How to rent an apartment in New York
In mid June this year my girlfriend and I were looking forward to a balmy few months in our beloved pocket of East London ahead of a grey and chilly UK autumn.
By mid August we had a pair of US visas, flight tickets, a trio of removals guys emptying our flat… and a wedding certificate. Suffice to say it was a pretty intense few months.
She had been offered a transfer to New York by her employer and decided to go for it. I decided to go for it too.
Around mid August, as we were getting ready for our visa appointments, I remembered a post that my friend Rik Lomas had written on how he made the move from London to New York. It was full of handy tips, and after my arrival here in mid September I realised there were a few things I could add to help other people making the transition.
There were lots of articles online for US citizens moving to NY, but not many for those of us aliens from outside the country.
This post tackles something that everyone has to deal with at one time or another – finding somewhere to live.
If you’re moving to New York from Europe (or in fact almost anywhere) you’ll be shocked at how both expensive and small apartments tend to be here. In Europe, London is often seen as eye-wateringly expensive, but relative to NYC it’s pretty good value. If you’re looking in Manhattan (an even some parts of Brooklyn now), think roughly double London prices.
The New York real estate market is huge (there are several high-end glossy trade magazines sold in regular magazine stores – you don’t see that too often), and despite startups like Streeteasy and Zillow it’s also pretty fragmented. There are lots of non-exclusive brokers, hundreds of small landlords jostling amongst the bigger players, and plenty of differing terms and conditions to navigate. *Startup opportunity here*
We got ourselves sorted with somewhere after searching pretty much full-time for a month. We made quite a few mistakes, got frustrated, angry and bewildered, and considered bailing out and going back to London a couple of times (well, nearly).
Hopefully this short guide makes life a little easier for when you’re making the step into NYC.
Property here tends to fall into 3 broad categories:
Co-op: Nearly 3/4 of Manhattan housing is made up of co-ops.
Co-ops are are owned by a company rather than individual owners. If you’re renting, you’re renting from the company. Co-ops have boards (just like companies) and they set their own approval process and guidelines for building management. Each person/company who owns a unit in the building effectively own shares in the co-op, thus the approval process can be pretty tough on new entrants.
If you’re new in town, co-ops may be tough, although the owner/shareholder should pick up the maintenance fees on your behalf.
Condo: Condominiums are a little more straightforward – the apartment is owned by a private individual, although there may well be a board with an approval process.
That approval process will probably have some condo fees associated with it – this can range from $500 to in excess $1500. Watch out for sneaky fees like extra amounts to cover your move out as well as move in.
How strict the condo is will depend on the individual owner and the board. We found that most were pretty strict, wanting to see net worth, liquid assets, annual income and various other things.
In a condo you’ll be renting direct from the owner, which can be good, but it’s worth checking how active the owner is in managing the property and where there is any 3rd party management in the building.
Rental unit: From what we could tell, these are basically the same as co-ops but people (usually brokers) refer to them as rental units rather than co-ops. If in doubt, think of a rental unit as a co-op.
Now you know what the types of property are, let’s jump into the glossary guide.
Amenities: A lot of the new-build apartment blocks have amenities in the building. These range from a small gym or roof terrace through to full size basketball courts and 80 ft swimming pools. Many of the buildings charge an amenity fee which can be in excess of $150 per person per month. Be careful to check whether the amenity fee is per person or per apartment. These extras can make a big difference. Some of the buildings are moving towards a members’ club style model where they also charge a wider membership fee on top of the rent.
Area: You’re best off spending time looking at areas rather than apartments. This sounds obvious but New York neighbourhoods change immensely even within a block or two. 1st Avenue is very different from 2nd; Chelsea above 27th is a big change from Chelsea at 25th, and so on. We spent too much time focused on the type of apartment as well as the area. We should have optimised for one or two areas and then put the focus only on those, and when I say area I mean 5-8 square blocks, not a mile radius.
Brokers: Aka Estate Agents. I still haven’t figured exactly how brokers operate but generally speaking they will be (fairly often non-exclusive) reps on behalf of a landlord to get a property sold/rented. We were expecting 1 month’s rent or 7.5% annual rent to be their fee but nearly every broker wanted 15% of the annual rent. Suffice to say, you probably want to avoid this. Sometimes you can sidestep the broker, particularly if it’s a new building and they are non-exclusive – just turn up and see the Leasing Agent (see below).
However, brokers can be much more useful when they act on your behalf. They can do the searches for you, find a bunch of properties and arrange viewings. They’ll ask you to sign a 2 page document that’s an NYC requirement outlining agent/tenant relationship. I kicked off the first time I saw this (sorry broker, I was jetlagged) but it’s standard.
Again with this option, you’re probably going to need to pay them but you may luck out and get a ‘No Fee’ apartment. But then of course everyone else is after the no fee options too…
My advice would be to do your own legwork at least to start with, and if you need a broker then choose carefully. Like with all service providers, there are lots of terrible ones, many average and a few who are really fantastic.
Deposit: Sometimes known just as ‘Security’. This is the same as it is elsewhere – a payment to the landlord to secure your lease for the duration. You get it back if the place is left as you found it. Standard deposit is 1 month’s rent, except when you’re seen as being a risk (and being from outside the US is definitely seen as a risk) – then expect 3-6 months and maybe more. Find this out as early as you can – brokers don’t want to tell you upfront but they should be able to give you a gauge on how risk averse the owner is.
Guarantor: We ended up needing one of these. They usually only pop up in the UK for student housing, but here in New York they are far more common. The guarantor is normally an individual (i.e. parent, family friend, boss) who guarantees the lease amount in case the lessee flakes. This person also needs to be a US resident, and sometimes a New York or New Jersey resident. We didn’t have anyone who fitted that profile so went down the corporate guarantor route. This means paying 1-1.2x the monthly rent to an insurance underwriter who then acts as the guarantor. It’s expensive and not every landlord will accept it, but if they do it’s a quick process – we got our guarantee through in a couple of days.
Laundry: In London not many people use the laundrette; most flats and houses have a washing machine and sometimes a tumble dryer too. The US is generally the same, however in New York finding a washer/dryer in-unit is pretty rare. This is especially the case if you’re looking at older buildings. We really wanted to have it and so narrowed our search to properties with washer/dryer. As soon as we expanded our search to properties with laundry in the building rather than in unit things opened up hugely. Get that portable laundry bag ready.
Leasing Agent: Also sometimes known as a Community Manager, these people tend to work at one of the big apartment buildings and are responsible for ensuring the place is occupied with tenants. With most of these buildings you can show up at pretty much any time of day and they’ll be someone available to show you around, or at least give you some info about the available units. There’s also little point using a broker when there’s a leasing agent – unless you’re really happy to pay 15% of your annual rent for no reason.
Search Tools: Streeteasy has jumped out at the main player in the space, but Zillow is trying to get involved too, plus a few other smaller platforms like Padmapper. You’ve also got Compass which is a broker-meets-tech company – they’re pretty slick but be prepared for brokers’ fees. Additionally you can check out The Listings Project for alternative spaces via their weekly newsletter.
Square Feet: The US uses imperial measurements so if you start talking in metres no one’s going to know what you mean. You’ll be able to find out the square footage on most new build apartments as they come with floorplans, but with older properties it’s less likely. Also what is measured as the square footage varies from unit to unit – often perfectly usable living space is written off, or the awkward cupboard is included.
Trade-offs: This was a big headache for us. There were so many variables that it made our search even more difficult; view, size, layout, amenities, location, commute, building size, ceiling height (3 apartments failed here). Best thing to do is optimise for 2-3 things you really need and focus on that. We chose size (650 sq ft minimum) and location (East Village near the 6 train).
Unit: Most properties in apartment buildings are known as units. It sounds a bit bleak and utilitarian but I guess it’s the best description for what is essentially a small box within a bigger box.
Utilities: new builds include heat, hot water. You’ll usually pay for cooking gas and electric. This seems to be pretty standard practice but as always, check!
Otherwise, get some comfy shoes, manage your expectations and hit the streets…