you need to focus on your budget. Sure, living in the West Village would be nice and trendy, but do you want to pay in excess of $2000/month in rent? If not, don’t bother looking there, unless you can score a crazy rent-stabilized deal (Note: This will not happen to you. It’s like trying to chase a unicorn.). If your budget is under $1000/month, then look uptown, most likely above 96th Street. I lived in Harlem for three years, and my rent never exceeded $800/month, and I had a real bedroom, a real kitchen, a living room, an elevator, and laundry in my building. I mean, yeah, my apartment was also infested with rats, but that rent is still a pretty good deal for Manhattan. You can find much better apartments for that price in Harlem or Inwood/Washington Heights, so check it out if you’re poor (by New York standards).

If you can go above $1000/month, you can start looking further downtown. You will still need roommates until you reach the $1500+/month threshold, which is about the minimum for a studio apartment. Also, beware of shady shit. You’ll go to see a room in an apartment where your “bedroom” is a part of the living room that has been blocked off with a curtain. Or you’ll find a guy who will give you a great deal on rent if you just spend all your time in the apartment buck naked. Or the “cozy kitchen” described in the ad is, in fact, a dorm fridge and a hotplate sitting on a card table. Or the “quaint” room in a brownstone is actually in the basement, has no windows, is entirely coated with black mold, and you are still competing with 15 others for the spot. Yes, these things exist.

So, okay, what to do then? If you can afford it, just make your life easy and get a damn broker. He or she will scope out apartments for you and, if they’re good, will only call you to see a place if it’s really worth your time. Though, if they’re shitty, they’ll show you a dank 5th-floor walk-up studio with stained carpet that currently inhabits six illegal immigrants. Yup, that one came from personal experience. The downside of a broker is that they are expensive. Many will require that you pay them 15% of the yearly rent, which would mean paying $1800 for a $1000/month rental. But often the rate is negotiable, and can be whittled down to 10-12%.

If you’re willing to use a broker, you can check out the New York Times Real Estate section. There’s an online search that can narrow down your choices based on neighborhood, cost, number of rooms, etc. But almost every posting on there requires a broker’s fee, so don’t bother if you’re looking for a place on the cheap.

There are several websites out there that cater to no-fee rentals in NYC. I recommend these:


You can make custom searches, then set up email alerts so you get the most recent listings each day in your inbox.

These sites contain a mixture of fee and no-fee rentals, and are worth a look:


However, my biggest recommendation will be for Stephanie Diamond’s Listings Project. It’s an email that goes out weekly to the people on her mailing list, and it contains listings for art studios, rooms for rent, full apartments for rent, and more. The listings are all done by individuals rather than brokers, and there’s typically much less competition for these apartments given the exclusivity of the list. Anyone can join, but it’s sure as hell a smaller audience than Craigslist.

Though, speaking of Craigslist, it’s still the place to go if you are looking for roommates, or want a room in someone else’s apartment. However, it’s next to useless for regular housing, since most every post on there is a scam. But for sublets or room shares, it’s still a good tool.

Also, a note about the scarcity of apartments. The vacancy rate here tends to hover around 1%, which means that decent apartments often go off the market the same day they are announced. This means that it’s nearly impossible to conduct a NYC apartment search from afar, since you must be present in person to grab an apartment. To secure a space, you need to come prepared, and must be ready to put down a deposit on the spot. To even rent an apartment, you must usually prove that you make at least 40 times the monthly rent. So for a $1000/month rental, you need to make AT LEAST $40K/year to even qualify. For a larger apartment that you would share with roommates, rents might range from $2500-4500 for three people (uptown vs. downtown), which means you’d need a combined income of $100-180K before you could all sign a lease. So if you were thinking about getting a large apartment and finding roommates later, you’ll be shit out of luck, unless you’re rolling in dough.

So what about a guarantor? Yes, you can use one if you don’t meet the income requirements, but remember that they’ll be on the hook if you stop paying your rent. Also, your guarantor must usually make 80 times the rent instead of 40. So that $1000/month apartment now requires a guarantor who makes at least $80K/year, or that 3-bedroom needs someone who makes $200-360K/year. You see the dilemma now? You need to make money, or know someone who makes money, to spend cash on rent in this town.

Also normally required when you go look at apartments: an employment letter on work stationary with your yearly salary, 2+ months of bank statements, 2+ pay stubs, 2+ years of tax returns, recommendations from former landlords, guarantor bank statements and tax returns, and enough cash to cover a potential deposit or application fee (which can be hundreds of dollars if you use a broker). You also need to have at least three months of rent money in your bank account to pay first and last month’s rent, as well as your security deposit. Some leases will only require two month’s rent up front, but that’s still a decent chunk of cash. You can apartment hunt without all these documents, but if you see a place you absolutely must have, you will probably miss out unless you can present all this information on the spot.

So yeah, there’s the shitty nitty-gritty. Makes you not want to move to NYC, right? If you can jump through all the hoops, it can be worth it, but it always helps to be an informed consumer. Do your research on your management company or landlord before you sign any lease, and always try to talk to current tenants if possible. That way you can discover any “unpleasant surprises” before you’ve locked yourself in for a year in a shithole.

Oh, also, if it looks too good to be true, IT IS. Just take my word for it.

  1. July 24, 2012 at 3:25 am

    Wow! Sounds as bad as London. Some parts of Norfolk are getting as bad. People from London buy houses here & commute to London. It’s unfair because it prices hard working local people out of the market. That said, I think Britain must be the only country who give the unemployed bigger state houses than people who work for a living can afford.

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