NYC Rental Apartment Hunting and Moving Survival Guide
In my 13 years of New York City residence, I’ve moved a lot. Mostly close to the first time I moved here in the summer of 2003 for college at Parsons. I moved away for grad school in 2007, then back in 2009, racking up a total of 10 in-town moves and two moves to NYC from out of state. I learned something new from every one. Here I will share some tips I’ve learned that help make searching for and moving into a new apartment as pain-free as possible (or at least below a tolerable threshold 🙃). Although I’m biased towards living alone or with a partner, these tips can apply to those spearheading a search with roommates already in mind.
3-12 Months Before Your Move: Research
Do research on the types of apartments you’re looking for well in advance of your move-in date. As you browse listings online, don’t get too specific at first, but bookmark/save the listings you like, and try to find common threads in your taste. Be open-minded about geography/neighborhood, and type of apartment. It’s just as important to notice what turns you off to a place as it is its attractive qualities. Keep an open mind because photos can make a place look dark or unappealing, and usually the glossier the photos, the more overhead you will pay.
You can find apartment listings on aggregator sites like StreetEasy, Craigslist, Apartments.com, The New York Times, and Trulia, many of which can be set up to send you notifications when apartments matching your search criteria show up. You can also look for apartments at major real estate brokerage firm sites like Citi Habitats, Halstead Property, Corcoran, Triplemint, Douglas Elliman, Compass, etc.
Take stock of your research-informed priorities, and write them down. Look slightly outside your budget, which can help you characterize the current market and spot a good deal when it shows up in your price range. All members of your household should be involved in this research phase, so everyone’s priorities can be considered when narrowing your search. Also discuss what features are low priority, because these can be used as tradeoffs to get what you really want out of an apartment.
For instance, you may value a short commute time and building amenities like onsite gym and game room over square footage. Or you may prefer a more intimate building with a private yard and fewer neighbors. Your money will go further if you’re willing to walk a few more blocks to the train and/or ride a few more stops. It’s common to think you have to live in Manhattan when you move to NYC, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I thought it when I moved here for college and still thought it when I moved out of the dorms into a tiny shoebox on the Lower East Side junior year. After that, I moved to Brooklyn, and never looked back. Washington Heights is great and all, but just because its landmass is connected to midtown’s doesn’t make it safer/cooler/cheaper/better than neighborhoods like Ridgewood, Astoria, Woodside, Sunset Park, Kensington, Bed-Stuy, or Prospect Lefferts Gardens, just to name a few. Transit convenience can be surprising and sometimes counterintuitive, but we have modern tools to help like this nifty Transit Time Map on WNYC’s website.
But avoid anything that relies on the L train (Williamsburg, parts of Bushwick and Greenpoint), because it’s shutting down soon for massive repairs.
If you’re moving to NYC from out of town, be prepared to visit for a full week to allow enough time to find an apartment that’s a good fit.
3 Months Before Your Move: Begin Visiting Properties in Person
Before you go to look at places, you should have your application paperwork ready (for each person applying). You wouldn’t want to lose the perfect place because you were too slow! This usually includes a copy of your photo ID, your last two pay stubs, checking account statements, and tax returns, and a letter from your employer stating your current salary and how long you’ve been employed there.
Real estate brokers insulate you from the management (for better or worse), and streamline the rental process. You can avoid brokers altogether if you are savvy enough in your research for listings and can deal with a wide variety of landlord personalities. Do not consider paying a broker’s fee if you don’t intend to stay in the apartment for a few years. Do the math to incorporate the fee into your rent for the next 3-6 years, and adjust your rent budget accordingly for broker listings. I find these gregarious extroverts rather intense to deal with, and knowing that going into the process can help you brace against the chaos. But broker’s aren’t the worst if you know your stuff:
- If there is a broker but no fee, the broker is working for the landlord and the landlord’s best interests, so he/she may withhold key information to make an apartment seem more attractive. So ask a lot of questions!
- If there is a broker fee, the broker is working for you and your best interests, theoretically. But just like the normal population, they’re not all winners.
- I recommend telling your broker a lower max price for your budget than you are willing to spend, because they will almost always try to upsell you.
- If you like a broker, you can ask him/her to show you more apartments within your search parameters. Given enough advance notice, this can work tremendously in your favor, as they might show you new listings first.
- By the turn of the same coin, if you don’t like a broker, you’re under no obligation to keep working with him/her.
- A broker’s fee is negotiable, anywhere from one month’s rent (~8%) to 15% of the annual rent is customary.
Bring a notebook and take note of:
- Type of heat (rule of thumb: if you control your own heat, you also pay for it)
- Electrical breaker box (fewer than 5 breakers is a red flag that you won’t have enough juice)
- Water pressure in the shower
If you really like a place and are considering putting in an application, also take note of:
- neighbor noise (at different times of day)
- buzzer functions?
- sink sprayer?
- is the gas on (or would you have to schedule for it to be turned on)
- type of internet available
- access to laundry, or lack thereof
Before putting in an application, you should research the building’s address for its history of code violations and complaints. This can highlight a well-managed building and also raise big red flags. Don’t ignore them! We looked at an awesome loft with a no-fee broker that seemed too good to be true, and sure enough, we found a bunch of complaints of the elevator going out of service and not being fixed in a timely manner. Another thing you can do is stake out the entrance to a building (during daylight hours, don’t be a creep) and approach its residents, saying something like “excuse me, I just looked at an apartment in your building and was curious if there’s anything you wish you knew before you moved in?” We found out this way that the gorgeous loft’s walls, floors, and ceiling are paper thin and sound traveling is a huge problem in the building. Well if the elevator didn’t already, that made us cross the place off our list.
Do the math with regards to the specifics of the apartment to be sure it’s actually in your budget. Was the advertised rent “net effective” based on a higher monthly cost with one month free? (What a sleazy listing tactic.) It’s common for heat and hot water to be included in the rent. However, if there is a thermostat and furnace or water heater for just your unit, you can expect a higher gas bill than if your only gas appliance is your stove. In my experience with the latter, my gas bill has typically been $15-25/month, depending on how much I cooked. Electricity cost will vary by the size of the apartment and the season; this year we paid 4x March’s cost in August (with AC). If the ceilings are high and you plan to run air conditioning, the utility cost will be higher. I’ve made the mistake of assuming a water heater was gas when it was in fact electric, which cost more money to keep running in the end (I should have looked more closely and/or asked!).
If you are well qualified for the apartment (have good credit, can prove annual income 40x the rent, pass a basic background check) and you got your application in fast enough, you can usually negotiate the start date of your lease, postponing it up to a month or more, or moving it up a few days to improve the overlap with your current place (if it’s not still occupied).
Signing Your Lease: I Am Not A Lawyer And This Is Not Legal Advice
- Do some research on sample leases so you know what to expect in a NYC lease. Subletting is complicated but rarely legal to forbid, for example.
- Take photos of any cashier’s checks or money orders you may be submitting to the owner and potential broker
- Read the entire lease, and ask questions about any parts you don’t understand. Many owners use template leases photocopied umpteen gazillion times over, without regard for your specific terms, so don’t be afraid to ask to remove things or add them if needed.
- If the lease signing takes place at the apartment, bring a tape measure and take some key room measurements. Consider recording a video walk-through to document the layout and condition of the apartment before you move in. If your lease signing takes place somewhere else, be sure to capture this info during one of your visits such as when you get your keys.
1 Month Before Move: Start Packing
Packing – start early and be diligent with labeling with the room and contents
- Have multiple boxes going at once so you aren’t tempted to force a fit
- Have plenty of packing materials like blank newsprint paper
- Ask for beverage boxes from bodegas, they are small and sturdy, perfect for books
- Start a box zone and stack ’em up to clear floor space
- Pack so things can be tipped on their sides or upside down without breaking, spilling stuff everywhere, etc.
- Use a labeling system with colored stickers for each room
- Save a box for “unpack first” items you use every day
Purging – the less stuff you have to move, the easier it is!
- List items for free on Craigslist
- Look up the NYC regulations for large trash disposal
Hiring movers – if you have more than a van load of stuff, do it! Haven’t your friends helped you enough? We’ve had multiple positive experiences with Rabbit Movers (in town). If you are moving from out of town via rental truck or freight shipping, you can hire local movers or taskrabbits to help you unload.
- Look for movers with at least a few positive reviews online (one-time service providers like movers have more turnout among negative reviewers than positive ones, so some slack-cutting is in order regarding a few bad reviews)
- Create an inventory of your possessions
- Call to obtain a quote (with your three preferred choice movers, if you’re being extra diligent), book a date with your favorite (and ask if they have a different price if you pay cash)
- Let your current building manager know your move-out date, if necessary
The gas at your new place may require a technician to come turn it on. Make an appointment with the gas company (National Grid) early, if necessary.
Reach out to inquire about the vacating procedure at your current place– do you need to patch holes & paint, or just leave the place broom-swept?
Days Leading Up To Move
- Remove any wall hardware you may have installed such as hooks, shelves, art hangers, etc.
- Replace your CFLs with incandescent bulbs if you want to take them with you
- Look up trash/recycling collection schedule at your new address if your building doesn’t collect it in an intermediate location
- Change your address with the post office, banks, employers, friends/family, etc.
- Cancel, transfer, or open new services like Spectrum cable, Con Ed electricity, and National Grid gas, or Verizon FiOS if you’re lucky!
- Get cash for tipping your moving crew ($20 per person is reasonable, consider more for the foreperson and/or if you are a difficult customer.)
- Get sports drinks for your crew to drink throughout the move
- If you’ve got an early start, reach out to see if your crew would like coffee upon arrival and facilitate if yes
- Make sure to eat breakfast!
- If you have pets, secure them in a a crate or bathroom (label the door so there aren’t any escapes).
- Put your floor plan, labeled with colored stickers, in plain view at the entry, and explain system to movers.
- Be available for questions about where to put items (but the labeling system really cuts down on the number of questions!)
- Clean the old place and document its condition with photos and video
- Turn in your keys along with your new address for receiving your security deposit
- Tip your crew in cash
After Move In
- Copy new keys and stash in a lockout spot, for example, a bike lock chain with combo stash box around a lamp post a few blocks away (or, you know, give a copy of your keys to a nearby trustworthy friend)
- Learn to mount stuff on your wall materials (I recently learned to use snap toggles for metal studs!)
- Instead of buying a new couch, consider getting a new slipcover instead
- Purchase renter’s insurance
- Have a party, it will encourage you to get the last of the unpacking done!
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