How to Find a Rental Apartment in NYC

Real estate in New York City has sometimes been referred to as a "blood sport," so finding an apartment to rent in the city can sometimes be a challenge. High demand leads to even higher prices (for seemingly smaller spaces), and despite a few downturns here and there, NYC hasn't been what most people would consider "affordable" since the 1980's. Of course, no one wants to see New York return to the crime and other problems the city experienced in the 70's and 80's that kept prices down during that time period. A key statistic you will hear, and it generally holds true, is the vacancy rate for apartments in Manhattan is generally around 1-2%. Compare that to a nationwide average of 10%, and you can see that frequently the property managers and owners have the upper hand. In the outerboroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, etc.) as well as part of northern New Jersey and Westchester, the vacancy rates do tend to be a little higher, but can vary wildly depending on the neighborhood. Extremely popular areas such as Brooklyn Heights, Hoboken, Long Island City, etc. often have markets just as tight as Manhattan. An important thing to remember is "TV is not real life." The NYC apartments you see on TV (especially sitcoms) are rarely realistic. They are generally much more spacious, and have much more charm, than the real thing. And 9 times out of 10, the person's job on TV would never pay for the apartment they are living in. Also, everyone has heard stories of a "friend of a friend" who pays $350 per month for a rent controlled two bedroom in the West Village. While we won't go into the details here, suffice it to say you WON'T be getting one of those apartments. At least legally. Below is a list of steps to take when trying to find a rental apartment in NYC (or, really, any city, especially if the market is tight, or expensive):
1.) Determine your budget. In Manhattan (and some key areas outside of Manhaattan), most landlords will require you to earn 40 times the monthly rent. So, for an apartment that rents for $2000 per month, the landlord will require your income to be at last $80,000 per year. In areas outside of Manhattan, that ratio will often be 30 or 35 times the monthly rent. That tells you the most you can pay, based on your income. However, you may opt to pay less, or at least start your search with the idea of paying less. 2.) Narrow down your choice of neighborhoods. If you've lived in the city already, you probably already have an idea of where you'd like to live. It could be related to the amenities of the neighborhood, it could be related to your commuting time, it could be related to where you friends or family live, etc. If you're not sure, or you're not familiar with the city at all, check out our neighborhood pages to learn more about the various neighborhoods in the 5 NYC boroughs, as well as adjacent towns and cities. 3.) Gather all financial paperwork. In NYC, you will most likely need to submit more financial information than you are used to doing. It may seem like overkill if you've lived in other parts of the country, but landlords are very strict about qualifying tenants due to strict tenant protection laws. It's not as quick and easy to evict a tenant in NYC as it is in other parts of the country. The paperwork requirements can be so extensive, we've created a page that explains it all, which you can find right here. 4.) Start looking 30-60 days before your move. Most landlords will not know what vacancies they will have available until about 30 days prior, when current tenants give notice if they are renewing or not. So, in terms of looking for an actual apartment to move into, your best bet is start seriously looking 30 days before you intend to move. That said, it can help to acclimate yourself to the market, and what is and isn't available in your price range (and start making those decisions on what your compromise will be--see the next step). So, starting to look around 60 days out, with the idea of just getting a feel for the market, can be a very smart decision. 5.) To use a broker, or not to use a broker. Expensive broker's fee aside, there are pluses and minuses to both approaches. We tell you move about using a broker here, and we give you tips on negotiating your own rent, here. If you want to negotiate a lower rent on a no fee apartment, you should almost never use a broker. Remember, even if you're not paying a fee, the landlord is (brokers don't work for free) and so is much less likely to be in a negotiating mood. A possible exception would be if the broker has an exclusive on a listing (especially if you are paying the fee), and has worked with the owner for a long time. In that case, the broker may have a closer relationship with the owner, and can get you a better deal. However, keep this in mind: if the broker gets you $100/month off the rent ($1200 for the year), and the broker fee is more than that, did you really save any money? Not if there was another apartment on the market that you could have gotten directly from the owner or property manager. 6.) Prioritize your "wants." Decide what is really a "must-have" vs a "would-like-to-have," and get ready to compromise. Just about EVERYONE compromises on something, especially in NYC. When I was a real estate agent, I had a client that started with a $6000 a month budget. Not only did they end up spending $7500 per month, they still didn't get everything they wanted. Common things to prioritize include: location, size of apartment, doorman vs non-doorman, and budget. If location is your primary concern, you may have to give up the doorman to afford it. Or, you may need to live in a studio instead of a 1 bedroom, for example. 7.) Don't "dilly-dally," as my mother would say. In other words, if you find an apartment you like (or, you realize is the best you're going to be able to do, within your limitations), start the process of applying and submitting paperwork ASAP. You don't want to lose out on an apartment because you weren't ready with your paperwork, and someone else applied for the apartment in the meantime. The process of finding an apartment in NYC is not for those who can't make a quick decision. Great, well-priced apartments can rent in days... great deals have been known to rent in hours. A relatively inexpensive apartment (compared to what you're getting) won't sit around for two weeks while you think about it, or try to find a better deal.
Finally, a word about our furry friends and landlords. It's true that many landlords in NYC will not accept pets, or do so with specific conditions. This can be as much about possible damage, as it is about annoyed tenants complaining to the landlord about a barking dog at all hours of the night. However, New Yorkers are a resourceful lot, and just about every animal you can think of has spent some time living in an apartment here, from the expected menagerie of common and exotic species--such as cats and hamsters and pot-bellied pigs and geckos (a brief trend after people heard they gorged on cockroaches) and finches and fish and snakes (often seen draped around the neck of their owners in the park). You will also find iguanas and gerbils and parrots (not to be confused with the wild parrots who live Brooklyn) all the way up to the guy who kept a fully-grown tiger AND a five-foot crocodile in his Harlem apartment—to that most visible of New York City pet (and, so, most potentially problematic in your apartment hunt), the dog. Most estimates put the dog population of Manhattan at around 280,000, so clearly plenty of people have found a pet friendly apartment to their (and their dog's) liking. Also, in 2008, New York City was voted to be America's "pet-friendliest destination" by Animal Fair magazine. Most New York City dog owners choose to live within walking distance of one of the great parks, including (but not all limited to) Central Park, Riverside Park, Carl Shurz Park, Inwood Park, Prospect Park, and Pelham Bay Park. Even smaller parks, such as Madison Square Park, and Washington Square Park, are likely equipped with dog runs these days, which is always a great place for you (and your dog) to meet your neighbors. So, there you have it! Be sure to check out our other renters guides, both NYC specific and not, for more great information on renting an apartment in NYC.